The Iranian Protests Are the Latest Phase in a Long Cycle of Popular Unrest

To understand today’s protests in Iran, we need to look at the history of the Islamic Republic since 1979. Iran has a tradition of popular mobilization with few parallels in the modern world, and that tradition underpins the current wave of discontent.

Dozens of people stage a demonstration in Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2022, to protest the death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini. (Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A specter is haunting Iran once again: the specter of revolution. Exiled monarchists, unrepentant leftists, enraged academics, popular celebrities, and disillusioned reformists are clamoring for the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary overthrow, while a young generation of angry dissidents defiantly protests all over the country.

The specter of the popular revolution that toppled the monarchy forty-three years ago is back with a vengeance, capturing Iran’s collective imagination. Revolutionary fervor is particularly strong in cyberspace and diaspora opposition circles and gatherings, where anything less than calling for total regime change is deemed treasonous.

Particularly in the diaspora, even Iranian reactionaries have become revolutionary, unknowingly going back to the original meaning of “revolution” as the restoration of an overturned status quo. Oddly, those who dream of restoring the “golden age” of monarchy are in a bind since their presumed standard-bearer, the son of the last Shah, has declared no interest in wearing the crown. Their nostalgic message, however, powerfully echoes in Iran via a barrage of satellite television programs mainly funded by the US government and Saudi Arabia.

Some diaspora factions favor Donald Trump–style draconian sanctions on Iran, even if they badly hurt ordinary Iranians and strengthen the Islamic Republic, which blames its failures on foreign pressure. Some go as far as advocating US or Israeli military intervention to topple the Islamic Republic and “free” Iran, conveniently forgetting the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.

From its inception almost half a century ago, the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution has spun enduring mythologies that powerfully impinge upon our understanding of contemporary political reality. In this essay, we will examine some of these revolutionary myths, not dismissively, but in the hope of soberly looking beyond them.

Myths of 1979

Ironically, all those calling for another revolution agree that Iran’s last revolutionary upheaval, in 1978–79, installed a more repressive regime than the one it toppled. The powerful myth of a liberating revolution, however, does not arise from mere fantasy, since Iran’s modern history has been exceptionally revolutionary. Iranians have experienced two revolutions across the twentieth century (1906–10 and 1978–79) as well as near-revolutionary crises between them, while three popular uprisings have occurred in the current century (1999–2000, 2009–10, and 2017–present).

Moreover, the myth of an apocalyptic rising, cleansing the world of evil, is embedded in the messianic expectations of Shiʽi Islam, for centuries the religion of most Iranians. Yet religious analogies should not be pushed too far. Contrary to common perceptions, Iran’s 1978–79 “Islamic Revolution” was about a politically instrumentalist use of religion, rather than the fanatical upsurge of religiosity.

Installed on his throne by a 1953 British-American coup, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, systematically suppressed pent-up secular nationalist and left-wing political aspirations for twenty-five years. When a prerevolutionary crisis emerged in 1977–78, the Shah refused to compromise with liberal constitutionalist dissidents until the opposition’s leadership passed to Ayatollah Khomeini, an exiled cleric who resolutely insisted on the monarchy’s overthrow.

The United States was the Shah’s foreign benefactor, exploiting his megalomania to recycle Iran’s oil wealth in exchange for expensive American armaments and nuclear power plants. On the eve of the revolution, thirty thousand American military advisors, technicians, entrepreneurs, and their families lived in Iran, most of them involved with the Shah’s madcap projects and thus familiarizing Iranians firsthand with the “Ugly American” image. Inevitably, the 1978–79 revolution delivered a powerful anti-imperialist message, something Ayatollah Khomeini borrowed from the Marxist left to make the centerpiece of his “Islamic” revolutionary agenda.

Islamic anti-imperialism, however, followed the script of Shiʽi passion plays, simplistically blaming all of Iran’s problems on a “puppet” king serving the American “Great Satan.” This script steered the revolution away from tackling domestic targets, such as class, gender, and ethnic oppression, while also obscuring the fact that the Great Satan’s contradictory policies had undermined the Shah and smoothed the transfer of power to Khomeini.

The Islamic Republic

Triumphantly returning from exile in the winter of 1979, the ayatollah hastily held a referendum, asking Iranians to endorse an undefined “Islamic Republic.” The resounding positive answer gave Khomeini’s followers a blank check to write an “Islamic” blueprint for future government. At that point, the anti-monarchist revolutionary coalition, joining Khomeini’s followers to secular nationalists and various leftist factions, began to fall apart.

In an important sense, the revolution was only beginning after the Shah’s departure, unfolding into radical uncharted territory without a clear direction or agenda. This is when the revolution was “hijacked” by a certain faction in Khomeini’s camp, just as the Russian Revolution was “hijacked” by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the French Revolution by the Jacobins in 1793. The making of an Islamic Republic, however, would take a few years of bloody repression, a major confrontation with the United States, and a full-scale war with Iraq.

The first major postrevolutionary fissure in Tehran occurred in March 1979, when thousands of women angrily defied Khomeini’s mandating of the hijab. The ayatollah backed down and compulsory hijab had to wait until the new regime could consolidate its repressive organs.

Back in 1979’s “Spring of Freedom,” Iran was a blissfully stateless country. The Shah’s army and police had collapsed. Ethnic minorities, most notably in Kurdistan, were effectively autonomous. Workers had taken over the factories, while peasants and poor people were seizing land, and leftist students dominated university campuses. Government employees were in charge of their workplaces, and popular “committees” ran day-to-day affairs in every neighborhood.

Only the coercive power of a new state could contain the revolution’s drift toward battering social hierarchies. This was a task that the Islamic Republic took upon itself. Thus, Khomeini’s hardcore followers reneged on the promise of a democratic constitution, proposing instead the investiture of dictatorial powers in the office of a Supreme Leader, ruling via unelected clerical bodies superimposed on a parliamentary republican frame.

By the summer of 1979, the battle lines were drawn over the proposed dictatorial constitution, with Khomeini’s camp being challenged most vehemently by small but influential leftist factions. A multi-pronged left was gaining more traction primarily in autonomy-seeking regions, particularly Kurdistan, and in universities and factories across the country. Khomeini’s followers were capable of pushing through the new constitution, but their side was losing momentum.

Their state-building project had to contain and outflank a defiant left, accusing them of compromise with the old social order and American imperialism. With Khomeini’s blessing, Tehran’s provisional government had cordial relations with Washington, even receiving CIA reports on Kurdistan, Soviet moves in Afghanistan, and Iraqi plans for an invasion of Iran. All of this changed with a political coup that consolidated Khomeini’s state-making project, at the cost of irreparably damaging US-Iranian relations.

The Anti-Imperialism of Fools

In late October 1979, a sick and dying Shah flew from his Mexican exile to a New York hospital for a last-ditch cancer operation. Against their own better judgment, Jimmy Carter and his advisors let the pro-Shah lobby convince them to bring the Shah to the United States. This blunder had no justification since the Shah was receiving adequate medical treatment in Mexico.

Soon a diplomatic firestorm broke out, as the Islamic Republic claimed that admitting the Shah involved a US conspiracy to restore the monarchy. Iranian authorities knew the Shah was dying and that the Carter administration had no plans for regime change in Iran. Still, angry crowds gathered in threatening protests in front of the US embassy in Tehran, which militant leftists had briefly occupied after the Shah’s fall.

A repeat of such leftist initiatives was preempted when hundreds of university students occupied the embassy on November 4, organized by a cleric with ties to Khomeini’s son. The ayatollah quickly endorsed the occupation, realizing the political windfall such an “anti-imperialist” posture, which he called “the Second Revolution,” could bring to his state-building agenda.

The prolonged standoff with the United States, the so-called American hostage crisis, confused the already divided left. The pro-Soviet communist party hailed it as proof of Khomeini’s anti-imperialism, while a leftist minority saw it as a ploy to harness the revolution’s anti-imperialist momentum toward building a clerical dictatorship.

As a cogent outside observer, Fred Halliday, put it, this was an “anti-imperialism of fools,” whose harmful consequences for Iran were incalculable. Intuitively following Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s script, the Islamic Republic would fashion itself through an existential confrontation with a foreign “enemy” that was said to be behind all domestic discord and dissent. Accordingly, the hostage crisis dragged on until Khomeini’s camp could consolidate power and stamp out all opposition.

The Shah’s death in July 1980 made his extradition a moot point, allowing a possible resolution to the US-Iran standoff. Before this could happen, everything changed again when Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, declared war on Iran in September 1980. Khomeini welcomed the new crisis as another God-given opportunity to prove the revolution’s righteous course under his own tutelage, arguing that Saddam Hussein merely waged war on behalf of the United States.

But the facts were rather different. The prolonged standoff with the United States had put the Islamic Republic at odds with both superpowers and the international community. Meanwhile, Khomeini was calling on Iraq’s majority Shiʽi population to rise up and overthrow their government. This provided Saddam Hussein with both the incentive and the opportunity to attack a militarily weak and diplomatically isolated Iran, hoping to force a settlement of old disputes and possibly overthrow Khomeini.

As with the hostage crisis, the war initially gave the Islamic Republic a huge political boost while leading to disastrous long-term consequences. In a familiar historical pattern, the invasion of a country in the throes of revolution made the people rally around those in power. Millions diverted their revolutionary zeal to the battlefield, and even some of the Shah’s retired or imprisoned military personnel volunteered to defend the motherland.

The war postponed a hostage release deal until after the US presidential election, which Carter lost largely because of his failure to get the hostages back in time. Khomeini therefore could claim that he had brought down not only the Shah but an American president. This “victory,” however, would cost Iran entrenched US enmity and a long war with an enormous human toll and devastating economic damages.

Blood Taxes

When a ceasefire finally came eight years later, Iran and Iraq had suffered more than six hundred thousand casualties each, while the war’s cost was estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars. Saddam Hussein had started the war, but it was Khomeini who dragged it on for six years after Iran took back its lost territory in 1982. Khomeini did not care about the staggering damage inflicted on Iranians or Iraqis, agreeing to a cease-fire only when it became obvious that the war’s continuation could bring about his regime’s collapse.

The Iran-Iraq War had profound political consequences. As Iran went on the offensive, both the United States and the USSR provided significant support to Iraq. By 1987–88, US-Iranian military skirmishes threatened to break out into full-scale war in the Persian Gulf.

Oddly enough, while claiming it was fighting the United States, the Islamic Republic had been clandestinely receiving military aid from both Washington and Tel Aviv. In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan authorized secret contacts, including arms deals, with Tehran, to fund a right-wing paramilitary insurgency in Nicaragua. The exposure of these contacts in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal nearly brought down his administration.

Meanwhile, the almost decade-long war had fundamentally shaped the Islamic Republic’s makeup. In a repeat of another familiar postrevolutionary pattern, state-making and war-making were intertwined, turning the Islamic Republic into a politically and economically authoritarian warfare-welfare state.

In the early 1980s, the regime had wiped out thousands of religious and secular leftists in a mini civil war that also crushed Kurdish autonomy. The revolution’s massive grassroots energy went into a pointless war, requiring poor and working-class Iranians to defer all their demands, endure severe material deprivation, and pay a “blood tax” with their lives.

A tightly controlled statist economy regimented labor, destroyed independent unions, and regulated capital accumulation. Food rations and wage and price controls became the norm, while veterans and their families received cash stipends and preferential access to public amenities and services. Thus, millions of citizens, mostly from the urban and rural lower classes, were integrated into a vast but rudimentary welfare state, geared toward seemingly permanent war-making.

In the years following the war, these infrastructural transformations brought tangible benefits to the poorest strata, perhaps buying their quiescence for some time. During the 1980s, the state’s access to considerable oil income made its social engineering projects possible, but the war’s ending had left the country in ruins. The ailing Khomeini died soon after the cease-fire — though not before ordering a massacre of thousands of political prisoners.

He had bequeathed unlimited authority to his successors, explicitly empowering them to go as far as suspending the basic tenets of Islam for “reasons of state.” Khomeini’s final testament was a clear admission that in the Islamic Republic, religion was a handmaiden of politics — a point that became obvious in the course of his succession. The regime’s inner circle closed rank and chose Ali Khamenei, a political cleric who was not even an ayatollah, to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader. Khamenei still wields unlimited power in that office.

Reformist Hopes

The 1990s became a decade of postwar economic reconstruction, moving away from a statist regime and gradually conforming to the neoliberal world order. Freed from the war’s wastefulness, a considerable amount of oil income went into building an infrastructure of roads, dams, and electrification, as well as significantly expanding public health and education.

While the preferential treatment of regime loyalists continued, the population at large, particularly in rural areas, benefitted from the economic policies that brought major relief from the crushing austerity of the war years. Relief also came in the cultural arena, where the harshest measures of the previous decade, in terms of access to entertainment, dress codes, and gender segregation, were relaxed.

The gender apartheid regime, imposing drastic inequality on women, remained in place, but millions of women waged legal and political campaigns and daily life struggles to chip away at its edges. Even some modest political “liberalization” was noticeable, as a cautious discourse of reform began to emerge, partly as a political safety valve.

Diplomatic relations with the outside world improved and, by the end of the decade, a modest détente with the United States seemed possible. A thaw in Washington-Tehran relations was apparent when reformist Mohammad Khatami handily won the 1997 presidential election and launched a charm offensive in foreign policy, replacing Khomeini’s belligerence with proposals for a peaceful “Dialogue of Civilizations.”

Still, the United States never lifted economic sanctions, adding instead a new embargo on Iran’s energy sector — a policy largely pushed by the powerful Israel lobby in Washington. Changing its previous position as the Islamic Republic’s silent military ally, Israel during the 1990s designated Iran as its existential enemy. The excuse was Iran’s sponsorship of “terrorism,” meaning its support for resistance to Israeli military incursions into Lebanon and Syria.

In reality, while it was comfortably perpetuating its occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel needed to fabricate an “existential threat,” something that none of the conveniently docile neighboring Arab regimes could be said to pose. With its blustering but empty rhetoric, the Islamic Republic perfectly fitted the role of Israel’s ultimate nemesis, just as the Jewish state occupied precisely the same symbolic place in the Islamic Republic’s propaganda.

From 9/11 to the Green Movement

In 1999, the Khatami-era reform movement came to a halt with a harsh crackdown on university students demonstrating in defense of press freedom. Khatami survived to serve a second term, but it was clear that the Iranian “deep state” would not tolerate structural reforms.

The failure of reforms under Khatami imposed closures on the first postrevolutionary generation’s political horizons. The discourse of reform continued, providing the regime with a tolerant façade and encouraging participation in presidential and parliamentary elections. But the fundamentals of domestic and foreign policy never changed, even when the reformists had a president or parliamentary majority on their side.

Meanwhile, the window of détente with the United States was closed after September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric placed Iran next to Iraq on the enemy list of America’s “war on terror.” Ironically, once again, this came at a time when the Islamic Republic was quietly cooperating with Washington against the al-Qaeda network and even offering assistance in the US war on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Realpolitik, however, could not stand in the way of the Israel lobby and its neocon allies in the Bush administration who wanted Iran on top of the list of US regime-change targets via military intervention. By the early 2000s, the Israel-neocon lobby was zeroing in on Iran’s nuclear energy program, issuing dire warnings about the Islamic Republic’s impending atomic weapons capability.

Unlike Israel, which built a nuclear arsenal in defiance of international law, Iran had signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty and kept its nuclear energy program largely within the purview of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The contrast did not matter to the Bush administration, which piled up “crippling” new sanctions on Iran, cutting it off from global financial and banking networks and imposing punitive sanctions on third-party countries doing business with Iran.

On coming to office in 2008, Barack Obama began confidential communications with Iran’s Supreme Leader, moving toward a potential breakthrough that soon hit an obstacle as Iran plunged into another domestic crisis. In 2009, millions came out in protest as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term in office, branding the result as fraudulent.

This was Iran’s Green Movement, the largest mass protest in three decades, whose defiant slogan “Where is My Vote?” was subversive without calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. The regime responded by unleashing its private militia and security forces, killing dozens and arresting thousands, until protests gradually died down by early 2010. The crushing of the Green Movement underlined the point that popular dissent, even within the bounds set by the regime, would ultimately be met with violence.

During his second term, Obama pursued a dual-track policy of toughening the sanctions on Iran while resuming secret negotiations with Tehran. In 2015, and despite the best efforts of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic, the United States, and the other permanent UN Security Council members signed a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran agreed to close international monitoring of its nuclear energy program in exchange for a gradual rollback of the most onerous sanctions.

A New Protest Cycle

However, before Iran’s economy and its battered citizens could experience significant relief, the incoming Donald Trump administration voided what he called the “Obama deal,” complying with Israeli-Saudi complaints about its “leniency.” Crippling international sanctions came back to exasperate the already crushing burdens on Iranians of their corrupt, crony-capitalist economy at home.

Between the fall of 2017 and the winter of 2020, the regime’s subsidy cutbacks and energy price rises led to countrywide violent protests with unprecedented levels of poor and working-class participation. At their peak in November 2019, the protests mobilized hundreds of thousands of indignant working-class Iranians, angrily facing up the government’s deployment of tanks, helicopters, and machine guns in confrontations that, according to Amnesty International, led to over three hundred deaths. A 2020 study of the new protest cycle concluded:

Political and economic protests are nothing new in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The country has seen various violent and non-violent protests over the last 40 years. However, the two major protests in December 2017 and November 2019 suggest that the prevailing dynamics of political protest in Iran are changing. There is an increasing sense of radicalization among protesters, while the state is prepared to resort to extreme violence to maintain control.

The increasing radicalization could be the result of the political cul-de-sac, which stems from hopelessness over the prospects for meaningful change, either through reform and a democratic transition or else by economic progress. The concentration of power in unelected factions of the state guarded by the iron fist of the armed and security forces, the dismal economic situation, the paralyzing corruption at every level, and the lack of accountability have increased the already existing crisis of legitimacy for a revolutionary regime which came to power to be on the side of “the poor.”

This was a typical example of warnings that, given its volatile political and economic situation, the Islamic Republic should anticipate larger and angrier protests. Meanwhile, outside pressure mounted when the Trump administration killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and his entourage in a drone attack on Iraqi soil in January 2020.

Soleimani was the commander of the operations of the Revolutionary Guards abroad and Iran’s most high-profile military figure with a relatively untainted reputation. Reacting meekly to this brazen assassination, Tehran fired missiles on American military bases in Iraq, sending warnings in advance to minimize damage.

Attempts to gain public sympathy for Soleimani’s murder dissolved when the Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing its 176 passengers, most of whom were Iranians. The image of the force was badly tarnished, and protests broke out on the streets and on university campuses.

The year 2020 began with considerable unrest and instability, compounded by the anticipation of changes at the top, as the regime’s octogenarian leadership, including the Supreme Leader, had reached expiration age. The 2020 presidential election thus became an indication of how the regime might manage a political transition in the midst of an impending, multifaceted crisis.

Its response was a posture of harshness and inflexibility. Departing from past practice, the reformists were barred from running, clearing the field for the election of the extreme right-wing figure Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric directly involved in the massacre of political prisoners in the late 1980s. Clearly, the regime no longer cared about electoral participation or even the pretense that the public had a choice.

With half the electorate abstaining, Raisi received an official tally of 70 percent — in other words, the approval of about a third of eligible voters, which was the lowest record in the Islamic Republic’s presidential elections. Iran experienced the COVID-19 pandemic under these conditions, with a glimmer of hope for sanctions relief emerging when the Biden administration resumed negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. However, months of talks did not go anywhere, and came to a halt when the recent wave of protests in Iran broke out.

The Crisis of 2022

By 2022, Iran was pulling out of the pandemic with no sanctions relief and a battered economy. The regime’s relations with the United States and Europe were stalling at their worst, while its policy of “turning to the East” — toward China and Russia — had not reversed the economy’s downward spiral. Outside observers and purged reformists were warning of simmering, explosive discontent. The economy was in its worst shape in decades, with escalating inflation and unemployment hitting the poor and women the hardest.

Astronomical class cleavages, corruption, and cronyism were more blatantly on display than ever, while rolling demonstrations by workers, teachers, and government pensioners were routine. Millions of young people, including university students and graduates, saw an ever-gloomier future ahead of them, with women facing the darkest prospects. On average more educated than men, Iranian women endured the double burden of gender apartheid and the feminization of poverty.

For decades, tension had been mounting among Iran’s culturally repressed and economically deprived ethnic minorities, particularly in the country’s Kurdish, Baloch, and Arab peripheries. Last but not least, an environmental crisis of massive proportions, combining drought, water mismanagement, and deadly pollution, was virtually suffocating the country.

The stage, therefore, was set for a perfect political storm of deep-rooted and multipronged discontent. Simply put, numerous forms and layers of social, economic, political, and cultural oppression had combined to produce unbearable burdens, leading to an explosion of countrywide protest.

Looking through an admittedly blurry lens of class politics, we might discern a lineup of contending political “blocs,” roughly corresponding to different social strata. Historians agree that the social base of Iran’s political upheavals during the past century has been the notoriously ill-defined middle class. However, as was the case with the monarchy, the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the middle strata has been ambivalent, trying to buy them off with economic and lifestyle concessions, while denying them political representation.

The 2009 Green Movement was the most serious recent middle-class attempt at political intervention, which the regime was able to contain in part because the lower classes did not join it. The Islamic Republic has always claimed to represent the poor and the working and lower classes. At times, the regime’s economic populist measures, buttressed perhaps by the appeal of religious ideology, afforded it active or tacit support from at least portions of the rural and urban poor and lower classes. That precarious balance, however, no longer seems to hold.

The urban poor’s bloody 2017–20 uprisings, ongoing labor strikes, and the crushing burden of day-to-day survival suggest a new configuration where the poor and working classes might be ready to join the opposition. On the other side, we see no evidence of the regime’s ability to mobilize a social base. Its repressive organs, the police, security forces, and plain-clothes militia, are paid professionals doing their jobs. During the recent protests, the regime did not bring out its supporters in notable counterdemonstrations, as it did in response to the Green Movement.

Nor does the appeal to Islam, and the presumed religiosity of the masses, constitute the centerpiece of official discourse. The Supreme Leader’s defensive rhetoric about the current crisis is thoroughly secular, refusing to acknowledge and redress political mistakes, and blaming the protests on conspiracies hatched abroad. This steadfast denial of reality reminds many observers of the monarchy’s response to its impending demise, when the Shah only conceded the reality of a revolutionary crisis when it was too late, a few months before his downfall.

Provoking Revolt

As with the monarchy’s blundering toward revolution, the Islamic Republic seems to have created both the preconditions and the triggering mechanism of the current crisis. The Raisi government set off the outburst by intensifying repressive cultural regulations, particularly on women’s dress codes and mandatory hijab.

In recent years, a few young women had challenged hijab rules by unveiling in public. Even the government’s own studies had acknowledged that a large majority of women did not strictly observe the hijab, recommending a policy of noninterference. Ignoring this, the Raisi government ordered its morality police to impose strict hijab rules, publicly engaging in physical violence against women.

If this approach was meant to bring about control through intimidation, it backfired, producing the opposite effect. Protests began with the now famous death in custody of a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who had been arrested for violating hijab laws. Her family claimed that she was murdered — a charge that the government denied but was confirmed by an independent medical investigation.

Soon, angry protests spread to several cities: they were particularly strong in Kurdish regions with a long history of repressed grievances. Then, in unprecedented acts of political defiance, more and more women across the country began to remove their headscarves, some burning them in public. The regime responded with violence, unleashing its anti-riot police and plain-clothes militia on protesters.

As the number of casualties, including teenagers and children, multiplied, so did the anger and vehemence of the protests. Many slogans directly attacked the Supreme Leader, calling for the Islamic Republic’s downfall. In a marked difference from all past protests, the slogans were completely secular, except in southeastern Baloch regions, whose impoverished Sunni population suffered religious discrimination under a Shiʽi Islamist state.

As the use of deadly force seemed to backfire, the regime began to calibrate its deployment, focusing its firepower on the Sunni regions of Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan. In Tehran and larger cities, live ammunition, rubber bullets, and batons were used against protesters, while police cars and motorcycles were driven into their midst.

Still, protests grew and spread to university campuses and even to high schools. There has been some support for the protests by labor unions and civil society associations of journalists and lawyers, but nothing like a move toward a general strike is yet discernible. Leaderless and spontaneous, the protests continue, taking full advantage of digital technology to communicate and coordinate, as well as effectively broadcast their performance and demands.

Despite the regime’s media censorship and shutting down of the internet, a daily flood of moving images and information pour out of Iran, eliciting tremendous sympathy and support all over the world. Particularly strong is the emotional response of the Iranian diaspora in Europe, the United States, and Canada, where tens of thousands have come out to demonstrate support of the uprising in Iran.

War of Position

Diaspora politics, however, are fraught with tension, as monarchists try to impose their demands, including regime change through direct US intervention. Their attempt at usurping diaspora hegemony comes even though — or perhaps because — the monarchists, and their US-Israeli-Saudi backers, have been among the big political losers in the new uprising.

There are no monarchist slogans in Iran’s protests, and neither are there any appeals to foreign governments for intervention. While the Supreme Leader and regime hardliners may insist that the protests are a foreign conspiracy, hatched by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, this is an argument that gains no traction even in Iran’s censored media.

With the diaspora awash with calls for revolutionary regime change, scattered but persistent protests in Iran continue into their third month. Despite their limitations, the protests have successfully pushed the demand for systemic change onto the national agenda, already scoring significant victories, most prominently the effective end of compulsory hijab.

Moreover, the demands of the protesters increasingly echo in the daily press, which has pushed back censorship redlines to call for structural political reforms, whose outlines are beginning to find articulation. The old reformist bloc is back, asking the regime to acknowledge the grievances of the protesters and stop their violent repression, free political prisoners, end media censorship, and allow political parties to compete in a new round of parliamentary and presidential elections.

There is also open talk of a national referendum for constitutional changes, presumably rolling back the power of unelected clerical bodies. This radical reformist agenda takes us back forty-three years to the “Spring of Freedom” in 1979, before Khomeini’s clerical clique began to suppress the revolution’s democratic demands.

In order to meet such demands, the clerical rulers would have to give up their monopolistic control of the state, accepting a transitional regime beyond the Islamic Republic. More importantly, such structural reforms would need the consent of the regime’s massive military-industrial-financial complex — primarily the Revolutionary Guards, a key stakeholder in the country’s most lucrative state and private-sector ventures.

It is highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader and his hardline followers would voluntarily abdicate or agree even to a partial erosion of their power. Still, they may be forced to do so if the regime’s nonclerical apparatus — the powerful interlocking network of crony capitalists, the technocratic-administrative elite, and the armed forces — conclude that popular unrest has reached truly revolutionary proportions.

For now, a more likely scenario would be protracted political struggles, possibly effecting a gradual process of regime transformation. The Supreme Leader has called the current crisis a “hybrid war,” allegedly a mixture of what Iran’s foreign enemies want and the demands of “deluded” dissidents. From the other side, we might see a “war of attrition,” akin to Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position” — a prolonged contention whereby opposing blocs gain or lose ground by incrementally occupying or vacating political positions.

In this trajectory, revolution is not the starting point but the culmination of a more profound process of social, political, and cultural transformation. The pursuit of an evolutionary path, however, does not mean the revolutionary option and its powerful mythos can or should be banished. Simultaneously inspiring and blindsiding, the specter of revolution continues to hover over Iran, haunting its despotic rulers and calling another generation to the barricades: “Let the ruling classes tremble . . .”