Farbod: Ervand, I wanted to get your view on the current social movement in Iran known as “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” in Farsi, which translates into “Women, Life, Freedom.” We are into 4 months of this protest movement. More than 500 people have been killed, apparently. The state has executed four persons. Another at least 14 or so are apparently on a list for being executed. Many people in the Iranian opposition abroad are talking about “revolution” and “regime change,” and so on. The Iranian government on the other hand has a different discourse altogether. It blames foreign enemies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States — and news outlets like Iran International, BBC Persian, etc. for the unrest or what it calls “riots.” So, let’s hear your point of view. I’m eager to know what you’re thinking about all of this.
Abrahamian: I think what is happening now actually relates to what had happened before. It was during the 1979 revolution that the dominant discourse was that of Islam. I think that discourse has become bankrupt. It doesn’t mean that everyone has disbanded it, but I think that instead of having 80% or 90% of the public talking about Islamic discourse, it has probably shrunk to about 15% to 20%. And with that bankruptcy of Islamic discourse, partly because Islamic discourse has turned out to be a velayat-e faqih discourse (Khomeini’s concept of the rule of the guardian jurist), which was never really that popular. But once it’s been revealed that Islamic discourse is clerical discourse, that has shrunk the appeal of it.
What has really emerged, or re-emerged, is the Enlightenment discourse that had existed in Iran from 1900 to the 1960s — basically individual rights, whether it’s the right of a woman to decide whether they wear a veil or not, or the right to be able to vote for the candidates you want, listen to the music you want, wear the clothes you want — these are basically individual rights that go back to the Enlightenment. And none of the basic religions, including Islam, accepted individual rights. But I think people — especially even people who have been raised under the Islamic Republic, gone to Islamic kindergartens, primary school, secondary school, colleges, universities — have embraced this concept of individual rights. They may not have read Voltaire or Diderot, but instinctively they feel that they can choose for themselves what they want. They don’t want a cleric to decide for them. And this actually since there is a whole history of Enlightenment approach in Iran that goes back to the pre-Islamic discourse.
I think this has become really a major threat to the Islamic Republic. It may not lead to a revolution, but it has created a permanent crisis for the regime, because the regime is still talking about a clerical discourse while the majority of people are not interested in that discourse. They are interested in the discourse that really goes back to individual rights.
FF: Also, there seems to be a lifestyle clash, perhaps a cultural clash, pitting the state prescribing its preferred lifestyle against many, especially among the young, who reject the state sanctioned way of life.
EA: Yeah. I mean, what I’m surprised by all these protests, except for in Baluchestan (the Sistan and Baluchestan province is in the southeast of the country, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan), religion is not an issue. Even in Kurdistan (a province located in the west of Iran), it is a Sunni population, but they are not talking about religion, or true or false religion. They are talking about individual rights.
FF: In your view, is Khomeinism in the form that we’ve been discussing it, that is as velayat-e faqih, compatible with reformism of the kind that some people in Iran are still hopeful about, and who reject the idea of revolution? I’m asking whether Khomeinism as such is compatible with the concept of rights, the rule of law, and other ideas and practices that come out of the enlightenment tradition.
EA: I think some Islamic reformers, like the former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), moved very close to the Enlightenment without actually openly embracing it. They tried to reinterpret Khomeinism in a way that it would include individual rights. But they have been marginalized. They failed. I think that has also shown the bankruptcy of the Islamic discourse, that the reformers have failed and been marginalized. I think that creates a crisis situation for the regime because it makes it hard to say that the system can somehow reform itself. It may have been possible under President Khatami, or even under the previous President Hassan Rouhani (2013-21), but it is not a feasible alternative under the current President Ebrahim Raisi.
FF: Do you think that future elections might open a path towards reformism?
EA: That could only be possible if there was someone, a very pragmatic leader, who would backstep and do it. But I don’t see that happening either with President Raisi, or with Ali Khamenei (the current supreme leader of Iran), or anyone from their entourage, because I think they have become tighter and tighter as time has progressed, and the alternative would be some sort of a pasdar regime (an informal name for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC) rather than a reformist regime.
FF: Finally, could a renegotiated Iran nuclear deal help in this regard?
EA: Well, I do not see it happening because I do not think President Raisi’s government, or Khamenei, is interested in that.
FF: Ervand, thank you for your time.
Dr. Ervand Abrahamian, emeritus distinguished professor of modern Iran’s history and of the Middle East. He has taught at Oxford, Columbia, and the Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of many books on Iran, including Khomeinism, A History of Modern Iran, The Coup, and most recently Oil Crisis in Iran. He is currently working on a book about the 1979 revolution.
Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian University. He is the founder of the Beyond Capitalism working group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Left Turn is sponsored by the Beyond Capitalism Group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley.
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