‘Why the fuck would you want to go to that bastard’s grave?’ replied a guard in 2005 to journalist Christopher Hitchens’s inquiry about the location of a cemetery near Tehran. A cemetery which housed the Iranians who had died during the 1980s war with Saddam Hussein. A cemetery which was right next to a monument to Ayatollah Khomeini, ‘that bastard’ who had thrown away so many lives in that futile conflict.
This pithy view of the departed Ayatollah is representative of a most intriguing aspect of Iranian society. The people of that country may live under a repressive regime, but civil society flourishes underground; people drink and dance despite clerical bans. They discuss their dissatisfaction with the regime. Women stretch the modesty laws to the limit, often breaking them completely.
The problem, of course, is providing the environment in which such behaviour can flourish openly – and this will require a new settlement in Iran, one not based upon theocracy. There have been various movements in the last few decades with the aim of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, and there are, as mentioned in my previous article on the subject, more ‘moderate’ parties within the system itself.
But it is the movements which seek to destroy and replace the current regime which offer hope, and which should receive most support from those in the west who claim to be friends of liberty. Even the banned parties, such as The Green Path to Hope, and the tolerated but technically outlawed parties, such as the Freedom Movement of Iran, are nearly powerless to effect change- indeed, much of the latter’s leadership is in prison. The Greens aim to stoke protest from the lower rungs of society, however, and in this will perhaps be crucial in providing the necessary pressure on the regime.
Much of the secular opposition comes from groups supporting Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah, who they see as a future constitutional monarch or president of a republic. Whilst the memory of the Shah’s regime is not one we should hope to see emulated, the younger Pahlavi has said that whatever comes next in Iran must be secular and democratic, something his support base favours too. We can be reasonably certain then that a Pahlavi restoration in whatever form will not be a repeat of the despotism of the past.
Indeed, some Iranians look back with nostalgia to the old regime, despite its problems, seeing anything as preferable to clerical rule (an Iranian friend tells me that, in characterising the Pahlavi regime as ‘cruel and despotic’, I may be swimming against a certain tide of opinion- but I stand by my choice of words).
The National Council of Iran acts as Pahlavi’s government-in-exile but despite its claims to significance it is, according to congressional researcher Dr. Kenneth Katzman, splintered and inactive.
Further left, and we find many socialist and communist movements. One of the most notable of these is the Worker-communist Party of Iran, which dreams of a socialist republic replacing the Islamic regime and boasts eminent supporters such as the ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie. A strong leftist presence in any future Iran is desirable in my view, to ensure a fair dispensation for the lower strata of society and to provide an openly radical political tradition in a new polity.
Perhaps the most notable dissident movement was born from the massive 2017-2018 protests, where the public openly expressed its dissatisfaction with the government. Farashgard, or Iran Revival, founded ten months after the protests (which look set to continue in the future) is a movement supporting a new secular, liberal regime for Iran, based on the will of the Iranian people- Reza Pahlavi is also favoured by Farashgard as a potential leader.
With its tactics of civil disobedience and use of social media, Iran Revival is part of the above-mentioned wave of protests, and if it does not peter out may be the leadership the protestors need. This is an important point, for any movement which demands change must have a strong public support base.
These movements are following a great tradition- they are the heirs of the constitutional revolutionaries of the early 20th century and the liberal, secular opposition to the Pahlavis and the clerics, and follow in the footsteps of past protestors against the regime (the student activists of 1999 for example). Individual activists too- such as Namazie, Masih Alinejad, Ruhollah Zam, Amir Fakhravar, and Mana Neyestani among others- are significant voices and organisers of opposition among the Iranian diaspora. Kurdish dissent and the women’s protests at the mandatory hijab are also important forces.
I predict, then, that a secular democratic Iran will be brought into existence by such movements, supported by the people, in the near future for the reason that such strong pressure from dissident movements and a disaffected public can only be ignored for so long.
Daniel would like to acknowledge Fred Farshid Aryankhesal for advice and assistance.