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Iran: Dubious Social And Political Changes Resulted From Revolution

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty years ago (on Feb. 11), Iran's Islamic revolution took power as the government left behind by the Shah dissolved amid street battles between police and followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Shah's last prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, fled west, just 11 days after Khomeini returned from a decade-and-a-half of exile to a tumultuous welcome at Tehran's international airport. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had left Tehran four weeks earlier, ostensibly going on vacation but never to return.

Khomeini's revolution mobilized widespread popular anger against another revolution which preceded it: the Shah's experiment with trying to transform Iran into an industrial state and regional superpower in one generation. The monarch's Western ambitions proved too great even for Iran's oil wealth and ran headlong into the resistance of Iran's rural and traditional masses. They welcomed the cleric as a savior returning them to their own values of self-sufficiency and piety.

The Islamic Revolution fulfilled its central promise. It rooted out the Shah's secular government and provided the exact opposite: a theocracy in which Khomeini -- as the supreme interpreter of Islamic law -- was both a spiritual and temporal leader.

But in many respects, the Islamic Republic also resembled what it replaced. Following Khomeini's return, his partisans drove underground all other groups which also had fought for change in Iran: from democrats to communists. Instead, the Islamic Republic allowed only one party and then no parties, just as the autocratic Shah had done before. And its secret police proved just as notorious as its predecessors, maintaining Iran high on human rights groups' lists of states practicing torture.

Analysts say the promises of the revolution, and the sentiment that it had to be defended, kept many people from questioning its methods. That generation fought unarmed against the Shah's soldiers, defended the Islamic Republic in an eight-year battle with Iraq ending in 1988, and only slowly gave up its ideal of exporting the Islamic revolution's values despite Tehran's almost complete isolation by the rest of the world.

But today almost 50 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 18 and has no personal memories of the Islamic revolution's origins. And this new generation increasingly demands more political and economic freedom than did its parents.

Dr. Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at the University of Durham in England, says the growing generation gap accounts for much of the conflict between reformists and conservatives which marks Iran today.

"One of the situations with youth in Iran is ... that most of them have no recollection of the reasons why the revolution was fought for, many of them simply have their own experiences under the Islamic Republic and, of course, they have certain aspirations, certain needs and wants, too. Many of these come under an economic heading, they obviously want a better standard of living, they want a job [to put it simply], but ... they also are in search of more personal freedom." The new generation produced its first upheaval in Iran's domestic politics with the surprise landslide election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in May 1997. Khatami, a cleric deeply committed to the Islamic Revolution, called his election, to quote, a victory of the rule of law, freedom of expression and political liberties.

Analysts say Khatami appealed to post-revolution youth who want less restrictions on their lifestyle. Since taking office, he has relegated to the police the power of the volunteers' militia to enforce Islamic behavior on ordinary citizens and somewhat reduced street checkpoints for identifying married and unmarried couples.

Khatami's campaign equally appealed to women, who suffer from discrimination in marriage, employment and mobility. Iran's state media have since reported he has appointed a woman as head of the environmental protection agency and several women as assistant judges and prosecutors, though the exact nature of their duties is not yet clear.

He also won votes from the urban poor, who have seen their standard of living drop despite the revolution's promise of greater prosperity. He has since promised structural reform of the economy, which is hard hit by falling oil prices.

But Khatami may face his toughest challenge in trying to meet the expectations of those who voted for him to get more political freedom. He has taken steps to create a more open society as he promised, but has run into tough resistance from conservatives who see individual political liberties as contradicting theocracy. The conservatives control parliament as well as several key ministries, including the state media, and have the support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khatami's government has issued some 200 new licenses for publications, beginning a lively debate between factional newspapers which observers say is more open and public than anything permitted under the Shah. Conservatives have shut down several of the most critical liberal papers but new ones continue to appear.

The same push-and-pull between reformists and conservatives extends to elections. Under Khatami's prodding, Iran will hold its first local polls since 1979 later this month. But the conservatives remain in control of a selection board which pre-screens candidates, effectively limiting who can run for office.

Analysts observe that as reformists and hardliners continue to spar over political freedoms, the shape of the Islamic Revolution in the coming years has become impossible to predict. The revolution may yet prove flexible enough to evolve into a new form of Islamic democracy. Or it may harden to confront the challenge of growing dissent and, refusing to bend, suffer the same fate as the Shah it toppled.

(This is the first part of a three-part series marking the 20th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The series describes the profound changes Iran's society, economy and foreign policy have undergone over the past two decades. The second part of this three-part series looks at Iran's troubled economy 20 years after the Islamic Revolution.)