On Feb. 11, Iran celebrated the 43rd anniversary of its 1979 revolution. The current government in Tehran takes good care to refer to this as the “Islamic Revolution,” implying that what happened then was an organized and intentional effort, on the part of the entire country, to pivot toward an Islamic society. But any student of modern Iranian history will tell you that this is a vast oversimplification that puts the cart before the horse.
The result of this revolution was an Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but what happened in the early months of 1979 was a popular uprising that saw Islamists, Marxists, democratic constitutionalists, intellectuals, students, and ordinary men, women, and children take to the streets and demand the end of their authoritarian monarch’s reign. Khomeini played a key role as the leader and even mascot of this movement, but the revolution would have been impossible without the resounding voice of the Iranian people demanding that the status quo change immediately.
Forty-three years later, this anniversary is a stark reminder to all, especially in Iran, that governments, no matter how authoritarian, can never fully eclipse the will of their people. Enlightenment thinkers referred to this basic political principle as the social contract, by which people willingly give up individual liberties in exchange for protections and services provided by their government. This contract exists across all different kinds of political systems, and depending on how authoritarian a system is, governments will use a rich arsenal of coercion and persuasion to convince their people that they are selling their personal liberties at a fair price. But as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi discovered over four decades ago, it is impossible to guarantee that your people will accept the social contract you write.
As Iran enters a new century — in March it will celebrate the year 1401 — the Islamic Republic has survived significant threats to its monopoly on power, including war, debilitating sanctions, and international ostracization. At home, the Iranian leadership has navigated threatening popular uprisings that have questioned its monopoly on power. All the while the regime has stretched the boundaries of its authoritarianism, consolidating power around its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his camp of loyal ultra-conservative clerics. The election of Ebrahim Raisi last June was the latest and perhaps most obvious example of this consolidation: Unwilling to leave anything to chance, Khamenei all but guaranteed Raisi’s victory throughout the electoral process.
The Islamic Republic’s tenacity is impressive, almost dangerously so, raising the question of how it has managed to survive for so long. Bluntly put, the regime has carefully navigated the narrow pass of its social contract, calculating how it can engender just enough loyalty to retain control, while continuing to maintain its monopoly on power. This campaign relies on a delicate blend of persuasion and coercion. Censorship, the elimination of political opponents, and the violent suppression of protests have kept the indignant proportion of the population gagged and sedated, at least for now.
Sticks alone are unsustainable however, and so the regime pairs them with several well-placed carrots. These come in the form of attractive promises that perpetuate well-woven narratives. Narratives are extremely powerful political tools that can garner unwavering support from a political base. What makes them so powerful is their tendency to work regardless of whether the story they tell is true, or whether the promises made are kept. In the U.S. we experienced the effects of this first-hand, as a sitting president wove narratives that inspired his base to violently reject the results of a legal, democratic process. Luckily for us our democratic processes were preserved. The Iranian people have not been as lucky. The Islamic Republic has been doing what our 45th president tried to do for years, and has had much greater success.
The regime perpetuates many narratives. At home and abroad, it portrays itself as a victim and insists that the hardship that its people endure is the fault of imperial bullies like the United States and Israel. Using this narrative, the regime shifts blame away from its many domestic policy and governance issues. We see the regime weaving this narrative almost perpetually, a process that is well documented by political experts around the world. Within Iran, the opposition sees through this hollow narrative, but many Iranians do believe it to some degree. For some it echoes a very real history of external intervention throughout the 20th century. For others, the outside is simply an easy target for domestic frustrations, and the non-intellectual, widely popular suspicion of Israel among the Iranian public is an excellent example of this.
Another powerful, perhaps less-documented narrative is that the Islamic Republic is committed to “uplifting the downtrodden” (mostazafin) and providing for the “economically oppressed.” This was one of the core tenets of the revolution, and pinned the majority of Iranians, regardless of their ideology, against the shah’s circle of wealthy, powerful elites. Khomeini tied this to Islamic teachings of social justice and the defense of the weak. Iranian presidents from Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been careful to accentuate this narrative when presenting their economic policies. Ahmadinejad, a self-proclaimed defender of the poor, even presented his keynote “economic development plan” on the anniversary of the revolution in 2008, promising to enact housing and subsidy reform that would seek to give Iran’s poorest more opportunities. In the case of Ahmadinejad, many of these policies ended up backfiring, putting added financial pressure on Iran’s poorest citizens. His “Mehr Housing Scheme” for example, which aimed to provide housing for the poor, was a massive failure, further increasing a debilitating inflation rate.
But narratives need not have any basis in reality, and today, President Raisi knows that he must continue perpetuating this narrative if he wants the regime to survive, regardless of whether he can or will deliver results. Today, Iran’s rural villages are suffering from severe deprivation, brought on by both an economy on life support and the severe effects of climate change. The government has done little to provide people there with tangible aid. Instead, Raisi has made a concerted effort to travel to these villages and do what clerics do best: preach. He and his agriculture minister did this in October, following the National Day of Villages and Nomads, organizing a full program of visits and speaking events in an area hit by a significant earthquake. Promises were even made to revive a revolutionary era initiative called the “construction jihad” to help combat rural deprivation.
Following his trip to Russia in late January, Raisi immediately travelled to Kerman Province to meet with people in rural areas hit by a series of recent floods. The juxtaposition of his official state visit and his more humble trip to rural villages in Kerman was a significant PR stunt. While those critical of the regime see this as merely smoke and mirrors, for others his visits are evidence of the regime’s commitment to its revolutionary message, and many applauded Raisi’s decision across social media, even calling him a “president of the revolution.”
As Iran’s economy continues to implode, Iranians are becoming more desperate than ever and many are unable to afford even basic needs. It is evident that the Islamic Republic has failed to protect and provide for the mostazafin. But when Raisi announced last fall that government subsidies on many staple goods would be further restricted due to the continuing impact of sanctions, he assured the people that “the bread and dinner tables of the people will never be tied to nuclear talks.” Individually, these statements and actions sound insignificant, as if the regime is grasping at straws. But when viewed together, they become threads in an overarching tapestry that provides just enough support to keep the regime afloat.
The social contract in Iran will not be rewritten until the bubbles on which these narratives rest are burst. The regime has proven for many years that it can continue to perpetuate these narratives regardless of reality. The question we must ask ourselves, therefore, is how can one combat false narratives? It requires combatting not just action, but also rhetoric. The Iranian people, and those who support them around the world, must make a concerted effort to question every claim made by the regime, and hold it accountable for the promises it makes, by constantly measuring them up against reality. Only then will the regime be forced to alter its behavior, within Iran, across the region, and around the world.
Thomas Halvorsen is the assistant to the president and secretary to the board of governors. He received an M.Litt. in Iranian Studies and an M.A in International Relations and Middle East Studies from the University of St Andrews. You can follow him on Twitter @tjhalvorsen98. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
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