In the waning weeks of 2017 and into the first moments 2018, the world watched as Iranians took to the streets of their country, demanding an end to political corruption within the government and demands for broader democratic ideals. These events were also marked by celebratory references to Shah Reza Pahlavi, the secular leader of Iran whose pro-Western government was ultimately replaced by the firmly conservative Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini in 1979. Like many in the West, I viewed the recent events unfurl with a mixture of interest and cynicism-the world has witnessed Iranians pour into the streets in the past, most significantly in 2009 following the disputed integrity of the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and no reform materialized from the chanting, marching, and bloodletting that transpired. Curious about what this means for Iran’s future, I sat down with a woman who was in Tehran during the weeks and months leading up to the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s. In order to protect her identity, she uses the moniker of “Shirin”, and her depiction of pre-Revolution Iran is similar to the environment for what contemporary protestors pine.
The Time Before the Revolution
We met at a local coffee shop along with her adult daughter who was born in and has only known the United States as a home. I was interested in both what “Shirin” thought about Iran’s past and if she believes the current mood of protest would spur any meaningful change. With little hesitation, she launched into a series of stories about the Iran in which she lived as a child and young woman: The Iran of the Shah. Her first comment to me involved the progressive nature of the Shah’s leadership, noting that prior to the emergence of the Islamic Revolution, Iran was a country where women were not mandated to wear a hijab and Western ideology flourished. As a Persian Jew, “Shirin” had an interesting perspective on Iranian culture. She distinctly remembered occasions in which she was confronted by anti-Semitic remarks by classmates in primary school, but these were generally sparse. However, while she was aware of some culturally accepted anti-Semitism, most conspicuously through the polite refusal of her friends and their parents to drink “Jewish water” from her home, “Shirin” noted that her friendships were never impacted. While troubling to me as an outsider, “Shirin” went on to espouse how, under the guidance of the Shah, she observed “an emphasis on education and the creation of a secular country with a reduction of anti-Semitism”. Despite these Western values, the exclusion of Jews from large swaths of Iranian life was also a daily reality. Jews stayed out of the political realm within Iran and there were no Jewish members of the Shah’s government, despite the leader’s popularity within the Jewish community.
Progressing through our interview, the emotions and stories flowed easily from “Shirin”, as she moved fluidly between laughter and tears when she reflected upon her youth. Under the Shah, she boasted of “free after school activities and summer camps” for children. While she was too young to understand from where the money was coming to fund these events, her eyes glistened with nostalgia as she recalled her numerous, in some cases “daily” trips to libraries, factories, and museums, and her love of reading fostered by the translation of Western authors such as Hemmingway into Farsi. As her daughter sat in stunned silence, occasionally noting how she had never heard some of these tales, her mother beamed with pride when discussing the Shah’s desire to promote Iran as a world power deserving of respect, but also acknowledged that much was not known about the Shah’s government as well.
Reality Behind the Throne:
While much of our interview focused on the happiness of her youth and the overwhelming nationalism felt towards her nation, “Shirin” did note that she, like so many other young Iranians, did not know of Savak, the notoriously vicious secret police used by the Shah to silence his opponents. Using disappearances, torture, and murder to crush dissidents, Savak is a virulent stain upon Iran’s past. She also noted that “no one knew the Shah was sick” during the latter period of the 1970s. The timeline often projected to the West is that an ailing Shah departed Iran, and the floodgates of revolution broke open, allowing the Iranian Revolution to begin. While admitting that his illness played a role in the eventual rise of Khomeini, “Shirin” felt that too much was made of his sickness in the West as a means of simplifying the narrative that saw the Shah depart, the Islamic revolution emerge, and American hostages taken. As illness ravaged his body, the Shah did became too weak to fight politically, and “Shirin” noted that Communist messages from Khomeini supporters began appearing throughout the nation and little was done to repress it. She also effusively commented about how “safe she felt with the Shah in power”, and always knew his regime was in control when the Iranian national anthem-a song re-written during the Shah’s rule-would play to mark the end of the broadcast day on Iranian television. The song provided stability and comfort, a nightly reassurance that the lives of she and her friends were safe and the future of Iran continued to burn brightly. It was a song that celebrated a nation of strength, honor, and the power of the king. The song’s lyrics included the lines: “Oh, Sun that shines on Iran’s banner/Shed upon each nation rays strong and fair/Those days keep in our recollection/When thy flashing sword brought peace everywhere.” One night, “Shirin” did not hear that anthem, and the world for she and millions of other Iranians changed.
Fleeing to America on an I-20 Student Visa, “Shirin” found herself with few family members, but largely alone in New York, barely speaking the language and looking for methods to bring over other family to the United States. Through the kindness of strangers and the extraordinary work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)-a non-profit organization still thriving to improve the lives of refugees and other immigrants-“Shirin” was able to reunify most of her family. While tearfully detailing her voyage from Iran, she also giggled mightily at the missteps and acts of occasionally blind luck that allowed her to bring other family members out of Khomeini’s Iran and in to the States. From the time of the Islamic Revolution, she has kept in touch with family still living in Iran, and the legacy of the Khomeini remains long past his death, for “Shirin” firmly stresses that she “never discusses Iranian politics over the phone” and is consistently worried about the future direction of her nation.
“The Protests Today Will Go Nowhere”
As an Iranian expatriate watching events in her nation from the distant shores of the United States, “Shirin” expressed frustration and a lack of belief in the current cries for reform emerging across Iranian streets. “The protests today will go nowhere”, she laments as she finishes her coffee. Explaining that the events in Iran follow a standard routine, “Shirin” elucidates that while the government hardliners will allow the protests to grow for a brief period of time, largely to bask in the humiliation of President Rouhani, if the marches ever become too large, she says, “the government will also send out counter-protestors chanting ‘Death to America’ and that will put an end to anti-government protests”. This common ground of anti-Americanism is the most utilized ploy conducted by hardliners to muffle dissent, but yet it endures. Therefore, the Khomeini Revolution continues to thrive, for burning the flag of the United States, cursing any president, regardless of ideology or party, and labeling the United States as “the Great Satan” or a “paper tiger” continues to resonate with Iranians. This is the crux of the conundrum that remains the quest for democratic reform in Iran.
Sadly, many in the Intelligence Community share this impression, and “Shirin’s” summary of events played out nearly exactly as she described. Still, while there is hope for change in Iran, many difficult limitations must be addressed. As Karim Sadjadpour noted in The Atlantic in early January, those who challenge the government are “unarmed, leaderless, and rudderless” in contrast to the highly organized, dangerously armed, and repressive forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Therefore, while President Trump offered encouragement to the protestors through a series of tweets, American support of those demanding change ultimately means little to the leaders in Tehran. The protests illustrate the weakness of Rouhani’s government and demonstrate how Khamenei and his fellow hardline faction currently, and in the foreseeable future will continue to, dominate Iranian society. Sadly, as the protests subsided, the world has seemingly moved on to other topics, and the efforts put forth by those looking for reform have achieve nothing, at least at the time of this writing. For Iranians abroad and at home, the hope for change remains just that-a fanciful aspiration that seems unable to become reality.