Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Grassroots Challenge to Iran’s Theocracy


Iran is in turmoil: a threat of resignation by the president and his supporters in the Parliament; factional battle within the state about the constitutional power of the president; the student protest in Tehran and other cities; and physical clashes between the pro-reform students and the basij-the devotees of the state. The world is watching these developments with keen interest. Iran’s future has significant regional and global ramifications.

The current turmoil is embedded in Iran’s constitutional crisis: the coexistence of the concept of the republic and velayat-e faghih-the supreme religious leader. The faghih enjoys veto power over the republic. Iran’s constitution is a contradictory document. It is a collage of two distinct and non-reconcilable worldviews and types of state. The document is a reflection of a historic battle between tradition and modernity, the past and the future, and religion and secularism in Iran. The collage is unstable, tenuous, and transient by nature. It cannot be sustained.

The conflict between the two pillars of the constitution remained dormant in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. It came to the open with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the new state. The 1997 presidential victory of Mohammad Khatami heightened the constitutional crisis. A battle between two fractions of the state emerged: one steadfastly defending the faghih, the other promoting the republic-albeit timidly and with vacillation. The past six years have been the years of cat and mouth fight between these two tendencies-two pillars of the constitution.

Outside the state, in the embattled civil society, a pro-republic grassroots movement emerged; it became emboldened; and challenged the Islamic Republic and its constitution through unorganized ruptures of collective action, everyday practice, and acts of cultural defiance. It is that movement that brought Mohammad Khatami to power, created the 1999 student uprising in Tehran and 22 other cities, and opposed the recent death sentence for Hashem Aghajari for his criticism of the clergy’s monopoly of power. The verdict against Aghajari was used as a pretext to challenge the Islamic Republic, to demand the freedom of all political prisoners, to press for freedom of expression, and to exhibit to the Islamic state the hatred of the youth-the children of the Islamic Republic. The student protest was an open outcry for the republic.

The recent student protests were the reincarnation of an outburst that occurred in July 1999. The student action began in response to the closure of Salam, a pro-reform newspaper published by an influential member of the state. But, similar to the support for Aghajari, many of the students that joined the nation-wide protest in 1999 had never read Salam and had no affinity towards the paper and its publisher. The closure of Salam and its consequent developments were events that unleashed the fury of the youths, and gave them the opportunity, for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, to publicly demand the ouster of the faghih-Ayatollah Khamenei.

The recent protests at Tehran University echoed the same feelings and sentiments. In some sense, the recent protests, though smaller in scale, were more radical in content. The freedom of Aghajari was one component in the young people’s long list of political grievances and demands. Some challenged the foundation of the Islamic Republic by demanding the separation of the mosque-religion-from the state.

In 1999, the state responded to the spreading student protest with violence. It temporarily crushed the movement. Two thousand youths were arrested. Ten were sentenced to death. But, fearful of its repercussions, the Islamic Republic did not carry out the executions. This was a turning pint in Iran. It reflected the emergence of a new balance of power: a divided and broken state, and a defiant public.

The Islamic Republic is divided and weakened. The republican movement is grassroots and includes most Iranians-men and women, young and old. Not limited to street protest and political action, it includes the schoolgirls challenging and ridiculing their religious teachers; teenagers wearing loud lipsticks and makeup under the watchful eyes of the moral police; and older women demanding respect and recognition from men in the streets, shops, and the workplace.

Whatever the results of this stage of the student protest, one fact remains unchanged: the Islamic state in Iran is most seriously challenged by its own creation-the children of the Islamic Republic. They are the gravediggers of the Islamic Republic.

Twenty-three years ago, the victory of the Islamic Republic made Iran a role model for millions of marginalized Moslems around the world. Today, the victory of the republicans will be a testament to the failure of political Islam in a relatively modern society in the age of global communication.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights (SUNY Press, 2002).

He can be reached at:


More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”