The Tragedy of the Islamic Republic and the Progressives’ Dilemma

Photograph Source: Hamed Malekpour – CC BY 4.0

In 1979, when I returned to the US from Iran to continue my studies, I gave a talk to a group of progressive Americans about my impression of the Iranian revolution and emergence of the “Islamic Republic.” Among the things I said was that the revolution to overthrow the monarchy, which began with tremendous popular support, became Islamized. I also stated that the term Islamic Republic (IR) is an oxymoron, since the concept of a state ruled by a representative of people, such as a president, is incompatible with the notion of the guardianship of an Islamic jurist or the Faqih. In addition, I mentioned that the concept of the IR is in many ways not compatible with the modern-day capitalism. For example, I said, usury is forbidden in Islam, as in many other religions, so to have interest-bearing capital and modern-day banking system, you must either change religious teachings—as, for example, Christianity did—or call usuary by something else, which the IR did. Given this, and some other incompatibilities, I predicted that the IR would not last for too long.

In retrospect, I was dead wrong in my prediction! 43 years later the Islamic Republic lives on. But my analysis was not incorrect. The IR was, and still is, an oxymoron. It is also, in many ways, incompatible with modern-day capitalism.

In the so-called Western democracies, as Karl Marx once noted, every few years people decide which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent them. So, voters oscillate between this or that party, or this or that individual, hoping that one day they will get lucky and their lot will improve. Even though such hopes are almost always dashed after the election, the concept of choice gives the illusion of legitimacy to the system of governance. In these democracies dissidents are usually small in number and mostly ineffectual, so they are tolerated. The only time massive force might be used against them by the state apparatus is when legitimacy of the state is questioned, and the existing social order is threatened.

The IR tried to emulate Western democracies, but in combination with the rule of the Faqih, the “supreme leader of the revolution.” The result was a system, or a “nezam” as it is often called in Iran, in which the Faqih and his cohorts make all the important decisions, and the president, who is subservient to the Faqih, is mostly a symbolic figure. [The US and its allies often use the term “regime” for Iran’s system of government, or for that matter, any government that is not friendly or subservient. Thus, the nezam in Iran is a regime but Saudi Arabia is a kingdom and Israel is a democracy!].

From the very beginning, the legitimacy of the nezam was questioned by dissidents and this threatened the foundation of the IR. The state managed to put down, often violently, any opposition to its rule, using massive security forces, particularly the irregular army or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This, and the fact that the nezam had its own hardcore supporters, helped the system to survive.

Another reason for the survival of the system was, ironically, the opposition to it by imperial forces of the West and their allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel. These forces had lost their best partner in the Iranian revolution, the monarch. The new system, talking about exporting its revolution and helping to liberate Palestine, appeared to be a threat to the world order that the US had established. Thus, the US and its allies imposed harsh sanctions on Iran that continue to this day and are piled up almost daily. The pressure, however, not only did not topple the nezam, it helped to prolong its life. The IR effectively used this hostility to its own benefit. Any objection to its rule is treated as a foreign conspiracy, and dissidents are labeled as stooges or spies of the US and its allies, particularly Israel.

The enmity of the US and its allies to the IR also helped the nezam in another way. Progressive forces across the world often viewed the IR as an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist ally, particularly when it came to the plight of the Palestinians. Some, of course, realized that the IR opposition to imperialism and various forms of colonialism, such as Zionism, is based not on the same principles as their own but mostly on religious grounds (as, for example, in the case of Palestine) or opportunistic grounds (as, for example, in the case of Cuba). Nevertheless, the proverb of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” often prevailed and many progressives refrained from criticizing the nezam, allowing the IR to exploit their criticism of policies of the US and its allies toward Iran.

The nezam managed to survive despite persistent economic crisis.  Iran’s economy, since its inception, has been mostly in a state of “stagflation,” a combination of stagnating economy with high unemployment and high inflation. In my July 2022 interview with an Iranian news site about prospects of Iran’s economy I mentioned the fact that Iran’s GDP rate of growth, particularly what is projected for 2023, is at best anemic, the projected rate of unemployment for 2022 is 10.2%, and the projected inflation rate is about 39.4%. I also mentioned that continuous devaluation of the Iranian currency is largely indicative of people’s lack of confidence in their currency and economy. Moreover, I pointed out that even though inhumane sanctions levied by the US and its allies on Iran are a major cause of its economic woes, mismanagement and corruption also play an important role. Indeed, I pointed out that some years ago the former speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, stated that 80% of the problem in Iran is due to mismanagement and the rest due to sanctions. I also quoted the current president, Raisi, as saying: “Corruption, poverty and injustice are not becoming of the Islamic Republic and the current situation is different from the desired situation.” [Needless to say that the interview was never published, even though all my data were taken from official sources and the interview went through two editorial process, taking out comments that were deemed to be negative!] Yet, many political leaders and their media mouthpieces in Iran give the impression that the abysmal economic performance of Iran is merely due to the hostility of the “enemies.” Many Iranians also seem to agree with this assessment and, therefore, don’t hold the government responsible for their economic misfortunes.

Despite being in a state of continuous economic and political turmoil the nezam has held elections since its inceptions. Over the years many Iranians, similar to those in Western democracies, participated in these elections, hoping that somehow fortune might knock at the door. But with each election it became more evident that the whole process is a bigger farce than those in Western democracies. While in the West presidential candidates are vetted mostly by money, in Iran they are vetted by the Guardian Council, a religious body of 12 members, six of whom are appointed by the Faqih. So, it was not hard to figure out that nothing will change in the country as long as the Faqih and his associates control the election result. In the last, 2021, presidential election the Guardian Council vetted out all but three individuals, two of whom were merely window dressing, and the third, Raisi, had been groomed by the nezam for years to become president. The election was such a charade that less than 50% of the eligible voters voted, with Raisi getting over 70% of the vote. Invalid and lost votes were about 13%, indicating that even some of those who voted were fed up with the nezam’s electoral process.

The 2021 presidential election in Iran proved that the “Islamic Republic” of Iran is an oxymoron, that there is no republic in the “Islamic Republic.” It laid bare the fact that Iran is ruled by one man and his cohorts. It demonstrated plainly that the presidential election in Iran is a sham, a window dressing designed to give legitimacy to a clerical system that is based on one man’s interpretation of Islam. It made obvious that the younger generation in Iran—able to see with a click on a cellphone the modern way of life outside of their country—will no longer accept medieval concepts, such as hijab.

With the arrival of this young generation on the scene, the Islamic Republic had at last confirmed that it is incompatible with modern-day capitalism.  All that was needed to set this generation on fire was a spark, and that came when a young woman, Mahsa (Ghina) Amini, died in the custody of the guidance patrol. Whether Mahsa died as the result of a blow to the head or medications taken for childhood brain surgery was immaterial to those folks who took to the street. They wanted the medieval nezam gone. [Their grievances were well articulated in the song Baraye that “went viral,” to use a popular expression!]

The young demonstrators, however, were not joined by masses of people, the more than 50% of the eligible voters who did not even vote in the 2021 presidential election. This was unlike the contentious presidential election in 2009, when after the election thousands of people marched in the street asking what had happened to their votes. Moreover, even though demonstrations have been widespread and have lasted for weeks, they have remained relatively small, have been sporadic, often occurring at nights, and have been leaderless. Nevertheless, this new generation’s demonstrations appear to be the harbinger of things to come.

The events in Iran have made the imperial powers of the West, particularly the US, as well as their allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, salivate at the prospect of a “regime change” in Iran and even disintegration of the country. Their media outlets—which hardly ever report the record number of Palestinians killed last year, or so far this year, by the apartheid Israeli regime—are in a state of frenzy when it comes to demonstrations in Iran and the number of individuals killed so far. Also drooling at the prospect of taking over the government in Iran, are the groups and individuals that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia have for years groomed as possible candidates for restoration of the old order in Iran, such as the son of the former monarch, or the MEK cult that was once on the list of US terrorist groups. Even some progressive individuals have taken positions that the “regime change” crowd has found instrumental. And this poses an important question. How should progressive elements, including those whose sentiment might have been exploited by the IR at some point, deal with the current situation in Iran?

The above question is not an easy one to answer. It is a dilemma that many of us face. It is like walking a tightrope, a balancing act. It would be presumptuous of me to tell others what to do. But I have always been guided by the fact that there are no good guys in the battle between the IR and the imperial West, particularly the US, and their allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. The question is which one is worse, which one is more dangerous, which one has historically committed more atrocities in the world, and which one can do more damage to this world. Once you answer such questions, you can focus your attention on one without losing the sight of the other.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: