by Sanam Naraghi Anderlini and Sina Azodi
In Washington, the policy of Iranian regime change that blossomed during the Bush years and withered under Obama has flowered again in the Trump administration. But those advocating regime change and those arguing vociferously against it are both losing sight of the fact that profound change is already happening in Iran.
In the Iranian political arena, differences of opinion and vision among reformists, centrists, and hardliners are daily on public view. Two strands of influence have shaped the political system of the Islamic Republic since 1979. The clerical establishment has wielded authority and determined laws and policies according to a deeply patriarchal and paternalistic approach that assumed that “the people” needed guidance. But the revolution also rekindled the idea of public reason and people’s power to shape their own destiny. These two divergent ideas came together in the state’s identity as simultaneously Islamic and a republic.
Tensions between these two tendencies have been evident since the 1990s, and the balance of power is now shifting. At a July 19 cabinet meeting, President Hassan Rouhani reminded his team of the demands of the public and the democratic process to which the officials are accountable. These shifts in attitude are critical indicators of change occurring within the system.
The change in the political sphere is prompted by the dynamic transformation of Iran’s social and cultural space since 1979. One of the best indicators of this transformation is the status of women, who have been key players all along. In the 1970s, the reform of family law that gave women increased rights under the shah helped to rile up the traditional clergy against Iran’s westernization. The clergy in turn mobilized women from poorer and more conservative communities to support the revolution. But the suspension of the family law, forced imposition of the hijab, and early attempts to take away women’s rights to vote prompted a fierce backlash from women across the social spectrum. In the 1980s, barred from certain university degrees, women fought back and reclaimed their spaces, so much so that in 2015 some 70% of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates in Iran were women. The late, great Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win the Fields Medal in mathematics, was among the generation of girls born after the revolution into a system that overtly discouraged gender equality. Mirzakhani’s ascendance was not unique. On July 11, 2017, Iran’s flagship airline, Iran Air, appointed 44-year-old Farzaneh Sharafbafi as its first female CEO.
Women have also fought their way into politics. The 2016 parliamentary elections led to a new majlis with the largest number of women since the revolution. Similarly, in the 2017 city council elections, there was a 6% increase in women’s victories. In the highly conservative Sistan and Baluchistan province, some 415 women won council seats. Meanwhile, there is outcry at the absence of women in the newly appointed cabinet, despite President Rouhani’s election promise to appoint more women to ministerial posts.
The Iranian public has long shown that it wants the regime to change, but it does not want “regime change” a la Washington or Riyadh. Regime changers in Washington try to co-opt the human rights agenda by claiming that the majority of the Iranian public would support the toppling of the regime. But the 73% voter turnout in Iran and among the diaspora in the May presidential elections sent a loud and clear message: people want peaceful evolution with order, not chaotic revolution with disorder and violence.
There is good reason for this caution. Iranians historically have experienced the cycle of harj-o-marj (chaos and turmoil) when one dynasty has toppled its predecessor, destroying the good along with the bad and the ugly. The Pahlavis did it to the Qajars, who did it to the Zandiyeh dynasty. If there is fatigue about internal disruptions and fear of the unknown, there is positive revulsion at the thought of foreign interference. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Iranians tried to ward off the colonial drive of the Russians and the British. In 1953, they were blindsided by the arrival of the American empire on their doorstep, undermining the country’s most popular and most democratic of leaders, Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadeq. The blowback came in 1979 with the har-o-marj that accompanied the toppling of the shah, the US embassy hostage crisis, and the emergence of the Islamic Republic.
It has been a tough 38 years. Those who were children when the revolution occurred saw their lives change overnight, witnessing firsthand the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war in the trenches and across the nation’s cities for eight years. The following generations have often been thwarted by the limitations imposed by the hardliners, but they have also learned the lessons of the past. It is easy to reject a system and demand its demise, but the fundamental question is: what comes in its place? The lessons of Iraq and Libya, which were plunged into chaos in the name of freedom and democracy, are sobering. Wary of violence and the disintegration of their own country, Iranians do not want the same fate.
Of course, regime-change advocates claim that there are “legitimate,” publicly supported opposition movements waiting in the wings to take control and bestow democracy on the Iranian people. Sadly, they are backing losing horses, such as the reviled Mojaheddin-e-Khalq that supported Saddam Hussein and his chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. Meanwhile, Iranians did not heed the call of the erstwhile crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, for civil disobedience and election boycotts and treated his statements with derision.
In reality, although regime changers may claim to be defenders of democracy, they either want a malleable client state or a collision between the US and Iran. And knowing that indigenous and independent voices of dissent and dual nationals will be at even greater risk, the regime changers demonstrate a calculated cruelty by claiming to side with them. But any attack, bloodshed, or imposed leadership by external forces will prompt greater internal cohesion. When the dust settles, a population that desperately desires moderation and engagement will be angry with the world and more dependent on the very hardline forces that are currently on the wane.
There is also great danger. Iran is situated in a turbulent region, with difficult borders to control. If a weakened state can no longer police those borders, then Pakistan with its mix of Taliban, the Islamic State, and nuclear weapons would have easier passage to the Persian Gulf and beyond. Iran itself has a population of some 80 million people, mainly young and highly educated. But if the country falls into chaos, the potential ramifications of its instability would engulf the entire region.
The Iran of today is a very different country to that of 1979, 1989, 1999, or even 2009. The population increasingly has a democratic mindset. There is a genuine desire to find a transformative path to a world of live and let live. Unstoppable socio-political change is in motion with women at the lead. The best the US can do is let Iranians fulfill their own destiny, one that will be better for Iran, the region, and the U.S.
Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is the executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Sina Azodi is a current PhD candidate in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at The University of South Florida. Photo: Farzaneh Sharafbafi