Iran’s Revolutionaries Fighting Same Battles after 40 Years

Celebration of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 2008 (serkan senturk via Shutterstock)

by Shireen T. Hunter

The Islamic Republic of Iran and its Islamist leaders are celebrating the fortieth anniversary of what has come to be known as the Islamic Revolution. They have indeed some cause to celebrate. After years of internal turmoil, a devastating eight-year war with Iraq, and harsh and unrelenting economic sanctions, the republic that they set up in 1979 is still standing

However, beyond this very fact of survival, the Islamic Republic—but more so, Iran and the Iranians— has little cause to celebrate. Iranian society and the Islamic polity that now rules it is fractured along many lines. Because of the government’s strategy of Islamizing Iranian society according to a strict interpretation of a religion largely alien to Iran, a process similar to China’s cultural revolution, the historical divide between Iran and Islam as sources of identity and political legitimacy today is deeper than before. Meanwhile, according to statements by the authorities and clerical figures who complain about the erosion of Islamic belief in the country, especially among the youth, the project of Islamization—or as the Supreme leader is fond of saying, the creation of a new Islamic civilization fit for the twenty-first century—has failed. Instead, Iran is a more secular country today than it was forty years ago.

However, the erosion of Islam’s influence has not resulted in a resurgence of Iranian nationalism. On the contrary, the government’s aversion to Iranian nationalism—which it sees as a rival to its Islamist ethos and a challenge to its source of legitimacy—and its encouragement of Islamic universalism have only helped ignite ethnic, linguistic, and local sub-nationalisms. In other words, the Islamic government’s policies have undermined two important sources of Iran’s national cohesion: Iranian nationalism and Shia Islam. To be fair, the Islamic republic did not create these divisions. They already existed. By rapidly modernizing and following a cultural policy that glorified Iran’s pre-Islamic past at Islam’s expense, the monarchical regime widened these societal and ideological cleavages. In fact, the monarchy’s cultural policy was one impetus to the revolution.

Nor have the ideological disputes of the pre-revolutionary and early revolutionary days and the power struggles caused by them disappeared. The 1979 revolution came to be known as the Islamic revolution because other groups used Islam and the persona of Ayatollah Khomeini to mobilize the less educated as well as religious groups. However, the revolution—indeed, the very concept of revolution—was a leftist construct. It was also the left’s activities, including urban and guerilla tactics, that punctured the myth of the monarchy’s invulnerability. However, because of internal infighting, the left lost the battle for power, although some of them joined the new system to advance their goals from within. These former radicals are today’s so-called reformists. The secular semi-nationalists had no chance at all— because of intense personal rivalries, the lack of adequate leadership, and the absence of a cohesive vision for the future.

The only group that more or less knew what it wanted were the Islamists. As hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati recently put it, they embarked on revolution not to improve Iran’s economic and social conditions but to revive Islam. It is ironic that their policies have weakened Islam’s position in the country. Today, the Islamic leadership is still fighting the same battles, which is a main cause of its factionalism and governmental inefficiency. The disputes today are framed in the context of reformists versus principlists, but the battles are the same.

The Islamic government’s contributions to Iran’s development have also been dismal. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, the government is trying hard to highlight its developmental achievements by comparing present conditions to pre-revolutionary days—without acknowledging that had the revolution not happened, Iran would not have remained stagnant. The hardline ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi did admit a few years ago that, without the revolution, Iran would have developed more. But then he added that he and his fellow insurgents did not revolt in order to improve Iran but to revive Islam.

The fate of the Chabahar port, where construction first began around 1972-3 and is still not finished, symbolizes the developmental shortcomings of the Islamic system. A large number of Iranians, including former revolutionaries, their offspring, and even the children and grandchildren of Ayatollah Khomeini, have left the country and revealed their very un-Islamic lifestyles on social media. Without the revolution, Iran would today be on par with Turkey, Malaysia, or, in the best-case scenario, South Korea.

The biggest failure of the Islamic republic involves foreign policy. Never before in its modern history has Iran faced so many enemies, including the strongest international actor, the United States. Meanwhile, largely because of its Shia character and despite the leadership’s claims, Iran’s revolution has had no traction in the Islamic world. The pockets of sympathy for Iran in the Shia enclaves of Lebanon and Iraq existed even under the monarchy. And now most Sunni countries are staunch enemies of Iran.

The only success that the leadership can claim is that Iran is now independent of foreign powers. Yet,  even this claim is not exactly true. For example, Iran today is more dependent on Russia than before the revolution. It cannot challenge China. And it constantly makes concessions to its weakest and smallest neighbors, as illustrated by the very unfair deal over the division of the Caspian Sea. But even what independence Iran has secured has brought few benefits to the country. In Iran’s case, independence is like the freedom Kris Kristofferson sang about as “another word for nothing left to lose.”

All this, however, is water under the bridge. The revolution happened and caused many disruptions and dislocations in Iran and internationally as well as huge suffering for large numbers of Iranians. The important point at this juncture is what lessons Iran’s current government and its opponents should derive from the experience of the last forty years.

The most important lesson is that revolution has never been the solution for any problem. Only those countries that have experienced evolutionary change have been better off. The second point is that cultural engineering never succeeds. The Soviet effort to create a Homo Sovieticus failed, as did Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Pahlavis’ policy of reshaping Iran according to its pre-Islamic past. The Islamic revolutionaries’ attempt to create a new and totally Islamic Iran has also failed. You can neither erase a nation’s past nor bring it totally back.

Iran as a country and nation cannot afford another revolution or another experiment in cultural and social engineering. The only sensible way forward for Iran’s leaders and their opposition is to work with the reality of Iran’s many cleavages to craft a strategy that takes account of existing realities and responds to the essential concerns of all Iranians. This means no more megaprojects—nationalist, socialist, or any other variety. Instead, they should focus on a pragmatic agenda centered on bridging Iran’s divides and forging a new national consensus. This also means no violent regime change, but steady reform that would alter the most negative aspects of the current system and eventually move it towards a more inclusive and democratic system at peace with itself and the world.

Many will see this prescription as naïve and wishful thinking. But other alternatives are too frightening to consider both for Iran and the Middle East region as a whole.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. This treacherous regime will fall under economic failures. The people will suffer immensely. But like most failed states it will rise again without the Ayatollahs.

    For now it is isolated and injured like a wild animal. The whole world is watching out for these wolves. They will pick a fight to seem like heroes. Let us pray that the world powers do not fall for the bait.

    Let us hope that no one deals with them. The world must help the Iranian people. Let us not fight over politics and religion. The nation must be saved.

  2. Ms Hunter, no worries are warranted! The useless losers like, Reza, MEK and likes of Mostofi will fix the country! Haha!
    I’m glad that at the end you turned around by putting the monkey back on the Iranians’ shoulder, of course only on those who are still living there, to take their time rectifying the current government’s shortfalls in an evolutionary way! The first step for the people is the recognition of the problems! The second step would be to discuss possible solutions to those problems and then apply the most desired solutions! I believe the people have achieved the first step and they have identified the problems. But politically aren’t quite there yet to discuss and apply potential solutions to the problems. Finally people ought to realize that it takes time to achieving the desired evolutionary goals on their own without any foreign support!

  3. Their ’79 revolution didn’t get the people of Iran very far over the past 40 years. The Shah was ousted and replaced by religious fanatics who are using the resources of the country to support those beliefs. They spend billions on propping up proxies like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen take the title as the worlds greatest sponsor of terrorism. Their human rights record is dismal while the people go without a lot of comforts they could be enjoying if those billions were put back into their own economy. They are currently under sanctions while their Rial is tumbling. The folks of Iran are being repressed by their government while punishing those who speak out against it. They don’t have much to celebrate 40 years on, but that is what happens when you trade one yoke for another.

  4. Hunter worked for Shah s regime any wonder then that she trahes year after year the government that toppled it? This artilce belings to same trah bin.

  5. Contrary to Hunter s anti revolutionary stance the iranian revolution aolved the problem of imperialism and foreign domination of iran. A bourgeois lackey would never understand.

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