Almost four decades after the toppling of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a revolutionary ideology continues to underpin the Iranian state. As the years have passed, the relevance of its governing philosophy risks being lost on the country's younger generations, and the internal and external challenges to its government continue to mount. The recent spate of demonstrations that quickly spread across the country highlighted one of the revolutionary state's largest shortcomings: It is a 40-year-old revolution that has not arrived at a sustainable economic model.
The protests marked the largest and most widespread demonstrations expressing popular dissatisfaction with Iran's leaders since the 2009 Green Movement, which targeted then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the government. And with chants of "Death to the dictator" referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accompanying the latest round of protests, it is clear that no part of the government had escaped the ire of the demonstrators. Khamenei has kept the fire of the Islamic Revolution alive for nearly 30 years after the death of its founder, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who died in 1989. But what happens to that fire when Khamenei — now 78 — passes the torch to a successor who was not in Khomeini's inner circle in the 1980s? To what extent does the revolutionary spirit still resonate with the nearly 70 percent of Iran's population who were born after the revolution? While the wave of protests appears to have ebbed, their political aftermath could help determine Iran's course and whether the country can change into a post-revolutionary state.
A Protest Heard 'Round the World
It was quickly evident from their political nature that the protests, which first broke out after Friday prayers on Dec. 28 in the conservative stronghold of Mashhad, were unlike others that periodically spring up in Iran. That first demonstration included calls for moderate President Hassan Rouhani to step down amid criticisms of Iran's economic conditions. The initial protests, which appear to have been fomented by prayer leader Ahmad Alamolhoda, followed Rouhani's publication of the country's budget outlining with unprecedented transparency the significant amount of governmental support funneled to many of Iran's cultural institutions — which are often closely tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its hard-line conservative allies. That disclosure by Rouhani, which represented a move against Iran's bureaucracy of unelected institutions, certainly angered Iran's conservatives and hard-liners. It is unclear what level of encouragement that Alamolhoda, who is the father-in-law of Rouhani's conservative opponent Ebrahim Raisi in last year's presidential elections, may have had from other hard-liners. Raisi's initial statements after the demonstrations targeted Rouhani, suggesting at least tacit support of their initial messages. But best-laid plans, however, often go awry.
From marches in one city that focused largely on the president, protests quickly spread and spiraled into a wider display of anti-government anger. By the weekend, protesters had taken to the streets in more than 80 cities in demonstrations appearing to be far more spontaneous than the initial ones in Mashhad. Some of the protests even began to immortalize Reza Shah, who in the first half of the 20th century tried to spark a Kemalist-styled secularist modernization program in Persia before an Anglo-Soviet invasion forced him out. In many respects, Reza Shah's vision for Iran epitomized the antithesis of the one that the Islamic Revolution hoped to achieve. And as the voices criticizing the government became louder, so too did those of the IRGC and hard-line clerics like Raisi in speaking out against the demonstrations.
While Rouhani's opponents may have instigated the demonstrations, the way that they spread shows that they were the spark that the slice of Iran's population that had significant economic and political grievances needed to take to the streets. In one of many instances of intragovernmental finger-pointing in the aftermath, Alamolhoda has been summoned by the government to explain his role in the protests.
The Challenges to the Revolution's Foundation
At its heart, Iran's revolutionary ideology can be viewed as several different layers. Underlying them all is Khomeini's concept of velayat-e-faqih, or rule by Shiite jurists. In this structure, the unelected clerical leadership sat just under the supreme leader as the ultimate arbitrators and final decision-makers in Iran's political system. Just below that layer came a populist and nationalist one that largely rejected Western ideals, culture and influence, promising equal treatment for all and populist economic rejuvenation away from the corruption of the imperialist shah and everything he represented.
Iran's geographic position in a strategic location in the Persian Gulf does not lend itself to it being an isolationist power. Since 1979, it has flirted several times with a reintegration with the global system. This is reflected not only in its drive for regional influence but also by calls from its vibrant merchant class for significant engagement with the global system.
A Revolving Revolution
History is littered with examples of revolution, many of which follow similar patterns. This topic was most famously studied in Crane Brinton's seminal The Anatomy of Revolution. In an examination of the French Revolution and other revolutions, Brinton argued that soon after a revolution succeeds in seizing control of a country, the most radical among the revolutionaries assume control for a period as they seek to indoctrinate the society. One example of this would be the initial period from the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 through the 1976 end of the Cultural Revolution, the latter of which saw Chairman Mao Zedong make a final push to double down on the Chinese brand of communist ideology after the Sino-Soviet split.
Eventually the radicals can give way to more moderate control in what is sometimes known as a Thermidorian reaction. Brinton cites as an example Maximilien Robespierre's downfall and execution, which finally brought the post-revolution Reign of Terror in France to an end during the month of Thermidor in the French Republican calendar. As the moderates take power, the country tends to act more pragmatically and potentially (barring a relapse of sorts) evolves toward a post-revolutionary state that adheres more closely to behavior that could be expected from its natural geopolitical drivers. In Iran's case, that would be a country that is a regional power that is deeply integrated into the global system. The quintessential example of this transition might be China after Mao's death ended the Cultural Revolution, which underwent an eventual counterswing in the form of the opening up by Deng Xiaoping. The opening launched China onto the path of its natural geopolitical position: a regional hegemon in eastern Asia and the world's largest economy.
No model is perfect, but Brinton's conceptual model of thinking about a revolution's radical, or Thermidorian, state can illuminate the evolution of Iran's revolution and its probable path forward. The period from 1979 until 1988 epitomized a radical state. During that period, Iran remained outwardly hostile to the West, which largely backed Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and supported like-minded groups regionally, hoping to "export" its revolutionary ideology.
So instead of a Thermidorian reaction giving way to a post-revolutionary Iran, the failures of Rafsanjani and Khatami incubated the conditions that led to a relapse and a comparatively radicalized state. These conditions ripened further after Iran had tentatively offered cooperation with the United States during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, only to be burned in George W. Bush's famous axis of evil speech. This relapse culminated with the election of Ahmadinejad, who quickly established an alliance with the IRGC and Iran's hard-liners. Eight years of Ahmadinejad's populist policies, coupled with Western sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program, drove the economy into the ground. This decline gave rise to another Thermidorian reaction: the election of Rouhani and Iran's pursuit of the nuclear deal with the West.
Finding a Path to a Post-Revolutionary Iran
Rouhani's pressure on Iran's deep state demonstrates his aim to break down some of the institutional barriers that have in the past caused Iran to revert to its revolutionary roots. What is also equally clear is that Rouhani has Khamenei's tacit approval to challenge the system to a degree. After all, the supreme leader gave Rouhani the support he needed to pursue the nuclear deal, Iran's most risky opening up to the West, demonstrating that the revolutionary ideals have proved to be pragmatically malleable when necessary to avoid a collapse.
From here, Iran can take multiple paths. Another revolutionary relapse is certainly a possibility. Iran's hard-liners will use the country's continuing problems under Rouhani and the recent protests as an opportunity to discredit the president. Such an outcome, however, would again raise an existential threat similar to the one that Iran's government survived in 2009 from the Green Movement. The further Iran gets from 1979, the less relevant its core features become to the growing majority of its young generations. Another possibility is that Iran will continue on a path to a more post-revolutionary state model, of course. But another possibility exists: The revolutionary foundation bottoms out, and the IRGC or another entity pre-empts further changes through a coup or by installing a puppet supreme leader (or a council to assume the position) while the military holds the real power.
Some lessons from Iran's history may shed light on the most likely path. First, it is clear that for Iran to move naturally toward a post-revolutionary state, change would have to flow from the top. One of the reasons that Deng's reforms worked in China was that he was the paramount leader, and potential strong opponents such as the People's Liberation Army fell under his control. Khamenei, while pragmatic, has typically intervened in favor of backing his conservative allies, blunting Iran's progress toward a post-revolutionary state. So long as he remains the supreme leader, the country is more likely to take a cautious approach to change. Just as Deng was able to emerge from Mao's shadow as the paramount second-generation leader, a second-generation supreme leader (Rouhani is one prime contender) who is far from Khomeini's inner circle would need to emerge to make robust changes.
While internal political forces obviously play a key role, external forces play a crucial role as well, specifically, in shaping how defensive the Islamic Revolution must be. The U.S. decision in 2002 to add Iran to its axis of evil list and the subsequent invasion of neighboring Iraq forced Iran to build its deterrence to the possibility of a U.S.-led invasion. With the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel ratcheting up tension against Iran today, Tehran will have no choice but to reassess its strategy, giving more ammunition to those calling for a more confrontational policy typical of an Iran in a more radical state.
The selection of the next supreme leader will be an important marker of Iran's future course. Before Khomeini's death, Khamenei was a midranking cleric who had spent most of the previous decade holding political office, first as defense minister and then as president. Rafsanjani helped Khamenei secure his position as Khomeini's successor, as they were both relatively like-minded capitalists who sought to push back against Iran's leftists. However, because Khamenei was initially weak, he had to forge alliances in order to build up his power, and he sided with those closest to him politically, the country's traditional conservatives. Whoever succeeds Khamenei will find himself in a similar position: He will need to seek an alliance of his own, by siding with the traditional conservative clerics or another large political base, or by deriving support from popular sentiment, which Rouhani appears to be trying to do.
In this context, this is why the latest round of protests matter. Each significant protest movement that preceded it had significant political consequences, and this one will too. Iran will soon come to a point at which it must choose a new supreme leader, and the political balance of power at the time will determine who will win the position. And the leanings of the new supreme leader will determine the direction in which Iran moves. With the protests undercutting Rouhani's support, with pressure from the United States, Saudi Arabia and its allies increasing, and with conservatives dominating the Assembly of Experts, the body that elects the supreme leader, it is clear that they are gaining political momentum despite their defeat in the last three major Iranian elections.
But in the long term, the moves beneath the surface will compel a greater shift. Should Rouhani be able to start chipping away at the armor of Iran's deep state, he is certainly a contender to rise. And like Khamenei before him, he is also a midlevel cleric with extensive political experience and acumen. But Rouhani is not the only candidate who could fill the void as a second-generation supreme leader. While he was defeated in presidential elections, the hard-liner Raisi remains a contender as do some of Khomeini's heirs, such as Hassan Khomeini. Nevertheless, as any observer of Iranian politics knows, the political winds there are constantly shifting. The ink is not yet dry on Iran's revolution, and whether it finally reaches a post-revolutionary state will soon rest in the hands of its next generation.