Uprisings in Iran and their historical origins

by | 19 Apr 2023

The world media is once again full of images, stories, discussions, and trending hashtags about ongoing mass protests in Iran. Those who are familiar with Iran’s social-historical context know that this country is the land of popular uprisings, political struggles, and insurrections. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the history of modern Iran has been shaped by revolutions and counterrevolutions. For Iranians, revolutionary moments have an equivocal character. They signify creative moments of social liberation, which constitute a leap forward in history. But these moments also engender a destructive counterrevolutionary force and entail a step backward. 

Sources of liberation

In 1906, the Iranian people joined forces and revolted against ancient despotism, corruption, and lawlessness. This political upheaval was led by intellectuals and involved the active participation of different factions and layers of society. This revolutionary moment opened a new horizon for democratic forms of politics, practices of freedom, and collective autonomy. It brought about the first constitutional monarchy in the Middle East. The ideals of the revolutionaries were materialized in the process of creating revolutionary councils, modern political parties, and the first national popular assembly in October 1906 (Majles). These young institutions provided a political platform to Iranian citizens from different socio-economic, religious, and national backgrounds. The Constitutional Revolution gave voice to the demands, values, and interests of those who were regarded as nobodies, as serfs, as non-subjects.

However, the glorious moments of democratic change were short-lived. The major accomplishments of the revolution were soon to be destroyed by oppressive forces, such as reactionary aristocrats, the clergy, and paramilitary gangs. These counterrevolutionary forces could count on the political and military support of colonial powers of the time, namely the Russians and the British Empire. A year after the revolution, the flourishing body of this young democracy was assaulted and severely wounded by Mohammad Ali Shah (the internal despot) and his Russian military advisers. Yet, the counter-revolutionary campaign was, in fact, fully realized a decade later by Reza Khan and his British colonial supporters. Together, they buried the wounded body of democracy during the 1921 military Coup and established a despotic puppet regime in Iran.[i] At present, it may seem rather self-evident to us, but it is always remarkable to observe the long-standing bond and kinship between dictatorship and colonialism. For the oppressed, this bond embodies a gigantic wall that stands against any movement towards freedom, equality, and democracy.

Despot-colonialist brotherhood

The dialectics of revolution and counterrevolution repeats itself during the popular government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in early 1950s. Once again, Iranian freedom fighters join forces for the sake of democracy, independence, and self-determination. Although they are not well-organized, they succeed in pursuing two clearly formulated goals. On the one hand, they aim to put an end to the one-man-rule of the Shah by demanding that he should commit himself to the rule of law and principles of parliamentary democracy. On the other hand, they form a National Front against British domination and liberate the Iranian oil industry from highly exploitive contractual conditions between Iran and its Western counterpart. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian despot and colonialists form an alliance against their common enemy. To suppress the democratic movement, they receive generous assistance from the US and the CIA.[ii] For the second time, a democratic uprising was violently crushed by the despot-colonialist brotherhood.

This tragic event changes the political landscape of Iran for good. Despite disappointments and disillusionments, many political activists and revolutionaries learn their lessons. Now, they recognize that the transition from revolution to counterrevolution does not represent a spontaneous or natural phenomenon. They uncover the fact that the Iranian people find themselves at the intersection of a deep-rooted conflict between two worldviews, two forms of politics, and two social-historical developments. They understand that their destiny takes shape in a struggle between freedom against domination, independence against colonialism, equality against exploitation, and democracy against dictatorship. 

Golden age of revolutionaries

These enlightening insights give birth to a new generation of young, determined political activists. They organize their political struggle around the ideas of political freedom, independence, and radical republicanism that later become the driving force of the 1979 Revolution. These young freedom fighters are deeply inspired by critical theorists and interpret their national struggle in the context of anti-colonial movements and insurrections across the globe. They rely on indigenous theoretical sources and develop multifaceted strategies to rebel against the Shah. Throughout the 1970s, they make various tactical moves and get involved in the organization of student protests, strikes, popular revolts, and guerilla warfare.[iii]

The Shah and his Western allies consider these political movements as a serious threat to their power and long-term geopolitical interests. As a result, the leadership of these movements becomes the primary target of cross-national intelligence operations, orchestrated by Iran’s notorious intelligence service (SAVAK) and their Western counterparts. In a few years, 90% of these political leaders were arrested, tortured, assassinated, or executed. 

Revolution and counterrevolution

The systematic repression of progressive forces creates a power vacuum in the opposition and paves the way for Ayatollah Khomeini to claim the leadership of the Revolution. In 1979, Khomeini resides in France, enjoys relative safety, and receives disproportionate attention from Western media. He and his supporters are fully aware of the popularity of revolutionary ideals. They appropriate these ideals, take advantage of anti-colonial sentiments, and metamorphose them into fundamentalist slogans. For Islamic fundamentalists, the revolution means a religious crusade against Western civilization. It represents a predestined divine intervention, which grants sovereignty to God’s true representatives on earth. 

Right after the 1979 revolution, Shokrollah Paknejad was one the first revolutionaries that 

lucidly observed this counterrevolutionary shift. He was a prominent revolutionary who had survived SAVAK’s practices of torture, long-term imprisonment, and harsh conditions of exile. In an interview with Fred Halliday, he points out that the Iranian revolution moves back and forward ‘between two tides’.[iv] In his view, the revolution should not be regarded as a uniform phenomenon. It engenders a field of struggle between two antagonistic forces. On the one hand, the revolution was the outcome of collective struggles of those who wanted to bring about a democratic change through direct and equal participation of different genders, nationalities, and minorities. On the other hand, the leadership of the revolution was monopolized by fundamentalist clerics who wanted to establish God’s divine order on earth, resembling the Middle Ages.

The young freedom fighters had little chance to win the unfair battle against the clergy. The clerics were ruthless and well-organized. They easily took full control over state apparatus and organized their totalitarian suppressive machine, such as the Basij, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Islamic Revolutionary Courts. Still, Paknejad and thousands of other young activists offered resistance and sacrificed their life in the struggle for freedom, self-determination, and gender equality. In those years, the international community was completely silent and undertook no significant actions to prevent or condemn the mass execution of thousands of intellectuals, young dissidents, and minors.[v] After all, the Islamic regime could serve as a strong shield against the spread of communism and Soviet influence. 

Voices of freedom 

Over the past four decades, the Iranian people have continued their liberatory struggle. Since 2009, mass protests and popular uprisings occur more frequently and more systematically. Specifically, in the last four years different political actors and various layers of society seem to join forces to fulfill their collective desire for freedom and democracy. For these political actors, freedom and democracy are not empty signifiers. The current revolutionary momentum has given shape to a field of struggle and has revived the question of what these political signifiers mean and how they should be exercised.

The current uprising embodies women’s emancipatory practices by which they exercise their agency and claim an equal place in society. It expresses the demands of national and religious minorities and reflects their fight against discrimination and exclusion. It represents the perspective of workers, oppressed classes, and Afghan migrants that are structurally exposed to economic deprivation and extreme forms of exploitation. It demonstrates the collective effort of students and intellectuals for free speech and political participation. Finally, it echoes the voice of a dominated nature that cries for peace by showing its anger through floods, droughts, and drying lakes. 

Therefore, we should recognize that the current uprising is essentially heterogenous and embodies various voices, demands, and ideals that were historically suppressed by ancient despots, religious dictators, and their allies. However, it bears noting that this revolutionary uprising (as with its predecessors) is taking shape at the intersection of proxy wars and geopolitical conflicts between the Iranian regime and its regional and global rivals. The clerics and the Revolutionary Guards use all violent means to suppress the people and silence the revolutionary impetus. At the same time, some regional and global powers try to turn the tide of this revolutionary movement to their own advantage and consider regime change scenarios that secure their interests in the future of Iran.

The interference of these internal and external counterrevolutionary forces makes the future of this uprising quite uncertain. To increase their chances for a democratic change, the Iranian people need and welcome the support and solidarity of citizens and democratic movements from the Middle East, Europe, North America, and other regions of the world. We could offer our support and solidarity in various ways. However, the Iranian people do not need any foreign power to dictate to them how they should organize their struggle and who they should recognize as their representatives. The fate of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria should serve as a crystal-clear mirror for us to envision the consequences of neocolonial humanitarian interventions, establishment of puppet regimes, and global ‘wars on terror’. 

Author: Shahin Nasiri,

Email: Shahin.nasiri@wur.nl

Shahin Nasiri is a lecturer in applied ethics and philosophy of science at the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and a researcher in political philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (UvA).


[i] For a detailed historical discussion see, Abrahamian, E. (1982). Iran between two revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press. chap. 2 & 3.

[ii] For the political background of the 1953 Coup, see, Abrahamian, E. (2013). The coup: 1953, the CIA, and the roots of modern U.S.-Iranian relations. New York: The New Press.

[iii] Also see, Vahabzadeh, P. (2010). A Guerrilla Odyssey: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy, and Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Chap. 1 & 2.

[iv] Faghfouri Azar, L., & Nasiri, S. (2020). The repressed voices of the Iranian Revolution [Ravayat-haye az Khak Barkhaste-ye Enghelab]. Stockholm: Baran. pp. 117-122.

[v] Nasiri, S., & Faghfouri Azar, L. (2022). Investigating the 1981 massacre in Iran: On the law-constituting force of violence. Journal of Genocide Research. 1-24. 


1 Comment

  1. Thank you Shahin for this valuable discussion of the historical past of revolution/counter-revolution in Iran. I have as a result received an answer to the question-why were the progressive forces in Iran so swiftly and comprehensively defeated by the Islamists. Much appreciated.


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