The Phoenix of the Middle East: Iran’s Turbulent Revolutionary History

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The public unrest occurring in Iran is a current major episode on the global stage. The protests began on Dec 28 and concluded on January 7 in the holy city of Mashad. A protest that began about rising food costs and the lack of economic benefits from eased sanctions quickly escalated to people chanting in the street things like “Death to the Dictator [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].” This has excited President Trump, as seen through his tweets about his support for the Iranian people protesting their government. However, it must be understood that this is a civil rights protest, not a revolution. This is the biggest social movement of the Iranian people since the Iranian Green Movement that occurred due to a stolen presidential election in 2009.

The Iranian government has had a surprising variety of responses to these protests. One is the most typical of a dictatorship: military and police forces are sent to quell the riots. All the disorder is later explained by the state media as a conspiracy that the evil West is trying take over Iran.

However, those in power have created an interesting situation after teasing the possibility of an easing of the mandatory hijab laws. “Iranian police in Tehran announce women who break Islamic dress codes no longer face arrest” was the title of an article posted by Independent a day after the protests began, and is a statement made by police in the capital. The article elaborates that “the semi-official Tasnim news agency said violators will instead be made to attend classes given by police.” This is extremely significant because the dress code is one of the ways in which women have experienced oppression in Iran. My own mother, during a recent summer trip to Iran, was harassed by a member of the morality police because she had a loosened jacket as a result of the hot weather. However, if compulsory hijab and the restrictive dress code are relaxed, it would be one of the first important steps for Iran to make progress in liberalizing its society.

While this signifies a possible step forward in liberal reform, there is also an unfortunate step back. To prevent a cultural invasion of Western values, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, has banned the teaching of English in primary schools. In many ways, this is an unfair way to hinder the Iranian people. English, being the lingua franca of the world, is an essential part of education in international communities. This is because of its importance of communication in terms of academic and economic opportunities. It is also unfortunate because it further oppresses the Iranian people and their ability to connect to the world. The only thing banning English is successful at is further isolating Iranians.

It is important to understand that in many ways, Iran is not the United States. While they may be compared, the same expectations nor assumptions can be held when it comes to how political events, such as election or protests, will unfold.

One nation is known for the peaceful transfer of power, the other has had its dynasties marked by the previous being conquered by the new — an ancient Iranian version of democracy. Iranians have always picked when a dynasty is born and dies. Divine rule is not handed by a God but the people, and when they feel like that is lost, the leader is ousted and replaced. Thus new kingdoms are born through the ashes of the old, much like a phoenix. This is why the use of intimidation and violence is so critical to Ali Khameini’s hold on power. When the Iranian people gather, it is a warning that the current leader is losing his divinity and right to rule.

Another significant distinction is that, unlike the U.S., the Iranian people suffer from a government that acts like an Orwellian state. Protests in Iran are not commonplace because of oppressive tactics like the existence of media monitoring, internet censorship and the morality police who can walk into anyone’s home at any moment, seize a person and place them in Evin Prison.

Despite this, major protests have become more frequent since 1999. This shows that the stability and the legitimacy of the government continues to wane in Iran. While a revolution doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, the people of Iran must be heard and changes must be made if the current regime doesn’t want to become another chapter in history.

Syrus Sadvandi is a third-year international studies major. He can be reached at ssadvand@uci.edu.

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