The Good Fight
The Revolt Against Iran's Theocratic Regime

The Revolt Against Iran's Theocratic Regime

Yascha Mounk and Roya Hakakian discuss whether the protesters might, somehow, manage to win.

Roya Hakakian is an Iranian American dissident, poet, and writer. Her latest book is A Beginner's Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Roya Hakakian discuss what makes this year's revolt different from previous protest movements; the meaning of the popular protest slogan “Woman, Life, Liberty;” and what ordinary people and their governments can do to support the people of Iran.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: We've seen protests against Iran’s theocratic regime repeatedly since it took power in 1979. Do you think that there is more reason to hope for a fundamental challenge to the regime now than there has been in the past? What is special about this moment? 

Roya Hakakian: I think this is fundamentally different. There have been many, many demonstrations in Iran since 1979. There have been a few important peaks. The most significant one came in 2009, with what we came to know as the Green Movement. It was a reaction to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. People had voted for his rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was himself a product of Islamic Republic thinking and infrastructure. He had, in fact, been the prime minister of Iran before. He was running this time in 2009 as a reform candidate, and a lot of the youth in Iran had invested in him, and were excited about the possibility of him becoming the president. And then, suddenly, the elections didn't go the way that the public had thought, and for many reasons, everyone believes that it was rigged. In the aftermath, people took to the streets in great numbers, and the slogan at the time was, “Where's my vote?”

To me, “Where’s my vote?” implies that the protesters are in conversation with the system, with the regime; they believe that if they make a reasonable demand, civilly and politely, they will get a response, because to them, the regime still has legitimacy; that if they do all the right things, which at the time meant taking to the streets, expressing dissatisfaction with the situation, asking for a recount or whatever, then they will get from that regime what they deserve. That didn't happen. In fact, the opposite happened. There was a great deal of violence. Iranian activists and civil society intellectuals who took to the streets were jettisoned out of the country. 

Mounk: I guess you're implying that, at the time, this was an important and inspiring protest movement, but it actually was accommodationist in a certain kind of way. It was obviously a political challenge—but you're saying that it didn't mean to subvert the basic foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

But the nature of the protest today is a lot less accommodationist and constitutes a more fundamental challenge to the founding principles of the theocratic regime than the Green Movement did in 2009.

Hakakian: Precisely. 2009 was the moment when the nation said, “Okay, we started a reform movement with the rise of [President Mohammed] Khatami in 1997. Over a decade later, we have given the reform movement a shot.” When that didn't work, when somebody as within-the-regime as Mousavi couldn't achieve presidential office, that was the end of the reform movement. They did everything they possibly could through electoral participation, through campaigning, through all the means available to them, to get this guy to become president, and they couldn't. 

This time around, the conversation with the regime has ended. These protesters are not making demands from within the system. The only thing they're saying is, “The dictator must fall.” That’s it. And that’s what, in my view, makes it a revolutionary moment, whether it succeeds or not. They're making demands that the regime cannot meet; nor can the regime send these protesters home and quell the uprising.

I think it qualifies as a revolutionary moment, and with that, an end to the conversation with the system. By calling for death to the current Supreme Leader, and death to the founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, who established this new system in 1979—this tells us that the people are fundamentally done with a non-secular system.

Mounk: When I see protest movements in dictatorships, I'm always a little bit torn. I wish them the best of luck. I identify with them from a distance, insofar as that's appropriate. I have the biggest admiration for people who are risking their lives in the street for their ideals. But of course, it's also tempting to think that it's not going to work out in the end, and that a lot of people will be arrested and killed without having achieved the goal they are fighting for. 

I must admit that I've been struck by how long these protests have now been going on, and how broad the support for them has been among professions like teachers, for example. What is it that has allowed these protests to persist for such a long time? Why is it that the Iranian regime has not used all of the force at its disposal to crush these protests completely? What explains that longevity and that deeper support?

Hakakian: I just want to offer a qualification. I don't think the regime has prevented itself from using violence. What's happening is that the protesters have not provided the opportunity in big cities, especially Tehran, for the regime to attack them in the way that it did in 2009. Part of the reason why we don't see a “Million Man March” is because if everybody takes to the streets, then the regime will bite the bullet, and they'll bring out the tanks and the big guns and attack them wholesale, as they've done before. Smaller protests have guaranteed their endurance. 

Mounk: It’s kind of a tactical innovation to say “we're going to spread all over, and we're only ever going to assemble in relatively small numbers, because that makes it harder for the regime to attack us.” That's interesting, and in some ways, counterintuitive.

Hakakian: Absolutely. I think it's very uplifting to know that they are learning all the proper lessons. But in places where the regime has been able to deploy violence against large crowds, they have. They've done so in Baluchestan. They've done so in Kurdistan. When there has been the opportunity for them to actually go into a city knowing that the city itself is against them (and by the way, those are border cities that are far away from the center, and there are fewer cameras and less coverage) then they have been entirely brutal.

And, by the way, we're setting aside all the abuse and torture and all the other things that they are doing to the 16,000-plus people they've arrested. So we're leaving all those out.

Mounk: To be clear, I'm not crediting the regime with any kind of moral scruples. But as a political scientist, I'm interested in understanding how strong the regime’s cards are, or how strong the regime seems to think its cards are. 

If the regime is saying that in these peripheral cities, they can crush protests in a really openly violent way, but that in much of Iran, they can't risk doing that—that makes me think they're worried about what would happen if they tried; whether some of their troops might defect, whether it would cause even broader mass mobilization in response. And those are the kinds of moments when regimes fall. 

What you're saying makes me think that their cards may be weak, or at least that the regime feels constrained in various ways, and that might—might—open up the possibility for a kind of split between hardliners and softliners; between people who are loyal to the regime, and people who say “Hang on a second, perhaps we're not willing to use that much violence in order to protect the current social order.”

Hakakian: I think that's one possibility, certainly. They don't want more bad publicity than they've already got. But I think the other possibility is that they may very well have trouble recruiting from their own ranks to carry out large-scale violence in major cities. There are reports of sheer exhaustion on the part of the riot police and other military personnel. There are also rifts within the military apparatus. It's been reported that they have arrested somewhere close to 115 military personnel who were sympathetic to the protesters. So there is also the consideration of how much they can do without creating a riot within their own ranks. 

But going back to the earlier point about why the protests are enduring. Some of it is captured in the fundamental slogan that defines this movement, which is “Woman, Life, Liberty.” In some ways, this idea is parallel to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I think there is a recognition that life itself really has no ability to thrive under the circumstances in Iran today; that the youth have no sense of their future. I think this sense of futurelessness is a huge motivation. And the second thing you hear is, “We're not leaving this country. We are here to overthrow you.” I think there's a recognition that if every generation keeps going outside of Iran, going into exile, then who's going to remain here to change this system? And I think there's a real devotion to the idea of sticking it out, in order to bring about major change. 

Mounk: One of the strange ironies about Iran over the last half century is that very quickly after 1979, you had the consolidation of power of this deeply theocratic regime. It was trying to use all of the levers of the state to indoctrinate people to be deeply devout, from the elementary and secondary school systems to the university system, to television and public media to, of course, laws like the mandatory hijab. 

And yet, in what I think is a kind of amazing testament to the human striving for liberty, the actual changes in society seem to have, at least in some respects, run counter to those intentions. I believe a majority of students in higher education are young women, rather than men. According to some recent polls, I've seen over 70% of people in Iran disagree with compulsory hijab law. There's been a real secularization in Iranian society, so that only about 30% of Iranians now say that they pray five times a day. Over half of the Iranian population openly say that they want to live in a secular state. 

Tell us a little bit about the nature and the shape of Iran's society today. Help us understand the amazing contrast between a regime that for 50 years has used all of its resources to entrench religion, and a society that has actually secularized to a remarkable extent.

Hakakian: I just want to add one qualification. It's true that the overwhelming majority of students in higher education are women. But that is not happening because of the regime. It's happening despite the regime. Women decided that, since they can't actually enter the job market after they graduate, they should do everything else in order to become the citizens that they're not allowed to become. You'd be surprised how many people often use those very statistics to say, “You misunderstand the regime there. They're doing these things!” 

The regime has all the garb, all the disguises of religious leadership. But I oftentimes refer to them as “Tony Sopranos in turbans and robes.” The Sopranos have taken over Iran. It's really an economic mafia more than anything else. And the way the disguise works is that it makes everybody else, especially the West, think that these are Muslims—“out of respect for their religion, and their tradition, we need to stay out, because we don't understand who they are, what they do.” So, they've managed to keep up a good game, because they look and they dress as they do. 

They do embrace, at least overtly, this mantle of religiosity. But when you peel back the disguise—as fortunately, social media has given people the opportunity to do—you see them going to Europe, for instance, and their wives and daughters are without the hijab. They have failed to live up to the standards that they have set for religiosity, for piety. Social media has revealed this duplicity. 

We should also not discount the fact that when Ayatollah Khomeini gave his first speech, arriving in Tehran in 1979, he was promising equality, he was promising that since they had gotten rid of a bad monarch, who had created all these poor, impoverished classes in the country, he was going to do the reverse; there was going to be economic equality. And people heard all sorts of things, including that the prisons were going to become museums and that sort of thing. What has happened is that now we have a caste of religious oligarchs in Iran, who are there to reap the benefits of being in high positions, while their children and their families live in Canada, North America, and Europe. All of this has deeply undermined the belief that this is the regime that they voted for in 1979. This has generated huge distrust not just in the regime; it has generated disaffection with Islam in general, which explains the proclivities for secularity in Iran today. 

But I think there is a class that remains conservative, that remains observant, that still supports the current movement. And I think that's because they recognize that if there's any hope for Islam to survive, they have to make sure that they get past this regime, which they view as just a bad mark on the faith.

Mounk: Italy is a country that is deeply shaped by Catholicism, but precisely for that reason, it's also a country where I know some of the most outspoken anti-clericalists. Because if you're growing up in a country in which the church holds so much power, your resistance to that power and your disdain for it is going to be even more intense if you reject it. 

Obviously, there's a big difference between the role Catholicism plays in Italy and the role that Islam plays in Iran today. But it seems that something like that has happened in Iran. 50 years ago, even people who perhaps were not that devout or somewhat skeptical of Khomeini had goodwill towards his ideas. And now, after 50 years of theocratic rule, people have become more outspokenly anti-clerical, or have become more resolute in their rejection of any kind of religious influence in society. That's what I'm piecing together from this conversation. But is that a fair way of characterizing the contrast between what Iranian society was like 50 years ago, and what it is like now? How would you characterize that contrast?

Hakakian: There are two key ideas here. One is this: now that we look back in retrospect, the most important difference between the anti-regime segment of society today, and the anti-regime segment of society in 1978 and 1979, is that the previous one was ideologically motivated, and this one isn’t; which, in some ways, speaks to the far more democratic nature of the current movement, as opposed to the previous one. 

The two driving forces of the 1978 and 1979 movement were religious conservatives led primarily by Khomeini on the right, and then a medley of leftist, communist, socialist and Islamic communists on the other side. These two forces were in a constant state of competition—for power, for legitimacy, for recognition. And at some point, the decision came (I think it was an organic and natural process): “let Khomeini overthrow the Shah, and we can sort out who should be in power later.” But the reality is that you had to choose between the right and a very communist left, and there was really nothing much in between. In fact, if there was something in between, it was the women who were, even in 1979, demanding democratic and civil liberties. I think that's what has kept women in the position of leadership in the current movement, because they have this history of demanding their democratic rights.

In February 1979, women took to the streets in major cities, especially in Tehran, saying that they were not going to accept the hijab, the mandatory dress code. And this is two, three weeks after Khomeini returned. He is now either the most beloved or the most feared figure in the country. Even at that moment, it is the women who dare take to the streets, who dare to say, “We didn't participate in a revolution in order to go backwards.” 

The difference now is that there is no left and right. What has brought people together is the desire for the secular, democratic ideals that every democratic revolution in the world has known of, and which, in some ways, the Founding Fathers of the United States best captured in their writings from the late 1770s. Those sentiments are very well captured in the song “Baraye,” which became very famous: “We are out on the streets. We want this movement for our women, our sisters, our mothers, to be free to dress as they wish.” When you look closely, you realize that this time, there is no ideology. It's just the fundamental desire to live what people call a “normal life.” That's why I put so much more faith in this movement than I ever have in any previous movement.

Mounk: Who supports the regime and who opposes it today? What determines whether somebody in Iran today is sympathetic to the opposition, to the protests, or whether they are sympathetic to the regime even at this late stage?

Hakakian: It's very hard to know this accurately, because there is no polling in Iran. There's no access to public opinion. But what’s clear is that even really conservative people, who continue to be practicing Muslims, and who desire to remain so, believe that they don't want to be represented by this regime; that somehow this regime has corrupted the piety and spirituality that Islam represents for them. And I think they recognize that there is a certain degree of corruption, which mars and stains the notion that these are the representatives of God on earth. There have been so many water shortages and other economic issues that, especially in the past five or ten years, some of the people who have taken to the streets have been from the rural areas, the places we had never seen uprisings in. The lack of water, the lack of other fundamental infrastructure, has driven them to the streets. 

So, as far as anti-regime sentiment in Iran is concerned, you just need to look at where these protests have taken place, in order to see that this isn't what we have seen before. For instance, in Khomeyn, which is the birthplace of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, protesters set Khomeini's childhood home on fire. You have to recognize that these were sacred spaces, that people went to them as pilgrims to worship. There have also been protests in the city of Qom, which is basically the Shi’ite capital of the world. These are all seminaries. You don't go to Qom unless you are a committed Muslim who wants to study Shi’ism. There have been protests there. There have been protests in Mashhad, which is another hugely conservative city. 

Another important indicator is that for the past several weeks, people were saying there's no way the bazaars—basically the major marketplaces and businesses of Iran—would join. Well, what do you know? In the past two weeks, the bazaars also joined, and for at least a couple of days, the majority of the shops in all bazaars throughout the country were shut down. And what did the regime do? They took red paint, and whatever business was shut down, they marked. “We're watching you. We're seeing you.” So, just by doing a reconnaissance of the geography of the protests, you can see that this time around, protests are happening in places where they haven’t happened before.

Mounk: Let me shift a little bit to the reaction from around the world. An acquaintance of mine asked me early on during the protests a question which I tried to answer as best I could, but I didn't feel like I could entirely give justice to. The question was: Why don't people seem to care? Why, in the United States and Europe, in so many countries around the world, isn't this amazingly brave and big protest movement attracting as much attention, admiration, and support as it should?

Hakakian: Well, we can get negative and say people are apathetic. But that's not what I want to do. We need to recognize that when we talk about “sanctions,” for example, we're not just talking about something that happened to Iranians inside Iran—we're talking about a firewall that was created in the West. True, in terms of the intellectual engagement on the part of the Western intelligentsia, it appeared that Iran was too distant, too exotic, and too unknown, or too difficult to be explored and known, because, again, of the Shi’ite religious disguise. For many, many years, we have been very daunted at the notion of even broaching Iran as a subject.

I think we have been reluctant to challenge some of the notions that the regime has been peddling. There are Western intellectuals who are still diehard followers of the idea of reform. Another notion is that if you lift the sanctions, Iranians won't be on the streets. That if the US hadn't pulled out of the JCPOA, the protesters wouldn't be on the streets. That so much of what we're seeing is simply an expression of economic difficulties, or the US meddling (or un-meddling) in Iran. These are all opinions that somehow have filtered through to us—partially, I think, by misguided academics, but partially also by the regime itself. 

I think that the regime played a very good game of “good cop, bad cop” on us for over 20 years. We need to realize all the wrong ways that we thought about Iran. If we are going to protect and strengthen democracy in America, we need to care about democracy elsewhere in the world.

Mounk: What should governments in the United States and the European Union do in order to help preserve that hope for freedom in Iran? And what can ordinary people, listeners to this podcast, do to give concrete form to the solidarity that I'm sure they feel?

Hakakian: Well, during the Iran hostage crisis, people in America were really concerned. They were tying yellow ribbons around trees and wearing them on their lapels, just to make sure that everybody remembered the hostages. Well, the protesters today deserve that sort of attention. We need to recognize that the health of democracy in our country depends on the health of democracy in other parts of the world. We have to understand that Iranians are rising up on behalf of democracy for all of us. Therefore, let's hang flags, let's tie a ribbon—but let's make sure that the Iran protests become part of the fabric of our consciousness, in the same way that Ukraine currently is. 

And I do, by the way, see these two events as very much interconnected, and not just morally. Khameini and Vladimir Putin are each other's supporter at the moment. There's a slew of recommendations that various think tanks in this country have made. For example, let's make sure that Iranians have access to the internet. We, as Americans, should provide it to them. People already have possible access to Starlink—but they need the reception stations. That's one huge step. Also, the Supreme Leader isn't on the list of persona non grata, and hasn't been sanctioned yet. Iran is aiding Russia, providing Russia with drones. That really changes the calculation. Iran is participating in an illegitimate war. I think that gives us possibilities for enforcing international law, and applying other pressure on Iran.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.