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The Iran Revolution: The Fight for Democracy

Sunset over ancient city of Yazd, Iran
Written by OIAC

Aug 30, 2017

The Iranian Revolution was a struggle over who would have the central power in Iran: a democratic institution of government, or the country’s religious leaders. It was in response to previous violence, power grabbing, and repression of the voices of the people, and was also an earnest attempt to step away from the country’s violent political power plays for a peaceful Iran democracy. At least, while an oversimplification of the conflict, this is a summary of the powers that were at play.

Let’s take a closer look at how Islam and democracy came to be in such conflict in Iran’s leadership, and how that’s continued to have an impact on the Iranian community.

A Hopeful Beginning

The Iranian Revolution was performed with the intention getting rid of oppressive regimes and instating a government truly by and for the people. Two important figures in the early time of the Iranian Revolution were Ayatollah Khomeini and eventual first president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Bani-Sadr’s pro-democracy slogans teamed up with the religious authority that Khomeini had as an ayatollah to garner respect and authority among the ordinary Iranian people.

An ayatollah is a title of religious leadership for Shiite Muslims, a religious majority of Iran. Therefore, an ayatollah is an influential figure with the public. While America in a sense views it’s political and moral leadership through one leader, the president, that role during the Iranian Revolution was split between Bani-Sadr as the elected president, and Khomeini as a moral representative of extremist Islam.

In the fledgling stages of the Iranian revolution, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Khomeini were very much a team. Khomeini stated that the belief system of Islam was compatible with democracy, a system in which he stated that “the criterion in Islam is the people’s vote.” The first constitution was drafted in 1979, and this document reflected a guarantee of democratic freedoms, greater gender equality, and a system that put the common people’s voice into the position of power. Then things changed.

Khomeini’s True Face

In the context of the post-revolutionary developments, June 20, 1981 was a historic showdown. The main Iranian opposition (MEK) secretly organized a peaceful demonstration that caught the regime completely off guard. Throngs began to march from different parts of Tehran, and converged on Enghelab (Revolution) Street. The crowd was half-a-million strong when it reached Ferdowsi Square in the center of Tehran. They continued to march toward the Majlis (Parliament), and if allowed to continue, the crowd would have swelled to one million and Khomeini would have lost control. So, he personally ordered the Revolutionary Guards to open fire. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested.

In this way, Khomeini closed the final chapter on peaceful activities, unleashing a bloody reign of terror, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered and tens of thousands more imprisoned and tortured.

The Power Play That Shaped Iranian Conflict

How then did Iran’s burgeoning democracy take such a violent, undemocratic turn from this earnest fledgling democracy? As the fresh democratic system began to take shape, it was clear that post-revolution Iran was going to diminish the power of religious leaders in Iran in order to stick to its word, and deliver the power of politics into the voice and vote of the people. Khomeini felt the threat of his power being diminished. Pair this with a volatile environment, where citizens were reeling from fears of an unstable government post-revolution violence.

Bani-Sadr called for a vote by the people: Did they want a more democratic form of government after all, or a form of theocracy with the religious leaders having greater authority? The people at the time were largely against theocracy, and Bani-Sadr looked set to win. Before the people could officially vote on the referendum, which looked set to establish a solid foundation for democratic government in Iran, Khomeini gave his blessing to a coup on behalf of the Shiite clergy in Iran. This coup then removed Bani-Sadr from power, and has had destabilizing ripple effects in Iran’s government ever since.

Khomeini’s actions during the Iranian Revolution betrayed the original purpose of the Revolution, which was to establish a democracy in which the voices of the people were heard by, and really shaped, their government. In order to fully consolidate his regime’s undemocratic rule and his own position as the “Supreme Leader” in the months after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini gradually eliminated all semblances of peaceful political activity, ordering his extremist and fundamentalist followers (known as “hezbollahis”) to attack and disrupt rallies by opposition groups, ranging from liberals to leftists. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned between 1979 and 1981.

Khomeini’s blessing of violence in the name of Islam has further encouraged the growth of extremism, which is a whole other offshoot effect of his power play that’s negatively impacted the entire region.

But, Khomeini clearly rejected any ideas calling for democracy and freedoms. “If instead of him,” Khomeini once said referring to the deposed Shah, “a regime were to be established like those in Europe or France, which have no relation to Islam, a free government which is also independent and guarantees freedoms, we have never wanted and will never condone such a thing because its freedoms are not in tune with Islam.”

The Struggles to Move Forward

There is a burgeoning middle class in Iran that is larger and more educated than those that have come before. This middle class, if genuinely given the political voice, has the power to impact and change the manipulative influence the mullahs have on their democracy. They also have the numbers to support their own modern revolution—though there is most certainly a fear of history repeating itself. However, this time around, most of the Iranians see the religious extremists that have been fueled by choices—and even funding—from individuals like Khomeini, as -illegitimate. The potential for change in Iran is there. Any change in Iran is only possible when the democratic opposition is given voice and political and moral support. Limiting options on Iran to either war (Bush area) or appeasement (Obama policy), and ignoring the will of the Iranians for a secular, democratic, non-nuclear republic Iran may cause greater instability in the Iranian people about where to place their trust and who’s really going to serve the interests of Iran’s wellbeing and its potential for true democracy.

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