Rowena Abdul Razak
Last updated: 9 January, 2013

Iran’s century of protest

"When speaking to Iranians in a Tehran café or in a foreign university campus, it is not difficult to feel their exhaustion."

In March 2009, our television screens (and, in most cases, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds) were filled with images of young, angry, brave Iranians taking to the streets, protesting against re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Presidency, over the popular Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Many of us were surprised, at often times inspired, by the fervour in which these Iranians took to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction. If anything, the 2009 demonstrations reminded us of the Iranians’ ability to stand up for what they believed in. But its aftermath, also reminded us that in most instances where this occurred, it was almost always followed by severe suppression and a (temporary) breakdown in Iranian optimism and energy.

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This is not a historians’ fancy of listing events. Rather, it is an account of the last 120 years of Iranian history, focusing on major protests and public demonstrations, which serve as milestones in understanding the Iranian psyche. They help us understand their spirit and bravery, their strong sense of national identity, their voice, their ideals, and significantly for our time, their politics. This period can be divided into four phases: the first that lasted from the end of the 19thcentury until Reza Shah; the second being the demonstrations in the lead up to the 1953 coup; the third phase, which toppled the Pahlavi Dynasty; and finally, the 2009 protests.

Unlike the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, Iran throughout the 19th century lagged behind much military, educational, economic and social advancement. The Qajar Dynasty ruled the country as an extension of their household, spending money on foreign travel, building palaces, and maintaining a large ménage of offspring.

The granting of a concession to a British firm to produce, sell and export Iranian tobacco marks the start of the first phase of Iranian public dissent. Led by local tobacco merchants and religious figures, a nationwide ban on tobacco was staged. Public demonstrations were also held, which all contributed to the concession’s cancellation. For the first time, Iranians stood up united in a common cause.

The assassination of the Qajar monarch at the time, Naser al-Din Shah marks the peak of this new fervour. The removal of such a strong figurehead plunged the country into chaos and weak leadership. This in turn encouraged Iranians to take charge of the course of their nation’s politics. Their political activism founded new ground at the start of the 20thcentury with the Constitutional Revolution, which lasted from 1905 to 1911. This period saw Iranian intellectuals, merchants, and religious figures participating in demonstrations, debates and violent confrontations to establish a parliament and design the country’s first constitution. However, the Qajar military quite successfully repressed these.

This first phase firmly ended with the coup that removed the Qajars. In its stead, Reza Khan established the Pahlavi Dynasty. His reign saw severe repression and crackdown on intellectualism, socialism, and public political activism.

Like a play button, the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran, from 1941 to 1946, and Reza Khan’s forced abdication restarted the Iranian people’s political voice. Public debates and intellectual publications became widespread. When Muhammad Reza Shah was able to establish his authority in the late 1940s through repression, Iranians began to react and air their dissatisfaction. This second cycle of Iran’s century of protest saw an assassination attempt on the shah’s life and public demonstrations in favour of Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq, as well as the nationalisation of Iranian oil.

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The pattern of successful but temporary repression following demonstrations becomes more established during this period. Ultimately and as expected, the shah responded violently, staged a coup to remove Mussadiq and repressed all opposition in the following years, aided by the internal security organisation, SAVAK. The Iranian people were temporarily silenced.

However, under the surface, Iranians began to regain strength and fervour. Repression increased, in tandem with the Pahlavi dynasty’s growing insecurity. People grew restless, jaded by the shah’s unbalanced attempts at reform. The third phase began when people took to the streets, voicing anti-shah slogans. In this cycle, the demonstrations were more organised, potent and successful. From abroad, the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini drew the opposing factions together in a temporary alliance. His recorded tapes flooded Iran’s ears and egged them further to protest and demonstrations were held in many of the country’s major cities. Despite the shah’s attempts to calm the crowds by appointing new prime ministers, he left the country, never to return, on 16 January 1979.

However, like the previous two cycles, this moment of triumph by the Iranian crowd was quickly followed by a period of repression. This time, it was led by the newly established Islamic regime, which probably was well aware of the potential of Iranian protests. They suppressed any opposition, from whichever sector (whether socialist or Islamist) of society. With the Iran-Iraq war, Iranians were further distracted, exhausted and too weak to voice any dissatisfaction towards the repression of the Islamic government.

Until 2009. This finally, brings us to the most recent phase and cycle of Iran’s century of protest. True to the pattern that has already been established, the demonstrations and protests were successfully suppressed through brutal methods. The last 120 years is a showcase of popular Iranian political will – and their resilience despite political repression by authoritative governments. However, it is also a showcase of the ability of the Iranian ruling class to establish, and in some cases re-establish themselves, in the face of strong opposition. So today, when speaking to Iranians in a Tehran café or in a foreign university campus, it is not difficult to feel their exhaustion. But under the collective fatigue, is a nation of people who cannot stay still and suppressed for very long.

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