35 years on: Marking the Iranian Revolution

Hassan Rouhani seeks to build on successes of Islamic Republic

Rouhani has shifted the focus of Iran's policies

When Iranian students first seized the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979, Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi went to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for guidance and was told to “go and kick them out.” But when he had returned to Tehran from the Ayatollah’s residence in Qom, he heard on the radio that Khomeini had dubbed the embassy the “American spy den” and proclaimed a “second revolution.”

Whether diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were still salvageable quickly became a moot point. Khomeini’s aim was likely to remove moderates, including Yazdi and Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, from government and introduce velayat-e faqih, his notion of clerical rule. Events sped on, with President Jimmy Carter’s botched rescue mission in April 1980 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion that September.

Tehran’s annual commemorations of the revolution tend to be a test of the mood in the Islamic Republic. And the 35th anniversary, marked on February 11, saw ‘principle-ists’, or fundamentalists, still chanting ‘Death to America’ and denouncing imperialism.

Exiled Iranians, many once supporters of the Shah, quickly asserted that this was the real face of the revolution. For them, Iran was deflected by clerics in 1979 from a path of modernization or even secularism.  The more extreme in their midst portray Islam as an Arab implant; they argue Iran is in long-term economic stagnation and advocate ‘regime change’ to restore a mythical pre-Islamic pluralism.

The reformist current within Iran has worked since Mohammad Khatami’s presidency to make ‘the system’ more inclusive. They argue that the track record of the Islamic Republic is poor, attacking curbs on political freedom and arbitrary acts of ‘justice,’ while acknowledging that, as under the Shah, Iran relies too greatly on oil revenues and tends to misspend them.

Yet they accept that in many respects, life for Iranians has improved since the revolution, especially with greater access to electricity and health care. The UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), measuring access to knowledge and standard of living, finds that between 1980 and 2012, Iran’s HDI increased by 67 percent, roughly double the global average.

Life expectancy at birth rose from 51 to 73. Expected years at school went up from 9 to 14.  By 2012, for every 100,000 live births, 21 women died from pregnancy-related causes compared to 47 in countries with a similar HDI ranking.

President Hassan Rouhani, elected last June on a platform of ‘moderation’, wants to protect such gains while curbing the revolution’s ideological excesses. Speaking to this year’s anniversary rally, Rouhani attacked sanctions as “brutal, illegal and wrong,” and criticized President Obama’s assertion that all options remained “on the table” in dealing with Iran. But Rouhani’s overall message was conciliatory and reflected his wish to improve the economy through diplomatic progress; he stressed the situation was “calmer,” with “more stability in the economy, socially and politically.”

The commemorations did reflect a changed political atmosphere since Rouhani’s election. Most reformists urged supporters to attend, ending a policy of staying away that goes back to the suppression of the Green Movement protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Some leading reformist figures turned out, including Hadi Khamenei, younger brother of the rahbar (‘leader’) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Mohammad Reza Aref, the first vice president under President Mohammad Khatami.

The welcome was not warm from everyone. Some principle-ists used the celebrations to demand trials or even hanging of ‘seditionists’, meaning the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who remain under house arrest.

The relationship between the reformists and the system remains a test of the Islamic Republic’s inclusivity. Rouhani’s first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri recently said that reformists are “not going to go away”, and that they need to “define their relationship” with the rahbar.

The bulk of the reformists are behind Rouhani, partly in the hope that he will release Mousavi and Karroubi. But the minimum quid pro quo for their freedom may be that they apologize, as the prosecutor-general Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i suggested early last month.  And as a price for readmission to the fold, both Musavi and Karrubi may feel that such an act of repentance is too high.

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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