Newsletter #46: Iran’s Revolutionary Past, with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour

by William Harris

The protests that first erupted across Iran in-mid September have so far received little coverage in US media. Images and stories have circulated on social media; many people in the US have been foggily aware of them, but there has been an absence, as usual in international affairs, of deep contextualization. The Dig’s longest series yet is an attempt to fill some of this absence. This week’s episode is the first of four lengthy interviews with historians Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour charting — with zealous, Perry Andersonian ambition — the entirety of modern Iranian history. The implication is that we can’t understand today’s movement without a nuanced, materialist account of Iranian history that goes beyond the US mainstream media’s facile, demonizing cartoons of the country and its antagonism to America.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

How does this first episode in the series, focusing on the period from 1906-1941, attune us to the situation today? Among other things, it gives us a sense of a usable past, tracing back to the early twentieth-century Constitutional Revolution that today’s Iranian Left still draws on. In some nations, as the late Mike Davis argued about the US, the Left’s political imagination has been deformed by the historical nightmare of defeat after defeat, leaving an intergenerational legacy of fragmentation and disorganization with little usable history to look back to. You could argue, for instance, that this characterizes Turkey, Iran’s neighbor and frequent point of comparison in this episode, whose Left was born without any real revolutionary history to understand itself through. The Turkish left stands pincered, instead, between Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s liberal authoritarian nationalism and the never-vanquished memory of imperial Ottoman conservatism.

Iranian history offers similar specters: the authoritarian, Westernizing legacy of Reza Shah — which included the mandatory unveiling of women — and the imperial fantasies of reviving Persian splendor. But it also offers something else. As Sadeghi and Nikpour explain, the Constitutional Revolution that launched modern Iran grew out of a wealth of competing influences, from rule of law–fetishizing intellectuals to British-backed, Mussolini-emulating strongmen. Prominent among these influences, however, and still resonant in the popular imagination, was a trans-national coalition of social-democratic forces pushing to enshrine socialist demands in the constitution, from an eight-hour workday to universal suffrage.

These social-democratic revolutionary currents never attained a firm grasp on power in the new modern state. But they endowed the Iranian Left with a foundational history, a revolutionary memory to enliven today’s movement, tuned to both feminist demands — “woman, life, freedom,” as the movement’s slogan has it — and to social-democratic calls for economic justice.

Further Reading There have been some important exceptions to the broader media neglect of the protests. At Jacobin, a long interview with the Iranian leftist Parandeh gives key context to the movement’s early development. And in the London Review of Books, Azadeh Moaveni’s on-the-ground reportage both frames the movement through its everyday participants and overviews the geopolitical forces, most notably the Saudis and the US, waiting in the wings to exploit destabilization for their own ends.