This post is the second in a series entitled: “The Mahsa Revolution: A Political Philosophy and Futures Studies Perspective”
The goal of this series is to offer readers reflections on the on-going grassroots, women-led revolutionary movement in Iran, to be continued until its completion or the mutual exhaustion of readers and author. I will analyze, for non-Persian speakers, debates and initiatives regarding the future of Iran from a philosophical and futures studies perspective. Every revolutionary moment unlocks the space of the politically and socially conceivable and enables the hopeless to exercise their rusted capacity for imagining better futures. It also reveals normative disagreements on desirable futures, inclusion and exclusion from those futures, and strategies suitable for realizing them. Although I am not an Iranologist, my hope is to give readers a candid glimpse of the burgeoning forward-looking democratic life of Iranians in Iran and the diaspora.
While hundreds of Iranian schoolgirls are hospitalized because a mysterious group (probably agents of the Islamic Republic or radicals protected by it) commits chemical attacks on their schools to terrorize them and punish them for protesting the mandatory veil and dictatorship, the diaspora quarrels over the form of Iran’s future regime. During the last few weeks, more and more incidents (in demonstrations and online) oppose monarchists to republicans, with verbal abuse and occasional skirmishes. How can we make sense of such a worrisome trend when support for the Mahsa revolution is vital and maintaining the recently gained unity among opponents in the diaspora indispensable if we want to convince the world that we represent a credible and tolerant alternative to Islamists?
Trapped in time capsules
Many members of the diaspora who left Iran after the 1979 revolution have been living in micro-communities trapped in time capsules. They remind me of the Norwegian TV series The Beforeigners, in which “temporal foreigners” from the Viking period suddenly appear in present-day Oslo and resume fights between pagans and Christians. Likewise, these Iranians keep repeating what they (or their parents) said around the time of the revolution: monarchists defend the former Shah (who died in 1980) as a civilized modernizer ahead of his time and ignore, downplay or proudly justify the brutalities of his regime; republicans never lose an opportunity to stress that the former Shah was a dictator who suppressed political liberties, executed or tortured opponents, and was responsible for the revolution because of his rigidity and unfair policies. The monarchist/republican dichotomy does not perfectly map onto the right/left dichotomy, although the vast majority of monarchists are right-wing (some have authoritarian tendencies), and most republicans are left leaning, including some 1970s style leftists who have not updated their political agenda and hold sectarian worldviews.
More of a Royalist than the King
There is something deeply puzzling about this situation given that the heir to the throne, Reza Pahlavi, declares (since 2021, I believe) that he prefers a republic to a monarchy, but that if Iranians were to insist on having a monarchy, he would favor a constitutional elective monarchy with parliamentary democracy (though the precise role of the king is unclear). He said in a 2009 book-length interview that his father was an “autocrat” (p.35) and acknowledged and condemned the use of torture (p. 58) and the death penalty. He repeats that his joint efforts with other opposition figures in creating a coordination committee among proponents of a secular democracy are independent from Iran’s future regime type, which will be decided through a referendum once the Islamic Republic has been toppled. When monarchists disrupt speakers who refer to him as “Mr. Pahlavi”, rather than “Prince Pahlavi” or even “King Reza Pahlavi,” they disregard what their sovereign says repeatedly. Why? They may have a substantial and strategic disagreement with him. They are perhaps in a state of cognitive dissonance and suppress what does not fit their deep beliefs and values. They may suspect him of being insincere in his expressed preference for a republic. Or perhaps they simply want to gain an early political advantage. No matter the explanation(s), they contribute to an atmosphere of distrust, which is exactly what the Islamic Republic wants to maintain—a divided, ineffective opposition. They are literally “plus royalistes que le roi,” as the French say.
More of a republican than Robespierre
If we turn to leftists (not the left in general), here too certain attitudes undermine trust but for different reasons: a cultural distaste for compromises, a tendency to overvalue radicality, a concern that what was a leaderless revolution will be led from outside by a single person with no legitimacy, and a fear that wealthy monarchists will use their financial resources to sway voters and restore an autocratic regime. They want to exert preemptive pressure so that issues they care about and the interests of the worst-off are not left out and the revolution betrayed once again, like in 1979. That’s why instead of supporting efforts for the creation of a coordination committee or a coalition with strong and public guarantees that no political group will be able to use the common platform to have the upper hand, they write petitions over petitions requesting a republic, radical democracy, and a particular economic system as a matter of non-negotiable principle, rather than a political agenda they will (legitimately) defend once the Mahsa revolution has succeeded and there is a functional state with free elections.
Getting one’s priorities right
Distrust is infectious and sectarian behavior leads to escalation. All this is reinforced by the probable presence of agents of the Islamic regime within both groups to radicalize and divide them further. Instead of ruminating on the past, we should work on building trust, create a concrete transition plan, and focus on what people in Iran care about: terrorist attacks on schoolgirls, galloping inflation reducing them to misery, and the Islamic Republic’s preparations for a renewed wave of repression in anticipation of protests in the Spring, after the Persian New Year.