“We are of Aryaee [Aryan] race, we don’t worship Arabs,” chanted Iranians during protests that erupted over economic woes on December 28, 2017, and continued for weeks countrywide. Such slogans during popular upheavals rocking Iran until today indicate that after four crises-filled decades Iran’s theocratic Islamic Republic is losing support in a nation with a historically-rooted non-Islamic identity.
The Guardian noted the “sharp nature of some of the slogans” among protesters, “which have challenged the foundations of the Islamic republic.” Some demonstrators chanted “Death to Khamenei” or “Death to the dictator” in reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, an inversion of the regime’s well-known “Death to America” chant. The motto “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic” similarly appropriated the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution slogan “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”
Protesters likewise chanted during this period “We don’t want an Islamic republic!” and “Clerics, shame on you, let go of our country!” while one demonstrating Iranian stated that “Islam cannot address our needs.” By contrast, some Iranians chanted “Reza Shah, bless your soul!” in reference to Iran’s secularizing, westernizing Pahlavi dynasty founded in 1925 by Reza Shah, whose son, Muhammad Reza Shah, the 1979 revolution overthrew. Even in Iran’s most religious cities of Qom and Mashhad, rebellious youth shouted “Reza Shah, rest in peace,” “What a mistake we made by taking part in the revolution,” and “Iran haphazard, without the Shah.” Similar public manifestations for “Reza Shah” occurred during April 2018.
Such Iranian demonstrators have rejected the Islamic Republic not just domestically, but also in its foreign policy adventurist support of jihadist terrorist proxies like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. Anger against the burdens of supporting foreign wars appeared in December 2017 protest slogans such as “leave Syria, think about us” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran.” Meanwhile demonstrators vandalized posters of Qasem Soleimani, the global jihad-enabling commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, recently killed in a January 3 American drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq. Later on June 25, 2018, tweets revealed Iranian protesters chanting “Palestine, Syria, are the causes of our miseries.”
The Iranian regime precipitated with subsidized gasoline price increases a new round of national protests on November 15, 2019, during which security forces killed over 1,500 demonstrators. Once again protesters yelled “We don’t want the ayatollahs…Death to the dictator…Oh, Shah of Iran, come back to Iran,” and ripped down anti-American banners and billboards. As national security analyst Ryan Mauro stated in an October 26, 2019 interview, current events show the “Iranian Islamic revolution gasping for air right now” because “Islamist theocrats don’t govern well.”
These various demonstration battle cries validate the analysis of Iran experts at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (IGC). “Today, Persian nationalism espouses an ‘Iran first’ policy, which, since 1979, has been particularly critical of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary foreign policy,” the IGC noted in various 2019 40th-anniversary studies of Iran’s Islamic revolution. “Given the secular nature of Persian nationalism, ordinary Iranians often invoke such sentiments as a means of rejecting the worldview espoused by the clergy, which identifies Iran’s interests as identical to those of the ummah” or “global Muslim community.”
The American Conservative’s Iran analyst John Allen Gay has correspondingly noted that recent Iranian protests exhibit a “dig at the Islamic Republic’s elevation of an Arab-origin religion” and “chauvinist streak in Iranian nationalism.” “Most Iranians consider the current regime as the continuation of 1400 years of Islamo-Arab tyranny and oppression,” a result of seventh-century Arab subjugation, the Iranian-American expatriate Amil Imani has written. His fellow expatriate Sheda Vasseghi has concurred that “Iranians have struggled for 14 centuries not to be part of the homogenous Islamic/Arab world.”
Iranian expatriate author Amir Taheri has accordingly condemned in The Persian Night the legacy of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The “overwhelming majority of Iranian writers, poets, and other ‘producers of culture’ reject Khomeinism as a form of anti-Iranian fascism,” Taheri wrote. Vasseghi also perceived the “ancient struggle between Iranianism and Islamism (Arab culture and philosophy)” in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests, a “national uprising of Iranian people versus an Arabized regime.”
Echoing isolationist Iranian protesters, Amani has particularly focused on Iran’s conflict costs. The Islamic Republic has supported
almost every rebel or terrorist group in every Islamic country from East Asia, the Middle East to North Africa, including the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis in Yemen and even Al-Qaida, at various times….With this damaging behavior directed towards Iran’s national interests, the Islamic Republic won the antipathy of the world community. A proud nation which once was the icon of goodness, friendship and humanism, had now become the symbol of evil, terrorism, homicide, deception and corruption.
Unsurprisingly, Amani has judged regime change as the “only option” in confronting the Islamic Republic. “There is absolutely no coexistence with this anti-Iranian regime,” he has observed with unimpeachable logic. “Islamic tyranny, regardless of its form, recognizes no borders” and “is by nature aggressively expansive and invasive.”
Recent Iranian developments suggest confirmation of Amani’s optimistic 2018 assessment that the “rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is crumbling.” “Nowadays, masses of Iranians are irreparably alienated from a corrupt and oppressive Islamic rule,” what he has denounced as the “1979 Islamic invasion.” Thus “current conditions governing Iran will not last very long. The general discontent and the extent of civil movements coupled with external influences have created a condition which can only be triggered by an explosion” as yet unforeseen. “The Iranian people simply don’t want the mullahs,” but rather consider President Donald Trump “extremely popular,” even a “savior,” he has concluded; Iranians “want regime change and they are ready to die for it.”
Centuries-old struggles between Islam and indigenous Iranian culture are once making their presence felt in the 21st century. How power balances among these factors play out in contemporary, conflicted Iran is a critical concern. Forthcoming articles in this series therefore will examine the history of Iranian nationalism’s interactions with the universal claims of the Arab Muslim prophet Muhammad.
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