“Yearning for a Regular Life”: The Failure of Reform in the Islamic Republic

By Natasha Parnian

On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was killed in custody after being arrested by the Gashte Ershad (Guidance Patrol) for wearing an “improper hejab”. What began as protests in reaction to her death have turned into widespread civil disobedience against oppression and autocracy. Today, protesters are not calling only for reform. The radically assertive chant “Death to the Dictator” is echoed in Iran’s streets, university campuses, and high schools.

These protests, sustained for over nine weeks now, challenge the fabric of the revolutionary ideals envisioned following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A long-term power struggle has plagued the Iranian political system since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Questions regarding the nature of an Islamic republic and the role of the Supreme Leader have stayed unresolved since the creation of the Islamic Republic, forming the basis for reform movements.

The current uprising embodies the growing dissent to the ideals of the revolution and the inability of the state to respond to their citizens’ requests. The establishment of the revolutionary state, with constructed values in opposition to the United States, or the “Great Satan” and Western imperialism[1], remains the stage on which the nation is debated. The Islamic Republic has yet to conceive or respond to demands for increased rights and democracy without deeming these large-scale reforms as threatening their existence. The uprisings illustrate the extensive disagreement over the ideals of the revolution and those who enforce them. The movements beg the question: is reform possible within the Islamic Republic? 

Velayat-e Faqih (The Guardianship of the Jurists)

Any question about reforming the Islamic Republic begins with understanding the most critical document of Iranian society: the Velayat-e Faqih. Envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s, this document forms the basis of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It calls for a Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist) to serve as the Supreme Leader. The Velayat-e Faqih outlines the basis for Islamic governance, claiming that legislation is not enough to guarantee a true Islamic republic and legitimises the need for a supreme leader that is “an appointment of a successor after the Prophet to implement and uphold the laws.”[2]  

The Velayat-e Faqih was not without controversy. During the early revolution, important figures such as Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari opposed the Velayat-e Faqih because it disrupted the natural order of waiting for the Mahdi, a term for the final messianic figure who will appear at the end of time, which is central to Shia belief.[3]  Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was instrumental to the revolution, initially supported the Velayat-e Faqih but urged the Supreme Leader to be subject to popular election.[4] Others, including the then Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, feared that the idea of Velayat-e Faqih disregarded the values of popular sovereignty and Islamic democracy.[5] Critics such as Ayatollah Montazeri were later placed under house arrest but remained influential to the reformist movements.[6] Although opposing the current interpretation of the Velayat-e Faqih, protesters in 1999 and 2009 were not asking for its removal.[7] Instead, they demanded new interpretations to allow for increased civil rights within the parameters of an Islamic republic.

Reforming the Islamic Republic

The earlier reform movements reflected the post-Khomeini revolutionary power struggle to define, structure, and control the Islamic Republic. The powers entrusted to the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council are a contentious area where reform has failed. Reformists have criticised the regime of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, as resembling a clerical monarchy or a ‘sultanate‘–a most insulting criticism as it compares the Islamic Republic to the monarchy they overthrew.[8]

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Government has several  elected institutions, including a president and parliament, or majles, but their power is severely restricted by the Guardian Council and the Supreme leader. The Guardian Council is made up of six Faqihs (Jurists) directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six other non-clerical officials responsible to assess the conformity of the laws passed by the Parliament to Islamic standards. It has the power to veto all legislation and approves candidacy for elections. Other powers of the Supreme Leader include the command of the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the power to dismiss the president and to appoint the country’s chief justice, lower court judges, and guardian council members.[9]

The role of the IRGC differs from the military because it is primarily ideological. Thus, it is closely associated with the Supreme Leader and clerical establishment. From at least 2009, the political power of the IRGC has grown considerably. For example, the appointment of Rostam Qasemi in 2011, a former IRGC officer, as the Oil Minister was perceived by reformists as a sign of the growing involvement of the IRGC in politics, especially controversial as the legality of this is still debated.[10] From Ahmadinejads’ era in 2005, nearly half of his cabinet consisted of IRGC veterans as well as one third of the 30 provincial governors.[11] The Majlis (parliament) speaker was an IRGC brigadier.

From 2009, the clerical establishment has lost its power to the military security guards, from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad and other hardliner advisors emerged.[12] Created in May 1979, the IRGC is part of the Iranian armed forces, but differs in having the primary role to protect and promote the country’s Islamic political system. The IRGC protects the Republic’s survival through mobilisation and monitoring of the paramilitary resistance force Basij. Both these factions promote the ideology of the Islamic Republic by protecting the institutions and countering anything deemed ‘threatening’ to the law and order of the regime.[13] For example, the Basij were heavily involved in cracking down against protestors of the Green Movement in 2009 and protests in 1999. Given the approval by Khamanei, the Basij militia violently attacked and broke up university protests on June 14 at the University of Tehran and continued with beating, intimidation, and arrests of peaceful protestors.[14] The same scenes can be seen in 2022: hundreds of Basij men attack, arrest, and imprison demonstrators in the streets and university campuses across the state.

“Take off the uniforms of the American army”

  • Recent warning by Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC to the Iranian public.

Responsible for maintaining internal security, the IRGC and Basij milia exert considerable political power. As members of a volunteer organisation, the Basij volunteers and their families are the Revolutionary Guards’ popular base in society.[15] During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, they were influential in mobilising the urban poor vote, which was rewarded through subsidies, favours, bribes, and commissions.[16] However, like the hardliner constituency today, Ahmadinejad’s constituency is not simply tied to an urban or rural class. Instead, it is connected to a “regime class,” an ideological community comprised of poor and affluent members of Iranian society who share in the government’s proceeds and are encouraged to support a hardliner government.[17] Other benefits include exemption from military service, which is compulsory for Iranian men, and easier access to universities and government roles. In theory, the Basij are banned from involvement in politics by the Iranian Constitution, but former guardsmen assume public office regularly.[18] In effect, such economic and political power places the Revolutionary Guards at the forefront of political power in Iran. They fall within the ‘leadership troika’ where power is shared between the Supreme Leader, the IRGC and the neoconservative faction, or the “osul garayan” who are devoted to the Velayate-Faqih, the original ideas of the revolution, adhere to strict definitions of Shia Islam and are opposed to the international status-quo.[19] The Basij and IRGC are committed to the core principles of the Islamic Revolution. Thus, they oppose any new interpretation of Islam, especially any opposition to the Velayat-e Faqih as interpreted by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei. It is this relationship that prohibits any real reform.

The Supreme Leader’s response to the uprising indicates the unresolved legacy of the revolution. In his first public statement, Khamenei called the unrest “schemes designed by the US and the fake Zionist regime and treasonous Iranians abroad.” This is the same rhetoric used in 1979, which positions any criticism of the state as synonymous with western immorality and interference.[20] This rhetoric silences any opportunity for internal reform, such as the movements of 1999 and 2005 under Mohammad Khatami and the 2009 Green Movement under Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.  

Women, Life, Freedom.

The current uprising must be placed within a long history of reform to the tenets of the ideology of the Islamic Republic. One month after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, women protested the imposition of the hijab and regressive laws that determined women’s social and familial roles and legal and civil rights. Whilst they could postpone this mandate for a few years, the hijab was imposed in 1983 based on the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of Islamic governance. Under the rubric of “rescuing women from the superficiality of Pahlavi pseudo-modernity,” women’s bodies became symbols of anti-modernity and secularisation-ideologies the revolution fought against.[21] State media cautioned the public that hijab was a religious duty upon which the foundation of the Islamic Revolution was based.[22] In the early revolutionary period, the Gashte Sar-Allah (Patrol of Gods Vengeance) terrorised women in the capital cities, detailing a litany of moral transgressions, including the length and colour of fingernails, showing off natural female contours and the use of cosmetics as offences to the state and Islam. Consequently, this enforcement furthered the class warfare of the revolutionary period by exploiting poorer people with religious proclivities to inspect and correct the “vices” of the “secularised” middle class. Today, the Gashte-Ershad exercise similar power in victimising women as symbols of moral deterioration and opponents of Islamic values.

Obsession with the female body as a marker of revolutionary success is precisely why the state has not responded to the repeated calls to remove the Gashte-Ershad. Applications such as requiring women  to sign a form declaring that they will not commit the “bad hejab” offence again and forced to take part in police-oriented guidance to learn how to observe “Islamic values” is evidence of the strict connection between the values of the state and the bodies of women. There is no specific legal definition of what “bad hejab” constitutes, which enables the Gashte-Ershad to enforce Islamic morality how they choose. Article 146 of the Constitution binds the Judge to adjudicate each case based on the written law. In case of the absence of any such law, he is to deliver his judgement based on “authoritative Islamic sources.” Without proper guidance, police can enforce their interpretations of “bad hejab” and charge them as moharab, “enemies of the state.”

Today’s protestors and the response by the state are entrenched in the legacy of the 1979 revolution. Iranians are challenging the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader, rooted in the Constitution and the repressive political and social laws dictating every arena of Iranian life. They want to change the very fabric of the Islamic Republic until, in the words of Shervin Hajipour,  they can achieve their yearning “for  an ordinary life.”

Natasha Parnian is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History and Archaeology, Macquarie University focusing on the reception of Persia as a concept. Her research examines the overlap between the ancient past and nationalism, particularly how Iranians have reimagined themselves as a nation post the revolution of 1979.

Bibliography

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Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017.

Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from birth to ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed Manoochehr Moosavi, 165-167.

Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010): 39-55.

Forouzan, H and Shahi, A “The Military and the State in Iran” Middle East Journal 71.1 (2017): 67-86.

Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010.

Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001): 341-359.

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Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam. “Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC”. Strategic Analysis, 36:4 (2012): 584-496.                                                                 

Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 543-558.

Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


[1] This a derogatory epithet for the United States, originally used by Khomeini in May 1979.  It became a commonly used epithet for Iran’s foreign policy concerns. The term  “Iblis” (the devil) was also used to address the US. These terms were regularly used  during the US hostage crisis, largely in support of the students’ takeover. Finally, the “Lesser Satan” was used to describe the Soviet Union and communism. These were common epithets Khomeini used to communicate his views on Iran’s foreign policy and domestic  values.

[2] Khomeini, A. R,. Islamic government: Governance of the jurist: Velayat-E Faqih. Transl. Algar, H. The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 2005.

[3]Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30.1 (2010):42.

[4] Kurzman, Charles. “Critics Within: Islamic Scholars’ Protests against the Islamic State in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15.2 (2001):346.

[5] Milani, Mohsen M. “The Evolution of the Iranian Presidency: From Bani Sadr to Rafsanjani.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 86.

[6]Kurzman, Charles. “Cultural Ju-Jitsu and the Iranian Greens” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010:6.

[7] Fazili, Yousra Y. “Between Mullahs’ Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran.” SAIS Review 30. 1 (2010): 50.

[8]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:70.

[9] Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:91.

[10] For a brief overview of this debate see: Rizvi, Mahtab-Alam 2012:588-589. See also this debate from as early as Khomeini’s time regarding the political influence of the IRGC in Ansari, Hamid, ‘Narrative of Awakening: A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal, Scientific and Political Biography from Birth to Ascension’ in Institute for Compilation and Publication of Works of Imam Khomeini, International Affairs Division, transl. 1994: Seyed MAnoochehr Moosavi 165-167. The unresolved nature of the question about the IRGC’s involvement of politics and the economy is the root of modern discussions of their role, see for instance:

Aftab news: “Officials Should Prevent the Politicisation of the Basij” Dec 2007, http://www.aftabnews.ir/vdcamyn49un0i.html

[11] Rizvi 590, Forozan and Shahi 2017: 67-86 for an overview of the increasing presence of the IRGC in Iran’s political economy and business and economic activities during Rouhani’s presidency.

[12] Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:227.

[13] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” Middle East Journal 64.4 (2010): 548.

[14]Arjomand, Said A. After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:170.

[15] Safshekan, Roozbeh, and Farzan Sabet. “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis.” 64.4, 2010: 551.

[16] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51

[17] Bayat, Asef, “A Wave for Life and Liberty: The Green Movement and Iran’s Incomplete Revolution” in Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010: 51.

[18]Takeyh, Ray. Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009:224.

[19] Hashemi, Nader, and Danny Postel. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Pub, 2010. Pg xvii

The current President, Ebrahim Raisi belongs to the neoconservative faction as did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and previous candidates Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani amongst others.

[20] For an overview of Khomeini’s political philosophy and consolidation of power, see Amanat 2017: 743-751.

[21] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern history. Yale University Press, 2017: 88. For further discussion on the role of women in postrevolutionary Iran, see: Afary, J. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 and Moallem, M. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

[22] Amanat, A. Iran: A Modern History. Yale University Press, 2017:883.