Iran Reframed
Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic
Narges Bajoghli

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Introduction

“THIS YOUNGEST GENERATION in our country doesn’t understand our revolutionary language anymore,” Reza Hosseini told his colleagues.1 “We’re wasting our time with the media we make.”

At forty-five, Mr. Hosseini had retired from active duty in Iran’s preeminent military organization, the Revolutionary Guard, and now worked as a writer, director, and producer of pro-regime content. In front of him sat seven high-level officials of the Revolutionary Guard who oversee media production in the country. They met on a regular basis in a plain conference room of a regime publishing house in central Tehran. A long oval table was surrounded with office chairs covered in their original protective plastic, which had blackened from use over the years. Although the room was tucked away from the pollution and heavy traffic outside, the incessant honking of horns was still audible. A powerful air purifier made little difference, because the sharp smell of exhaust seeped into the room. The tea service on the table was growing cold, and sweets, like the tea, were left untouched. The men—still in their black and grey winter coats despite the blast of heat from the heater—sat silently, each staring off into space.

It had been just over three years since the 2009 Green Movement uprising—the biggest mass demonstrations in Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Since 2009, the Islamic Republic’s cultural producers had held numerous meetings in which they contemplated what had inspired so many young Iranians to come out onto the streets and protest the government. The demonstrators decried perceived voter fraud during the presidential elections in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the victor just hours after the polls had closed.2 Protestors believed that Ahmadinejad’s Interior Ministry, with possible tacit support from the Supreme Leader’s Office, had committed voter fraud to ensure that the highly popular reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would not win. What began with “Where is my vote?” turned into shouts of “Down with the dictator!” The slogans of the 2009 protests were eerily similar to—indeed many were facsimiles of—the slogans the men in the Revolutionary Guard remember shouting as young men against the Shah in 1979. How could young people on the streets in 2009 be mimicking their revolutionary slogans, but using them this time against their own revolution?

Mr. Hosseini broke the silence, as usual. “These kids don’t care about the revolutionary stories we’ve told them the past thirty years, and it’s our own fault. We can’t blame them. We haven’t properly communicated our stories to them. We need to bring them back to our side by telling better stories.” Having grown up in Abadan, home to the largest oil refinery in the Middle East before the revolution, Mr. Hosseini prided himself on having had an upbringing surrounded by Americans, Brits, and Iranians from all walks of life. He didn’t classify people into insiders (khodi) and outsiders (gheyr-e khodi), like many of his colleagues did when describing different social factions in Iran.3 Mr. Hosseini made it a point to have close friendships with those who disagreed with him and the system he supported.

In these meetings, Mr. Hosseini was usually quick to argue that the Islamic Republic should be more flexible with young Iranians. “We keep pushing them away by making their lifestyle choices suspect and illegal. So what if they like to have spiked hair that reaches the sky and to wear skinny jeans? That doesn’t matter, but we’ve turned these things into political issues.”

Mr. Hosseini is typical of the first generation of Revolutionary Guard members. Having volunteered as a young man to fight in the war with Iraq that followed the revolution, he honed his skills on the battlefields of the twentieth century’s longest conventional war. There, he and his fellow soldiers demonstrated their willingness to defend their country and their revolution to death. Today, he and some of his comrades from the war constitute the top echelons of the Revolutionary Guard.

“The protestors are not to blame,” he said, again fixing his look to the corner of the room, his arms crossed on his chest, leaning back on his chair. His own wife and children had joined the protestors in 2009. After a silence, he continued, “We’re the ones that need to adapt to the realities of our country.”

Mohammad Ahmadi, a prominent film producer who directed one of the most notable pro-regime film collectives in the country, nodded in agreement and chimed in, “I talk about this all the time with my filmmakers. We’ve lost the youth in our country. We need to face this reality.”

“But we can’t give in to their demands! What do we become then, if we do that?” interjected Asghar Haghighi, a fifty-year-old general in the Revolutionary Guard. “We have to teach them the right way. Just because they demand something doesn’t mean we have to give in to them. Do you do that when you discipline your own kids? No! So we shouldn’t do that with the country’s youth either!”

“Look, Asghar,” Mr. Ahmadi said, turning his attention to his senior colleague, “if we don’t become more flexible, we lose the entire system. The future is theirs because of their sheer numbers. They outnumber us. And not only that, if we don’t become more flexible, we could turn into Syria.”

“It’s true,” Mr. Hosseini interjected, suddenly becoming animated and sitting upright in his chair. “Our system has problems; which system doesn’t? But we can’t have our young people going into the arms of any opposition just because they dislike us. That’s exactly what happened in Syria and look at the civil war that’s begun there.”

Later that day, Mr. Hosseini gave me a ride back from the meeting. Furrowing his brow, he said, “Maybe we were right in suppressing the Green Movement. If we hadn’t, maybe we would’ve had the same situation here as in Syria.” It was hard for him to voice those words. He and his close friends in the Revolutionary Guard had voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate. And more than that, they despised the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His fear of Iran “turning into Syria” revealed a difficult truth that all my interlocutors in the Revolutionary Guard eventually voiced to me as the Syrian civil war turned bloodier and more complex. Syria became a metaphor for what Iran’s military elite sought to avoid at all costs. Yet they also viewed Syria as the stage on which the wider regional and global wars for influence and power played out, and in which they were heavily involved.

For Mr. Hosseini and his colleagues, the international meddling in the Syrian war also resembled the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Though long forgotten in most parts of the world, the Iran-Iraq War continues to reverberate in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran just over a year after the success of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The bloody war, characterized by trench warfare and chemical weapons, dragged on for eight years. Though this was ostensibly a war between two nation states, most Arab countries supported Iraq, and regional and international powers played the two countries against one another. As Morteza Sarhangi, a prominent regime journalist and writer, said to me, voicing the official stance of the Iranian state, “This war was actually World War III. Over two dozen countries were involved in the war. Western powers wanted to see our two countries destroy each other so they could have influence in the Middle East and over our oil and resources.”

For Iran’s young soldiers, mostly volunteers in the pro-regime Basij paramilitary militia and the Revolutionary Guard, the war was not only their coming-of-age story but also the prism through which they viewed international relations. Mr. Hosseini and his colleagues understood all too well what it meant to be pawns in larger geopolitical power plays.

The next month, at a meeting with the same men, Mr. Hosseini said to his colleagues, “We can’t have young people go into the arms of the opposition just because they want change. They need to know that we’re not their enemy. But the Green Movement and our response in 2009 made them feel we’re against them.”

“Exactly!” Mr. Ahmadi jumped in excitedly. “We’ve distanced ourselves from young people and that’s the real danger. God forbid one day Daesh (ISIS) or another group attacks Iran. Will our young people rise up and defend the country the same way our generation did with Iraq? If we keep distancing ourselves in this way, the answer will be no.”

Alireza Shirazi, an executive in the state-run television network and a former officer of the Revolutionary Guard, agreed with Mr. Hosseini and Mr. Ahmadi, “We need to make sure young people don’t feel dismissed by us. That’s why managing our media correctly is so important.” He leaned in with his elbows on the glass table and continued, “You all know our hands are tied at state television. We can’t produce different media because of our restrictions. So it’s up to the rest of you to create media that will draw young people closer.”

“The first step is to stop producing the propaganda of the past three decades,” Mr. Hosseini said. “We need to communicate in a language young people will understand.”4

Mr. Ahmadi nodded his head and interrupted Mr. Hosseini. “Yes, and we need to stop framing our story as one that’s just about the Islamic Republic,” he said. “It needs to be about Iran. Our young people may not defend the regime because they don’t feel a part of it, but they will rise up to defend Iran because they are nationalistic. So our media needs to center on Iran as the thing that we’re all defending, not just a regime or ideology.”

The other men looked on as Mr. Hosseini and Mr. Ahmadi made their point. “But people think everything we produce is propaganda,” said Mr. Mohseni, a sixty-year-old Revolutionary Guard captain. Mr. Ahmadi drew his body closer to the table before responding, “That’s why we need to make films that people don’t think we made.”

“We need to hide the fact that we’re the ones making the films they see,” Mr. Hosseini added.

Keeping a Revolution Alive

What does it mean to have the commanders of Iran’s most powerful military apparatus, the very force in charge of defending the revolution, admit that the majority of the population no longer understands the regime’s revolutionary stories? With the Islamic Republic entering its fifth decade, these men recognize that a sizable number of Iranians are tired of the state’s propaganda, and because of that, the regime confronts a crisis of credibility. The guardians of the Islamic Republic now face the classic paradox of any successful revolutionary movement: namely, how to transmit the commitment to their revolutionary project from one generation to the next?

The 1979 Iranian Revolution, a massive popular revolution against the American-backed government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ended millennia of monarchy in Iran and instituted the nation’s first republic. Protestors and revolutionaries came from all political backgrounds, including leftists, liberals, Islamists, and Marxist-Islamists. The exiled religious cleric Ayatollah Khomeini commanded the greatest amount of support and eventually became the leader of the postrevolutionary government. The Shah fled Iran in January 1979. By February, Khomeini had triumphantly returned to Iran, and by March, the Islamic Republic was established by a popular referendum. In November 1979, students in support of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American Embassy compound in Tehran and took fifty-two hostages for 444 days, redefining Iran-U.S. relations to this day. A year later, in September 1980, Iraq invaded southern Iran and started what would become a bloody eight-year war between the two neighbors.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution reorganized the geopolitics of the Middle East. Iran had been America’s most powerful ally in the region, and the Shah did the bidding of the United States in the Middle East. Given the fact that Iran shared a long border with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran had become the pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the region, and it was rewarded handsomely for its cooperation. One of the main rallying cries of the 1979 Revolution was “Neither East nor West. Islamic Republic!” Iranian revolutionaries made it clear that they no longer wished to be ammunition in the larger political fight between the United States and the Soviet Union. Iran shifted from being a staunch U.S. ally governed by an autocrat who made claims of a “modernizing” state to one governed by Shi‘a Islamic norms as defined by the anti-imperialist Ayatollah Khomeini.

In response, the United States overtly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, while covertly supporting Iran through the sale of arms, aiming for a war of attrition between the two sides. Iran helped found Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, and through direct military aid, the United States ensured that most Arab states in the region turned their backs on Iran. Once the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were toppled by the United States in 2001 and 2003, respectively, Iran saw its position in the region rise, as its two closest enemies no longer posed a threat. The 1979 Iranian Revolution had far-reaching reverberations in the region and the world, contributing to the rise of Islamist political movements and the proxy wars between Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as the prolonged animosity between Iran and the United States.

The Iranian state’s cultural producers debated their responses to the 2009 Green Movement in the context of these broader geopolitical transformations. As any revolutionary system becomes the status quo, it inevitably faces the challenges of safeguarding the revolution, as well as the socioeconomic and class status of its leaders, and appealing to younger generations and their demands for political participation. Scholars of revolution have long noted that the transformation of class systems in revolutions are crucial. The 1979 Revolution and the political system created afterwards fundamentally transformed the class system of the ruling elite. Regime elites in Iran currently ponder how to maintain the socioeconomic status that they gained through the revolution, while also making the system flexible enough to incorporate outside challenges. This balance has become increasingly delicate in the Islamic Republic, however, because audiences flippantly dismiss cultural material from the state as “propaganda.” Regime cultural producers have come up with a threefold solution to this problem: first, hide the fact that the state supported, produced, or created the media through strategies of dissimulation; second, create new ways for audiences to see the media; and third, appeal to a populist nationalism as a unifying force that is “beyond” political ideology.

The new stories they tell the citizens portray the Revolutionary Guard (and the Islamic Republic by extension) as the only entity that can keep Iran safe and prevent it from falling into bloody conflict, like its neighbors. Yet, at the heart of these debates about how best to communicate with the public is contestation about how to define the political project of the Islamic Republic.

In this dynamic, everything becomes both a possibility and a problem.

Notes

1. I have changed the names of most of my interlocutors in order to protect their identities. When interlocutors requested it, I additionally changed other identifying details, such as the name of the city they come from (though I replaced it with a city in the same geographic area). I have not changed the names of the filmmakers when I write about their work. Although I have translated the conversations, interviews, meetings, and films that appear in this book from Persian to English, I have done my best to capture the language with which each person spoke.

2. Given that Iran’s elections use paper ballots, several days usually pass before the counts are complete and the results are announced.

3. Transliteration of Persian words is done in accordance with Iranian Studies Association.

4. Throughout my research, my interlocutors referred to the media they produced in the 1980s and 1990s as “propaganda” (using the English word, not the Persian word tabliqāt). As has been widely discussed, the word propaganda, beyond offering a general sense of “manipulation,” is an incredibly difficult word to define, as it tends to depend on one’s perspective. In this book, I use it only if an interlocutor uses the word. For more in-depth discussion of propaganda, please see, among others, Stanley, 2015, How Propaganda Works; Taylor, 2003, Munitions of the Mind; Ellul, 1973, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.