Iran: the people vs. dictatorship, for peace and popular sovereignty (Professor Ervand Abrahamian)

On Tuesday 16 May 2023, Liberation and the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) were privileged to be able to host one of the leading academic authorities on the history and politics of modern Iran, Professor Ervand Abrahamian, at the above webinar.

Below is a verbatim transcript of Professor Abrahamian’s address to the webinar, in which he gives his take on the important recent developments and current situation in the country…

On whether Iran is currently entering a revolution

“The focus on the recent widespread protests [in Iran] has, unsurprisingly, raised the question or expectation of whether Iran is actually entering a revolution.

“This question has become very prevalent, especially in the West.  My answer is actually that Iran is not in a revolutionary stage at the moment.  I will give two major reasons for this…

“One obvious one is that if you look at history, revolutions are actually quite rare.  The term is often thrown around for protests, revolts, and regime abdications.  Though when you actually try to find real revolutions, there are [only] a handful.  And the Iranian Revolution is one of the few, one of the handful of revolutions.  Thomas Carlyle, while writing about the French Revolution, said that in fact such a branch [this type of revolution] occurs once in a millennium.  He may have been exaggerating somewhat – but, on the whole, if you look at [history] since 1789, there are only a handful of events that you can call genuine revolutions and [the 1979 Iranian Revolution] is one of those.

“The second reason I would argue that there is not a revolution in Iran yet [relates to the support base, and its extent, of the ruling regime in Iran].  The regime began in 1979, with a great deal of legitimacy and popularity in some of the referendums during those early years.  Some 80-85% of the population actually voted in support of the regime.  This popularity has drastically diminished over the years [since then].  I won’t go into all of the reasons why [the regime] has eroded its own legitimacy, but I would argue that it [currently] has only 15-20% of popular support.  Now, even though I would say it has lost a great deal of its support, it still retains support among those groups that actually gained substantially during the Revolution, especially [in terms of] property transfers from the old ruling class to the more middle class [groups] that supported the Revolution.

“So, the people connected to the regime in the bazaar are the [IRGC].  These are, I would say, still supporters of the regime.  Consequently; the regime, although faced by a great number of protests, has not suffered a crisis [in terms of its continued rule] yet as the protests have been contained.  On the whole, the ruling elite has managed to hold itself together.

“There have been a few members of the elite that have expressed discontent, but the core of the regime has remained intact.  So even though one could argue that a revolution is not imminent any day now, it can also be stressed – and I think this is the real interesting issue now – that the regime is facing a major crisis, one that is permanent and which it cannot resolve.

“The reason for this is that there is a real disconnect and clash/conflict of discourse [between the regime and wider society in Iran] whereby the regime itself talks in the language of divine rights and divine legitimacy.  It claims to represent God on Earth and, therefore, that anyone who opposes it is challenging God’s will.  However, when you look at the protests, interestingly enough, religion is completely divorced and missing from them.

“The people protesting are not interested in religion.  The language they’re using is really the language of the French Revolution, the Radical Enlightenment.  They’re talking about liberty, equality, choice, and individual rights – the right to protest, the right to speak and dress as they wish, and the right to organise, especially trade unions.  These are seen among the protests as intricate human rights that are not somehow given to them by God or representatives of God on Earth, but which by nature are given to human beings.  So, what you’re seeing, basically, is a clash of discourses.  This is not something that the regime can overcome.  It’s not even willing to consider moderating its own claims or trying to meet the protesters [halfway].  And the protesters themselves are, in fact, just as completely oblivious to the [regime’s] notion of divine religious rights.

“They are talking much more about a secular society where people who want to have religion, confine it to their personal/private lives and keep it as their own concern.  But it’s not a concern of the state to enforce upon people their religious beliefs.  Consequently, I think one can see a basic and, I would say, fundamental contradiction between the language, arguments, and claims of the authorities [on the one hand], and that of the protests and general public [on the other].

“And, interestingly enough, the people leading these protests are the young.  These are people who went to Islamic kindergartens, as well as Islamic private primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities.  They, for reasons I don’t have time to go into, have actually resorted and returned to the language of the Enlightenment – [notions] which had been important in Iran early in the twentieth century during the country’s Constitutional Revolution.

“And this language of the Enlightenment has [hitherto] been submerged and also overwhelmed by the language/rhetoric of Islam, of “Gharbzadegi” and the denunciation of anything from the West in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, for surprising and, I would say, shocking reasons for the regime, the generations that have grown up under their rule have actually turned back once more to the ideals of the Enlightenment.

“This has basically created a fundamental crisis for the regime that it cannot overcome.  It may survive the opposition, but it doesn’t know how to handle or ride-out the discourse of the opposition.  Eric Hobsbawm is probably having a good laugh hearing that the echoes of the French Revolution [and its discourse] are resonating well, some 230 years after the events of 1789, in Iran at the present time.

“So I would conclude by stating that a revolution is not imminent [in Iran], but that the regime is facing an insurmountable crisis in how to deal with the widespread opposition in the country.  A revolution could well come eventually, but it’s not imminent.”

Regarding the regime’s continuing support base in the bazaar

“The bazaar in Iran was a key factor in the 1979 Revolution. In fact, I would say, it was the vanguard of the Revolution.

“There were general strikes throughout the bazaars [during the Iranian Revolution].  However, the bazaars didn’t only go on strike against the Shah – they actually financed and supported other forces, especially trade unions, against the [Shah’s] regime.  In the present crisis, clearly there is, among some sectors of the bazaar, discontent with the regime.  But I think what’s more important is that during the Islamic Republic there’s really been a split in the bazaars.

“The currents in the bazaar that were at the forefront of support for the Revolution have become very much integrated into the regime.  As Comrade Habib [Tudeh Party of Iran speaker on the panel] said; this is a capitalist regime and the main capitalists in the bazaar have been quite clever in attaching themselves to the regime.  But you could see this in terms of personnel…  There was a group of low level businessmen in the bazaar who created an Islamic group a long time ago and their first act was to assassinate one of the Shah’s prime ministers.  They were very important during the Revolution and, more recently, they were given the country’s petrochemical industry to run.  And I assure you that running the petrochemical industry is much more prosperous than running a butcher’s shop or tailor’s shop in the bazaar.  So, there are sectors of the bazaar which have actually become part of the regime and an integral part at that.

“[Meanwhile,] there are others who have not succeeded and that consider themselves as being cut off [from the regime and centres of power].  However, as far as we can see, there haven’t been general strikes in the bazaars [during the recent protests].  There were some strikes in the Kurdish areas and in the Baluchi areas, but when it comes to places like Tehran and Esfahan – the core bazaar areas/sectors – they’ve been pretty passive.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they actively support the regime, but they are not active against the regime either.

“And to explain that, I think this in part owes to an ideological affinity between the regime and some in the bazaar who support pretty right-wing Islamic concepts…  Thus, so far the bazaar has not participated in the uprising.  This was also true during the 2009 uprising, when there were massive protests against the rigging of the elections – the bazaars didn’t come out.  They basically observed the protests but did not support them.  So, I would say, a good sign that there is a revolution coming [in Iran] is if the bazaaris actually begin to support the protests.  And, so far, I haven’t seen that.  Until that happens, I think the regime still has some connections with the bazaar.  Again, as Comrade Habib talks about, it’s a capitalist regime and the bazaar is a capital enterprise.  They may not like some of the things the regime does, and I think they would much more prefer commercial activities with the West rather than with China or Russia.  In fact, the Chinese trade links undermine the bazaar.  So I think they have a vested interest, and I think that’s why some of them would support people like Rouhani rather than the present regime – which is not just anti-American, but anti-West – and to promote commerce with the West.

“So I think the bazaar is still crucial, just as it was crucial during the revolution.  As for what happens in the future…  Again, this will very much depend on the bazaar – as well, of course, as the trade unions, the student movement, the youth movement, and the women’s movement.”

Regarding the recent detente of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by Beijing…  What is the impact of the recent mediated normalisation, and what does it mean vis-à-vis Iran’s foreign relations going forward?

“Yes. I mean, it came as a surprise that the two countries that have been [engaged] in polemics for the last two decades [have suddenly come to this agreement] really…  In fact, at one time, the Saudis were telling the Americans that Iran was a serpent whose head had to be cut off, so they have obviously reversed their position.  Iran has also toned down [its rhetoric].  Before, Iran was talking about how all monarchies are illegitimate – and, of course, the Saudis are ruled by a monarch.  So, by that logic, they should be against the Saudi monarchy.

“I think that both sides are being quite opportunistic – or you could say a pragmatic.  The Saudis have decided – especially after the Trump administration – that the U.S. can’t be depended on for protection.  And when Iran was able to actually launch a missile to do serious damage to their installations, they had second thoughts about relying on the United States for protection.

“Iran has a different motive.  Iran, having decided to cut off its relations with not just America, but Western Europe [also] and becoming much more, let’s say, eastern oriented, also wants to have better relations in the neighbourhood [Middle East] as a way of relieving pressure.  And that makes it in their national interests to try to normalise relations with the Saudis.  But whether it means much in the long run, I don’t think so because the main issue is still going to be the nuclear issue and the Saudis don’t have a role in that – nor do the Chinese.

“So overall, the international situation is not that different even if there are better or more normalised relations between the two countries.”

Closing remarks

“I would like to thank the organisation [Liberation] for convening this panel.  Well, I think these are very important issues which we need to discuss.  I would like to end on the question of how one can support what is going on in Iran from outside…

“The diaspora has very much been involved in airing the grievances in Iran.  But the problem was/is that often they have been supporting individuals – and individuals who have a great deal of baggage from the past – as spokespeople for the Iranian protests.  I think that, as non government organizations, we should support not individuals but the grievances and indeed the aspirations of the Iranian people, which are for liberty and equality.  These are the two issues that are facing Iran – not just women’s rights or trade union rights, but the notion of liberty, equality, and the inalienable rights of individuals.

“And here the support should come not from governments. Most of the Western governments have their own ‘baggage’ on these issues.  Maybe Northern European states can, with honesty, support notions of liberty and equality.  But when it comes to major powers such as the United States, it becomes hypocritical for the American government to talk about women’s rights in Iran, when women don’t actually have equal rights in the United States, when they are failed in the United States.  So for the United States to talk about how they support women’s rights in Iran becomes laughable.

“Instead, we as individuals and organisations should support the general aspirations [of the people of Iran], which are basically the ideas of the radical enlightenment, and support anyone in Iran who carries those aspirations.

“To put it in concrete terms, in the United States there was a great deal of demand in the [Iranian] diaspora that the [U.S. government] should not deal on the nuclear issues – because if they actually negotiated with Iran on the nuclear issue, then [supposedly] this would help the regime and thereby undermine the [Iranian people’s] protest movement – which is actually a non sequitur.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that a revolution is going to come about if the United States doesn’t negotiate – nor does it mean that if the United States actually comes to an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, then this is going to actually prevent a revolution.  What is happening in Iran has its own dynamics, and it’s not going to be affected so much by outside [factors].

“So, my basic message would be that we, as outsiders, should we be supporting the aspirations of liberty and equality in Iran.”


Professor Ervand Abrahamian is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and is widely regarded as one of the leading academic authorities on the history and politics of modern Iran.

Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1940, to Armenian-Iranian parents, Professor Abrahamian went on to study at Oxford University in England and then Columbia University in the U.S. His PhD, awarded in 1969, was titled “Social Bases of Iranian Politics: The Tudeh Party, 1941-53.”

Professor Abrahamian is the author of several major works, including “Iran Between Two Revolutions” (1982); “Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran” (1999); and “A History of Modern Iran” (2008, revised 2018).

He is also regarded as an authority on the period leading up to, and including, the CIA-MI6-backed military coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, in August 1953…

He has authored two books on this important episode in the contemporary history and politics of Iran; “The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations” (2013) and “Oil Crisis in Iran: From Nationalism to Coup d’Etat” (2021).

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