The Irish Times view on the Iranian revolution at 40: shifting boundaries

The mullahs’ enduring grip on power masks profound changes in Iranian society and in the regime’s rule over the past four decades

An Iranian woman takes selfies during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on Monday. Photograph: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency via Reuters

An Iranian woman takes selfies during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on Monday. Photograph: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency via Reuters

 

Events took place across Iran yesterday to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, when the reviled US-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was replaced by the Islamic Republic. Few events over the past half-century have done more to shape the politics and societies of the Middle East.

The mullahs’ enduring grip on power masks profound changes in Iranian society and in the regime’s rule over the past four decades. Strict restrictions on media, women’s clothes, alcohol and music remain in place, but brutal enforcement of social controls has given way to a more ambiguous system of tacit if limited freedoms. Yes, there are occasional crackdowns, but today buskers play in the streets, strict segregation of the sexes is more negotiable and women are pushing at boundaries that are slowly but steadily shifting.

The Iran nuclear agreement raised hopes for a new beginning, but those have been all but dashed by Donald Trump’s senseless decision to renege on the deal

In 1979, the regime sought to isolate young Iranians from western influences, but with a generation raised on Instagram and Hollywood movies, the state has no choice but to offer a release valve – especially given that political freedoms remain non-negotiable. The violent suppression of the Green Revolution in 2009 underlined that the regime will act ruthlessly in defence of its authority.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during a meeting with Iranian students in Tehran, Iran, today. Behind him is a portrait of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran as an Islamic Republic. Khamenei has held the position of supreme leader for almost 30 years. Photograph: Handout/EPA
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during a meeting with Iranian students in Tehran, Iran, last November. Behind him is a portrait of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran as an Islamic Republic. Khamenei has held the position of supreme leader for almost 30 years. Photograph: Handout/EPA

The clerics cannot evade responsibility for the misrule that has held Iran back on their watch. But foreign powers must also take a share of the blame. The US has never forgiven the regime and its followers for deposing its ally and the hostage-taking of US embassy officials in 1979.

Lingering resentment has blinded Washington, leaving it in a hypocritical position: it projects intense hostility towards Tehran while cosying up to Saudi Arabia, a country not noted for its human rights record or its stabilising influence in the region. The Iran nuclear agreement raised hopes for a new beginning, but those have been all but dashed by Donald Trump’s senseless decision to renege on the deal. Ironically, by reintroducing sanctions and setting himself so implacably against the regime, Trump has done more than any recent US president to strengthen the clerics’ hold on power.

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