This month the Islamic Republic of Iran turns 30 years old. In February 1979, a broad coalition of lower-class peasants, middle-class merchants, upper-class intelligentsia, college students, Marxists, and mullahs joined forces to topple the American-backed regime of Muhammad Reza Shah. In the chaotic aftermath of the revolution, as a weak provisional government tried desperately to deal with both a hostage crisis at the US Embassy and a bloody war with Iraq that would ultimately last eight years, Iran’s mullahs, led by the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized power and gave birth to the Islamic Republic.
You can say the revolution was a wolf that ate its own children. The revolution even took away the Iranian peoples’ respect for true Islam.
Today, as Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of the revolution, the country is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than it has ever been. On the one hand, Iran has never been in a more dominant position in the region. With Saddam Hussein eliminated and the Taliban out of power—if not out of existence—Iran is unquestionably the new superpower in the Middle East. The Iranian regime has strengthened its ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine in order to ward off a military strike from Israel. It has bolstered trade relations with Russia, China, and India to offset the consequences of US-led economic sanctions. It has pursued its nuclear ambitions with little regard for international opinion, and just last week, Iran sent its first satellite into space.
At the same time, Iran finds itself more isolated and threatened from all sides than ever before. With oil slipping below $40 a barrel, Iran’s economy is on the verge of total collapse. (The price must be at least $90 a barrel for Iran to balance its budget.) Meanwhile, some 70 percent of Iran’s population was born after the revolution and has almost no emotional connection to the aspirations that led their parents’ generation to rise up and overthrow the Shah.
Click Image To View A Gallery Of Scenes From Contemporary Iran By Photographer Iason Athanasiadis
These kids have little loyalty to the clerical regime, but they are equally dismissive of those wealthy Iranian exiles who, from their plush mansions in Brentwood and Beverly Hills, are trying to foment a second revolution in Iran to overthrow the mullahs. All of this is taking place as Iranians prepare for an upcoming presidential election that will pit two bitter rivals, current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Muhammad Khatami, against each other in a battle to shape the next 30 years of the Islamic Republic.
With the help of Iranian journalist Sahar Namazikhah, I recently asked a group of young Iranians to share their thoughts about a revolution in which they played no part but whose consequences they deal with on a daily basis. Their answers shed light on the challenges Iran faces as it prepares to confront a new and possibly more accommodating American administration and a smaller, more-globalized world.
Nastaran. 23-year-old female teacher at a private school in the city of Karadj near Tehran.
To be honest I do not have any feelings at all about the revolution. Of course, I have heard about the goals and aspirations of the revolutionaries. But I see no sign that any of those goals were actually accomplished. I am familiar with the revolution’s slogans and its promises to create equality for all citizens of Iran. But do we have equality? Absolutely not! I see my generation distancing itself more and more from religion every day. The youth of Iran not only ignore the mullahs, they have lost all respect for religion, at least the religion that the mullahs and the government of Iran promote. I think this sentiment will only increase in the coming years. However, I do not believe that there will be another revolution in Iran. The current system is not going to be overturned through violence, though we can still hope and strive for reform. Change will come to Iran, but it will come gradually.
Youssof. 26-year-old male computer software instructor in the northern city of Mashhad:
As far as I’m concerned, the revolution did not achieve any of the things it promised. The generation that fought the Shah 30 years ago—the people who tried to transform Iran [from monarchy to democracy]—those people were all put to death once the revolution was over. You can say the revolution was a wolf that ate its own children. The revolution even took away the Iranian peoples’ respect for true Islam. The mullahs said we could have religion and politics together, but what they meant was their religion and their politics. They used people’s beliefs to further their own goals. I think this game of theirs will continue for the next 30 years. There will certainly be no “second revolution” in Iran because Iranians will not be fooled again. We already had one revolution, followed by eight long, hard years of war. Enough is enough! We do not want to see more destruction. We need reform, but not through another bloody revolution.
Mahdieh. 22-year-old female physics student at the University of Tehran:
I have very positive feelings about the revolution. I wish I could have been there, 30 years ago, among those brave students who overthrew the Shah. If I had been there I definitely would have participated in the movement. I would have fought for the revolution. I believe that our society is moving forward rapidly, especially in these last four years [under Ahmadinejad’s presidency]. Just look at all the scientific progress we have made, not just in the realm of nuclear science but also in things like diabetes research. We have mastered fundamental and important technologies. And this is only the beginning! If we continue on the path we are on now, who knows where we will be in 30 years?
Iman. 30-year-old male graphic artist living in Tehran:
Those who carried out the revolution 30 years ago owe my generation for all the opportunities we have lost these last three decades. When they decided to overthrow the Shah, they had no idea what kind of government system to establish in his place. They did not realize which system would work, which system would lead to a comfortable life for the generations that would follow. Just look at me! I have a bachelor's degree in hygiene, but I am working as a graphic designer because the government creates no jobs in my field. Am I supposed to feel good about the revolution when it has caused such hardships for my generation? No way. As for what things will look like 30 years from now: How can you even ask that question? What are you talking about? I can’t even see my own tomorrow. The truth is nothing will happen in Iran in the next 30 years, just as nothing has happened these past 30 years. My only hope is that life does not get any worse than it already is.
Hozhabr. 18-year-old male high school senior in Karadj:
I’m sure the generation that launched the revolution had good intentions. I have read enough history to know that revolutions usually happen because people are hungry. The French revolution was a revolution for bread. It was even called “The Bread Revolution.” But the Iranian revolution created extremely high expectations, maybe because the Iranian people were not hungry—they wanted something else. Something more. Something that the Shah could not give them. That is why the people looked to Ayatollah Khomeini. They thought he could give them what the Shah could not. I do not think anything special will happen in the next 30 years, except that maybe our economic situation will get worse.
Hoda. 27-year-old female doctoral student in industrial engineering at the University of Tehran:
I am proud of the revolution. I love it. If I had been there 30 years ago, I would have done anything to help the revolution achieve its goals of giving Iranians a healthy life, both financially and spiritually. The revolution was a great start for achieving an ideal society. But it was just a start. We need to work harder as a society to further the revolution’s basic goals, and make them a greater part of Iranian society. If we do, we will have great progress in the next 30 years. Of course, that progress depends on many things. But if we continue to strive to implement the goals and aspirations of the revolution, I am confident we will achieve great things. And then the rest of the world can more fairly judge whether the revolution was a success or not.
Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360 . He wrote the New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of Mecca.com.