Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani described the storming of the U.S. Capitol as a sign of Western democracy’s susceptibility to populism: “A populist has arrived, and he has led his country to disaster over these past four years.” Perhaps even more revealing in his comments on January 7, 2021, was Rouhani’s goodwill, as he wished “the next occupants of the White House” would “restore the country to a position worthy of the American nation, because the American nation is a great nation.”

The undoubtedly remarkable assessment from this statement is less its circumstance than the fact that the leader of a Republic, whose founding slogans included “Death to America,” could proffer such a compliment. After all, Iran “inaugurated” 2020 with the US assassination of Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qassem Soleimani and ended it with the assassination of the head of the nuclear research program, physicist Mohsen Fakrizadeh.

If Rouhani – whose leadership has faced significant domestic challenges amid the COVID pandemic difficulties, economic hardships, and intense popular protests – felt confident about sending Washington (and the new Biden administration in particular) a signal that Tehran is ready to resume nuclear proliferation talks, it’s because he has confidence in the overall stability and legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The concept of legitimacy is central to the theory of the State, and it is as typical of democracies as it is of authoritarian regimes.

The concept of legitimacy is central to the theory of the State, and it is as typical of democracies as it is of authoritarian regimes. The images of Trump supporters storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, served as a reminder that no government can be effective if it fails to project legitimacy with its own people. The rulers and the ruled must follow the same course, whether imposed or reached through consensus.

The issue of legitimacy has compromised the stability of most Middle Eastern regimes both domestically and internationally. Weak legitimacy at the domestic level weakens the exercise of power, leading to the adoption of repressive social control mechanisms. At the external level, weak legitimacy subjects the State to undue international pressure from regional and global powers, severely limiting sovereignty.

Iran vs. Arab Spring

Apart from the revolt in Tunisia, whose political change was facilitated by the prompt resignation of President Ben Ali, none of the uprisings that began in January 2011 and spread across the Middle East and North Africa have achieved change. While a more specialized study is needed to compare the outcomes of the Arab Spring to the Iranian Revolution, the concept of legitimacy plays a paramount role, nonetheless.

Compared to the Arab countries that emerged from European colonialism, and the Sykes-Picot agreement in particular – such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq – Iran is the only nation that boasts over 2,000 years of historical continuity. Present-day Iran is the successor of the Safavids, Qajars, and Pahlavis dynasties, which have ruled over a territory marked roughly by the same boundaries for at least the last seven or eight centuries. Therefore, unlike Iraq or Syria, Iran’s present borders are in perfect continuity with its historical past and Iran’s governments rest on a foundation of historical legitimacy.

Iran’s Arab neighbors, on the other hand, feature “artificial” boundaries that force together populations of different ethnicities. Sometimes ideologies can function as the social glue that legitimizes a government, but in a context such as Iraq or Syria, the complex ethnic and confessional makeup (think of the Kurds, the Shiites, various denominations of Christians, the Druze, and a variety of sects living in isolation) compromises the effectiveness of shared ideologies.

Iranian revolution

A boy carries an Iranian flag in front of Azadi (Freedom) monument tower in a rally celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 11, 2020. Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities and towns across the country for rallies and nationwide celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution when followers of Ayatollah Khomeini ousted U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

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The Legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution

Despite its ideological fervor, and mostly authoritarian nature, the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed, more than most of its neighbors, to deviate from the Middle East’s tendency to rely almost exclusively on authoritarian mechanisms, ideological constructs, or sectarian structures to encourage allegiance to the State – even if it lacks elasticity in addressing its citizens’ socio-economic grievances.

Iran has managed to establish its own separate and more genuine path, while its Arab neighbors have remained confined within boundaries and power structures that are not “indigenous.”

Iran has managed to achieve this feat by establishing its own separate and more genuine path, while its Arab neighbors have remained confined within boundaries and power structures that are not “indigenous.” They were, and remain, bound to the vision of the former colonial powers – and the Cold War “superpowers” – that shaped the Middle East and (to a somewhat lesser extent) North Africa according to their needs. In turn, nationalist sentiments – expressed directly as did the Ba’ath Party, or indirectly as did the Muslim Brotherhood – that emerged from the anti-colonialist sentiment of the post-World War II period (when Great Britain controlled almost the entirety of the Middle East) dominated politics and shaped nation-building efforts.

Washington would eventually win its competition for control of the Middle East’s oil resources. And the very presence of oil necessitated the delimitation of more precise boundaries to facilitate the exercise of “influence.” Or, in other words, to move from colonization to decolonization without actually changing anything in practice. The Western grift of resources continued, and pliant governments – lacking clear mandates and legitimacy – were happy to facilitate it in exchange of nominal protection against progressive forces and budding nationalism.

However, the “former” colonialists and their puppets failed to recognize populist and ideological movements, which thrived on a growing sense of resentment in the populations. In 1953, the Anglo-British coup in Iran leading to the resignation and arrest of “nationalist” Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddeq, who wanted to secure a fairer price for oil concessions from the international oil companies and finally dared to demand the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, remains the most noteworthy effort to suppress the emerging nationalist conscience in the Middle East. Washington and London stifled a budding indigenous democracy in 1953 to install Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose rule was intended to ensure the primacy of Anglo-American oil and strategic interests (in the context of the Cold War).

The Revolution that led to the Shah’s abdication might be better understood as more of a vindication of nationalism than of faith.

The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic it produced, however, instilled – for all its faults – legitimacy. Indeed, while Islamic in its outward manifestation, the Revolution that led to the Shah’s abdication might be better understood as more of a vindication of nationalism than of faith. Even the institutions and the Shiite theological principles that informed the formation of the Islamic Republic were uniquely Iranian. The Revolution projected indigenous social, economic, and cultural values. Certainly, there were economic catalysts for social unrest. The Shah’s oil financed industrialization drive of the 70s neglected rural development and accelerated the migration of laborers from rural areas to the cities, and Tehran in particular.

Islam, Populism, and Failure of Western Models

Rural migrants fed the demands of a booming construction industry in Iran in the early 1970s. Yet, by 1976 high inflation turned into a deep recession and many rural migrants became unemployed and fell into poverty. The religious authorities (Ulama) and traditional merchant establishment (Bazaar), which represented a significant socio-political category, responded to the plight of the migrants – or exploited their hardship – to earn the allegiance of this politically estranged but angry section of the population.

The rural migration generated vast slum areas with the associated social problems of prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime. The Iranian Communist Party, known as Tudeh, had also tried to politicize the rural migrants but failed, lacking the sociocultural links to encourage a dialogue. Rather than adopting the Tudeh’s “foreign” class analysis rationalizations, the rural migrants understood what might be described as the populist language of the Ulama, who knew how to reach them through religious and folkloristic gatherings that were especially popular in the rural areas.

The Ulama attributed the urban decay to the Shah’s Western inclinations and offered tradition and the restoration of religious law – Shari’a – as the way to re-establish order and equality. Passion plays depicting the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein represented an emotional and defiant message, and call to action, that displaced migrants would have readily understood.

The Ulama and the Bazaar formed an alliance and gained exclusive influence over the most destitute element of society at the dawn of the revolution and co-opted their support against secular or technocratic policies – such as land reform. Indeed, as early as 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini publicly denounced the Shah’s program of progressive secular legislation and land reform. Khomeini was subsequently exiled, but from exile he also became the “legitimate” symbol of resistance to the Shah’s government.

By 1979, inspired by Khomeini, a resurgent Islamic movement displaced other opposition groups, and the Tudeh Party in particular, to emerge as the most effective means of opposing the Shah. Accordingly, the revolution adopted an Islamic character and left the religious establishment as the principal power broker when Reza Pahlavi went into exile in January 1979 and eventually abdicated. The Islamic Constitution of Iran since then was validated by a popular referendum.

A Political Transformation of Shi’ism

The idea of an Islamic Republic was new; it was a veritable experiment of constitutional engineering with elements to shape it around Islamic government. Khomeini adapted his doctrine of “velayat-e faqih” (rule of the religious expert) during his exile, in the 70s, in Najaf, Iraq, one of the holiest shrines of Shiism. In so doing, Khomeini presented a challenge to the foundational narrative of Twelver Shiism, which holds that no Islamic government can be established before the return of the Mahdi, the hidden imam.

In a sense, this was the kernel of the Islamic Revolution. It was the legal, theological innovation that silenced Khomeini’s critics, who believed in the separation of spiritual and secular powers. Khomeini infused the canons of Shiite Islam to the wider population (believers and non-believers), imparting concepts of social redemption and justice typically espoused by the Left. Khomeini pulled the carpet from under the Marxists’ feet, and channeled the nationalist and anti-Western sentiment captured by such intellectuals as Ali Shariati and Jalal Al-e Ahmad (author ofGharbzadeghi,” roughly translated as “West-toxification”) while unifying masses of different backgrounds, adopting a new and indigenous revolutionary ideology.

To acquire political legitimacy, Islam had to undergo an ideological transformation that would enable it to absorb political and socio-economic significance.

To acquire political legitimacy, Islam had to undergo an ideological transformation that would enable it to absorb political and socio-economic significance. Ayatollah Khomeini constitutionally ensured that all executive, judicial, and legislative authority conform to the Islamic guidelines set out in the Qur’an and the collected body of early Islamic scholarship known as the Sunnah. This enabled the State to “islamicize” society by enforcing an economy, social morality, institutionalized dress codes, and mores that conformed as closely as possible to the ordinances of the Qur’an.

The introduction of Western legal systems has been considered a major aspect of “cultural imperialism,” while the current revival of the Islamic heritage constitutes an act of cultural affirmation. The economic hardship of the 70s was diverted by the State’s promotion of Islamic guidance as the means to revive moral character. Whereas the Industrial revolution in Europe was an indigenous response to inherently European phenomena of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, religious reform and the Enlightenment in Islamic nations only partly borrowed or imitated these developments without an appropriate cultural frame of reference, and without cultural legitimacy.

In 1979, many Iranians reclaimed Shari’a law as a symbol of pride and identity that they felt had been lost with the institutional and constitutional reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries, implemented to emulate the Western models (by refuting the Shari’a). The Islamic political revival in Iran has represented the search for a formula for political organization that is indigenous, culturally relevant, and ultimately legitimate. Even as, in doing so, Khomeini and his advisors had to challenge the majority of Iranian clerics.