Farhang Jahanpour
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Iran: Reform or Revolution

Farhang Jahanpour is a British national of Iranian origin. He is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Scholar at Harvard. He has also taught for over 30 years at Cambridge and Oxford universities. He served as Editor for Middle East and North Africa at the BBC Monitoring Service from 1979-2001.


The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been celebrating the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution on 11 February 1979. The revolution served as an inspiration to other anti-Western, Islamist groups in the Middle East and beyond, and ushered in a period of the rise of political Islam.

However, the nationwide protests that have continued since the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s so-called Guidance Patrol on 16 September 2022 for allegedly not observing proper hijab have rocked the foundations of the clerical regime like no previous protests.

The difference between the current protests and previous protests is that they were started mainly by women with the powerful slogan of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (women, life, freedom), soon supported by large sections of the population. They spread to all parts of the country and, despite massive state brutality, they have continued for five months.

The durability of the Islamic Republic that has been able to weather many storms has rested on five factors:

1. The regime maintained some elements of democratic legitimacy, in the sense that while it called itself Islamic, it was also a republic with some elected bodies, such as the Majlis or Parliament and the president.

2. The religious nature of the revolution enjoyed the support of large numbers of pious people, including the powerful religious establishment.

3. The regime’s populist economic programmes and greater attention paid to lower classes and rural areas, as opposed to the Shah’s pro-urban, elite-centred policies won the support of the poorer classes that constitute a majority in the society.

4. The terrible experience of US-instigated or supported wars, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, persuaded many Iranians to stick to the devil they knew, rather than plunge the country into chaos.

5. A unified and viable alternative either at home or among the Iranian diaspora was lacking.

In recent years, practically all the above advantages have been reversed.

In particular, the democratic claims of the regime have been seriously undermined by the last Majlis and presidential elections. In the last Majlis election on 21 February 2020 the Guardian Council disqualified nearly all the reformist and centrist candidates. As a result, the conservatives won the vast majority of seats.

The situation was even worse in the last presidential election in June 2021. The Guardian Council announced the approval of seven candidates after the disqualification of all prominent reformist and centrist candidates and Ebrahim Raisi, the handpicked candidate of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, was declared the winner.

In this way, by jerrymandering the elections, Khamenei and the Guardian Council tried to have a homogenous team. This they have achieved because now the conservatives control the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

All this has created serious ruptures in the country and even inside the religious establishment. At least eight leading ayatollahs have condemned the use of excessive force against the protestors and have distanced themselves from the regime.

Among them, Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani described the “behaviours” responsible for the “regrettable” death of Amini as “illegal, irrational and illegitimate.” He warned that the use of force by “vigilante” forces “have never led to the expansion and establishment of any divine and human values in any society.” In a fatwa (a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) he said that all Muslims were obliged to “defend against plainclothes agents who attack protesters with guns or knives.”

Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandson who has sided with the reformists, called on the judiciary to deal “immediately” with the “culprits” responsible for Amini’s death. He said that the government “had better begin to listen to the people.”

The opposition to Ayatollah Khamenei has extended to members of his own family. In an open letter in early December, Badri Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s sister and the wife of a leading cleric, wrote: “The regime of the Islamic Republic of Khomeini and Ali Khamenei has brought nothing but suffering and oppression to Iran and Iranians.” She boldly asserted: “I hope to see the victory of the people and the overthrow of this tyranny ruling Iran soon.”

This level of criticism by a large number of leading ayatollahs and relatives of Khomeini and Khamenei has been unprecedented, and it shows that many members of the religious hierarchy are leaving the sinking ship. This is in addition to strongly-worded statements by former President Hassan Rouhani, former Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, condemning the use of force against the protestors.

Meanwhile, the views of two members of the reformist camp stand out.

In an open letter, Mir-Hossein Mousavi demanded a new constitution that replaces the current one. His proposals included:

One: Holding a free and ‘healthy’ referendum on the need for making changes in the current constitution or drafting a new constitution.

Two: In the event of a positive response by the people, the convening of a ‘Constituent Assembly’ composed of the real representatives of the nation through free and fair elections.

Three: Holding a referendum on the text approved by that assembly in order to establish a system based on the rule of law arising from the will of the people, which is also in keeping with human rights principles and human dignity.

These are revolutionary proposals. They call for the total dismantling of the Islamic Republic and the establishment of a new system based on the wishes of the people. Mousavi’s proposals have attracted a great deal of support inside the country and among the Iranian diaspora.

On 5 February 2023, a day after Mousavi published his open letter, the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami issued a statement that tried to moderate Mousavi’s demands. Khatami called for a “self-correction” by means of reform rather than toppling the Islamic Republic.

In his lengthy statement, Khatami made 15 proposals, including:

• free and competitive elections

• improving the judicial process

• freeing political prisoners and those under house arrest

• lifting media restrictions

• fighting government corruption

• revising the role and composition of the Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council

• curtailing the military's role in politics and the economy

• a foreign policy based on dialogue rather than isolationism

Whether Iranians accept Khatami’s or Musavi’s proposals or adopt more radical measures, it is safe to say that there will be no turning back to the situation that existed before Mahsa Amini’s tragic death.

After the experience of the past 44 years, Iranians have seen the true face of religious dictatorship and are thirsty for democracy.

The West can help Iran’s democratic movement by stressing that any change will not result in a regime imposed from outside. By non-interference in Iran’s domestic affairs, the West can help Iranians to do the necessary work by and for themselves and to replace a bankrupt and corrupt regime with the first truly democratic state in the Islamic Middle East.


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