Iran’s Social Revolution: The Heartbeat Continues

What to do with the affective legacies of the Iranian left?

In 1978, the painter Nicky Nodjoumi returned to Tehran from New York just in time for the women’s mass marches against the shah. While there, Nodjoumi joined 30 students and professors in the production of posters at Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. The group held an exhibition to which some 5,000 people a day came, and a space for people to make their own posters. This particular effort of nonsectarian democracy in action—working with but keeping independent of all parties and factions—was short-lived. The art spaces were burned down by a hardline Muslim organization in 1979.

Between 2005 and 2008 Taraneh Hemami—an artist living in the San Francisco, California, area—created an installation of leftist documents that had been buried in northern Iran, retrieved, and brought to America. The installation was to allow her generation, and younger generations, to engage with otherwise largely lost ephemera (pamphlets, newspaper articles, letters) of their parent’s generations before and during the 1979 revolution. As Hemami nicely put it, “Most of the [Iranian] artists involved had little knowledge of the history of the period and needed help from across generations to elucidate the material. This process led to exchange of stories, myths, and histories and created a conducive environment for raising questions and trying to revisit this critical era through the documents.”

The affective power of the ideals of the left—both the Tudeh Party in Iran, the Iranian Students Association (ISA) and Confederation of Iranian Students in the United States and Europe (or CIS and CISNU), and the several more radical factions (Fadaiyan, UIC, et al.)—have remained underground like Marx’s image, quoting Shakespeare, of the old mole that burrows into the soil to await a new opportunity to surface, or at least to explain to a new generation the intensity of feelings that still divide factions of Iranians and different generations of the diaspora. As one of Manijeh Moradian’s interviewees, Jalil Mostashari (b. 1940), poetically put it to her in 2011 at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, New York: “Social movements, they are like rainwater. They are imbibed by the earth, and the spring comes out somewhere you don’t expect … Do not think of a social movement as a one-time finishing act.

What to do with the affective legacies of the Iranian left? Manijeh Moradian’s This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press 2022) suggests two answers from the perspective of her own generational experience: a feminist and intersectional (a word not available four decades ago) call for affective attachments to liberation of others—Black Student Union; the Latino Students Organization, the Filipino-American Students Organization, El Renacimiento, and the Students for a Democratic Society or SDS, with whom the ISA joined in demonstrations throughout the 1970s, along with anti-Vietnam war and Palestinian liberation demonstrations—that can generate a new capacity for relating across difference. And second, a call to expand transnational genealogies of anti-imperialist feminisms beyond national boundaries, ones that are not submerged to the needs of male-led revolutions. These two aspirations across generations make the book a useful contribution to the many legacies of the Iranian revolution, and not just of the secular masculine left.

Examining This Flame Within allows one to ask how revolutionary knowledge is transmitted across generations, how new generational understandings draw on lessons from historical legacies on which they claim to build, and how so-called defeats and victories in the past actually have complicated and multiple legacies for future action. It is also a plea to not allow these legacies to drown in what some call a melancholia of the left (that is, a continued attachment to euphoria of a past that can interfere with options for the present), or a sense that the struggle was valiantly fought but lost. Historical events and processes have multiple effects and legacies, not singular ones.

Moradian, following Hemami and others, continues the effort at recovery of previous ideals, affects, and motivations. But Moradian does so in a more narrative form by interviewing members of three generations of Iranians living in the United States (born, respectively, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, including her father, who was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.). She often collapses these into two generations, but following Orkideh Behrouzan, 2016, and other analysts, it might be better to recognize at least three. The analysis of generations is itself a cultural generational task not limited to dating.

First are those born in the 1930s. These 18 interviewees would have grown up during World War II and been conscious both when the Tudeh Party (communist) was formed in 1941 (albeit with its much earlier roots), and when the National Front was formed in 1949 led by Mohammad Mossadeq who led the government later overthrown by the 1953 military coup, allegedly supported by the UK and the US, but also with the help of conservative ayatollahs such as Ayatollah S. Abul Qasim Kashani.

Second are those born in the mid to late 1940s. This generation would have experienced the 1977–79 revolution as young adults, and, indeed, were the primary carriers of the revolution (since, as many noted at the time, the middle-aged generation was cowed and quiescent, leaving the 70-year-olds and the 20-year-olds to lead). These two older generations came to the US in the 1960s.

Third is the younger generation born in the 1950s. Several of these 12 interviewees have childhood memories, from ages four or five, of a pall falling over their families in 1953. One even recalls seeing, from the roof of his house, the attack on Mossadeq’s house in Tehran’s Sheikh Hadi Street and tanks in the street. This generation came to the US in the 1970s for education. Many returned briefly to participate in the revolution or its euphoric moment of victory in 1979.1

The cultural politics of Iran remains locked in its frozen social contradiction between “Islamic” and “republic,” a 40-year-old stasis.

The many conflicting emotions and memories of her interviewees allow Moradian to take a generally neutral, nonevaluative tone. Though obviously sympathetic to the secular and revolutionary leftists, her own stance seems to be one of keeping alive the feminist strand of this history. Most important, it seems, for Moradian is the huge women’s march and demonstrations in March 1979. This protest was not supported, she pointedly notes, by most of the male leftist leaders who saw it as a distraction (though a group of men did form a barrier line between the women and the security forces along the line of march).

And yet, somewhat dismayingly, the book gives almost no attention to the 40 years of women’s political activity in Iran since then, that is, from 1979 to present. The women elected to Parliament in Iran after the revolution, or the courageous women human rights defense lawyers who have themselves faced arrest and prison, are largely after her account ends. Her focus is student activities in the US before 1982 (when the revolution began to purge the left).

Similarly, because her focus is on the legacy of the secular leftist groups, the picture of the students in the US does not include conflicts with nonleftist or religious students in places like Boston, Washington, Houston and elsewhere, where different universities were associated with groupings of quite different political stance. Not included in Moradian’s analysis, for example, are the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the militant religious faction, who were among the most visible on the streets in the United States and Europe.

More generally, Moradian’s tight focus on the Iranian students in the US should, at some point, be integrated into a global recognition not just of alliances, but of the defeat of various efforts after World War II to demand wealth redistribution, political self-determination, and escape from the vise of the Cold War. This is not defeat in the sense of Francis Fukuyama’s claim of the victory of capitalism ending history, but a call for reanalysis of the possibilities for new initiatives.

Today, social pressures are building—both from inequalities of late industrialism, and from climate change—that require new politics. “Imperialism” is the cover term that Moradian uses for what might be more usefully disaggregated into “finance capital” or finance “imperialism” as the highest stage of capitalism (as analyzed in 1910 by Rudolf Hilferding and popularized in 1916 by Vladimir Lenin), or “capitalism” as more generally used today for the unequal returns to capital over labor with little regard for the environment, the various forms of political neoimperialism (in the early decolonization period but also subimperialisms on regional scales), German ordoliberalism (as a form thought to ground moral constraints on the economy where the political system no longer had legitimacy), “Chicago School” neoliberalism (freedom of markets from regulation, privatizing public goods, and off-loading onto individuals costs of education and health care as forms of human capital for which individuals themselves are responsible), and globalization, the Cold War, and the constraints all of the above variously placed upon nation-state forms of politics.2

Moradian’s book can still be fruitfully read as a probing, if partial, text on the Confederation of Iranian Students who were important to the huge influx of foreign students in the US, causing a number of diplomatic incidents and crises.

If I seem to have quibbled about a few limitations of the text, it is less as criticism, and more as looking ahead for uses of this rich text as a platform for future elaboration. If you need to recall the many actions against the visits of the shah to the US, the efforts to limit colleges establishing relations with the Shah, and the mission to educate Americans about Iran and about US support for repressive regimes in the Cold War, you will find all of that here, as well as many familiar names from my teacher Younes Parsa Benab (whose two volume study of the Iranian left, Moradian notes, remains untranslated into English) to Parviz Shokat whose collection of documents retrieved from Iran was a key cache of source materials for Moradian (and Hemami), to the voluble Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, member of the National Front and then the Freedom Movement, a leader of the student revolt against Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, and who was executed by the revolution in Iran after serving as an aide to Khomeini in Paris, and as Foreign Minister during the hostage crisis.

Iran remains, both in the 1970s–1980s, and today an important case study in social theory, the theory of revolutions, geopolitics, and transnational political economy. Moradian’s book helps show the crucial importance of the ways cultural politics intervenes and is an essential piece in all of these. The particularities are not parochial, but are parts of global currents, networks, and circuitries.

This book was written still in a moment of political despair, Moradian explained in a December 2022 recorded panel at Barnard College. Despair at 40 years of failed efforts to change the Islamic authoritarianism in Iran. She wrote it aspirationally, believing that “memories of revolutionary hope and possibilities are a vital inheritance we can and must learn from” and that “one of the biggest lessons of the book written in anticipation of the next round of revolutionary upheaval was that the next time it has to be feminist. … And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of a new Iranian revolution that is decidedly feminist in character,” (i.e., the women-led uprising that has been roiling Iran since September 2022.)

Read in this light, some of the rough edges of the book can be smoothed over, such as the blurring of sharp sectarian differences within the left, and the selective focusing on those she credits with revolutionary affects, sidelining those who fought for constitutionalism and civil rights including both liberals from Ayatollah Shahriatmadari and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani (and belatedly Ayatollah Montazeri) and the Nezhat-e Azadi (Freedom Movement) led by Mehdi Bazargan, Ibrahim Yazdi, Sadegh Gotbzadeh and others), as well as the authoritarian Islamic Marxist revolutionaries who still call themselves Mojahedin-e Khalq.

But perhaps such academic and historical objections are beside the point. After all, what Moradian calls for is constructing and reconstructing a new “intersectional and anti-imperialist feminism.” What becomes most salient for her is the effort to recapture the feeling structure of, as one interviewee put it, “our age in a double sense,” youthful energy and optimism in a historical conjuncture when liberation movements and discourses were widespread in the world at large. As Mae Ngai, an older panelist, noted, she too was of that double age (as am I) and radical in the same way, participating in numerous liberation demonstrations, causes, and solidarity building.

When modest, Moradian says the book is one case study to include Iran among many revolutionary movements. When more ambitious, she proposes a framework based on affects, more than ideology and political organization, for a new internationalist anti-imperialist feminism. The affects she highlights are what she calls affects of solidarity across national boundaries.

But since, as she admits, all politics are composed of affects, her term can apply to the spreading transnational authoritarian nationalisms just as well. She claims that it is harder today to build movements because the certainties of ideologies that were so strenuously fought over in the 1960s and 1970s no longer exist, and, particularly in Iran, intellectuals and leaders have been run out into exile. She hopes they will provide the diaspora with experiential depth on which to build anew.

At the beginning of the authoritarian reign of the Islamic republic, the writer Gholam Hossein Saedi wrote a satirical play called Othello in Wonderland (1985). He was already in exile in Paris. The play was a satire about a theatrical troupe in Tehran trying to stage Shakespeare. In the play, the censors demand more and changes until, by the end, it has become a Shi’ite passion play about Karbala and the death of Imam Hussein.

In April 2023, after 40 years of the authoritarian regime, the innovative Heartbeat Opera in New York produced a parallel production: about a theatrical troupe in Tehran trying to stage Puccini’s Tosca, again with censors lurking and interfering, and thereby being transformed from the original, set in Rome, to one miming the reality of Tehran. Both Puccini’s and the new version are about protecting an escaped political prisoner, corrupt officials, torture of political prisoners, subjugation of women, religious hypocrisy, and women breaking the cycle of violence. The new version ends against a backdrop picturing Tehran, and Tosca running from the security police. She climbs up onto a utility box, waving her hijab, hair flowing free, and raising her fist—the exact image of how the women’s protest roiling in Iran since September 2022 began with one, then another, then more, standing on utility boxes along the streets or on cars, waving their headscarves, fists raised, demanding “death to the dictator” and “death to the regime.”

Quite a number of the people making the Heartbeat Opera are themselves Iranian-born: Shadi G. (the writer of the adaptation and director); also the assistant director, associate music director, writer of the Farsi subtitles, two actors of the seven actors, and two of the eight musicians. The new opera thus is in a long and vital tradition of politically inflected cultural production in the diaspora (as well as in Iran, especially through underground protest songs, some repurposed from the time of the revolution, others composed more recently, yet others translated from protest songs elsewhere in the world, such as Bella Ciao from Italy, El Pueblo Unido from Chile; and, of course, Shervin Hajipour’s compilation of contemporary tweets in Baraye [For Women, Life, Freedom] in direct reaction to current round of deaths and the women’s uprising. In this new Tosca production, Persian words are set to El Pueblo Unido by students at the Music Department of the Tehran University of Art. Bar pa khiz, “Rise Up!”), and seamlessly integrated with Puccini’s music, even replacing Puccini’s Shepherd’s Song: “In the name of woman, in the name of life, there will be an end to this oppression.”

The cultural politics of Iran remains locked in its frozen social contradiction between “Islamic” and “republic”, a 40-year-old stasis (lack of movement, civil strife). The old mole waits. Gender relations have shifted as the Islamic regime has allowed many lower middle-class women to pursue higher education and salaried jobs, but restricted choice of fields and ascent to top judicial, political, and administrative positions. Gendered common sense has shifted as the women of the republic continue to sound the beat of the revolution. icon

  1. Moradian gives the figure of five to six thousand members of the Confederation who returned to Iran to participate and just to witness and be immersed in what felt like profound history in the making. (She uses the figure of eighty thousand Iranian students who came to the US to study between 1960 and 1977.)
  2. Moradian’s use of the term “imperial model minorities”, for example, does help shift the frame of reference from domestic to transnational and global alliances, movements, and discourses, not least the efforts of many countries to send their best young students to the US and Europe for education with hopes that they would (and still will) return and reconstruct their home countries. The Shah’s effort to do this was perhaps one of the first at scale (Iranian students became the largest foreign student group in the US), rather than relying only on well-to-do families to take care of their own. National programs of such scholarships (including China, Singapore, Rwanda, and elsewhere) have become an important norm in recent decades along with the founding of new (mainly technical) universities and a competition among them for competitive ratings, investments, recruitments from transnational industries, along with reconfigured supply lines and political economies. Accompanying these are intensified anxiety structures and subjectivities among the younger generations that a future Moradian will want to explore, amidst talk (and realities) of climate change, environmental degradation, and destruction by unbridled capitalism of either the American or Asian varieties.
This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho. Featured image: Interior spread of Days of Blood, Days of Fire. Photograph by Rana Javadi / Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)