Pouya Alimagham, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Pouya Alimagham (PA): There are many reasons why I wrote the book. First, I saw the Green Uprising unfold in real-time and I was captivated by how the demonstrators harnessed Iran’s revolutionary history to protest the outcome of the revolution thirty years later. They were not seditionists or counter-revolutionaries—as the state alleged—but they were pushing forward a process that began in 1978. If the Iranian Revolution was about freedom and independence, there is no question that the latter was achieved. There is, however, plenty of discussion about freedom in Iran and what type of freedom has been achieved. I wanted to chronicle the discussion as to how Iranians themselves view freedom or the lack thereof, and how the protests manifested a yearning for more.
I also wrote this book as someone whose entire interest in academia began with the Iranian Revolution. As such, I did not see the protest movement of 2009 as being rooted in that time or even place. It was the outcome of a long history that goes back vertically in Iran and horizontally in the wider region.
I also wanted to complicate the narrative that the Green Uprising was a failure. Just as it would be historically incorrect to think of the movement as being confined to starting on election day (12 June 2009) and ending with its nominal defeat on Revolution Day (11 February 2010), it would also be problematic to view it through a win-lose prism. Yes, it failed to abrogate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election “win,” and yes, it failed to overturn the system that ratified his second term, but the uprising achieved much if we are able to transcend that limiting win-lose, start-finish binary. In that vein, I also wanted to problematize the narrative that the protests were an outburst of reformist energy. The movement was multi-faceted and dynamic. Any such generalization is a disservice to the plurality of voices present in the uprising.
Lastly, I felt a kinship to the activists who made this history, and I thought this history should be told—and told right. As a result, I felt a heavy burden to research and analyze it accurately, and to make sure all my sources were credible. The book came out more than two years after I received my book contract because I wanted to check every detail and make sure I consulted the appropriate sources. That is, the most contentious claims are cross-referenced and corroborated with multiple citations to ensure veracity.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PA: I was mindful not to be held captive to history, but, at the same time, much of 2009 is rooted in the Iranian Revolution. As a result of there not being many books yet written about the events of 2009-10, I intertwined the literature of the Iranian Revolution with Asef Bayat’s theory of post-Islamism to make sense of the Green Uprising. In order to do so, I analyzed the uprising through the framework of the British Marxist tradition of “history from below” or a “bottom-up” approach to decenter the state, nation, and “great men of history” in favor of the women and men on the ground who were the central agents of history-making.
I argue that this history demonstrates that large segments of Iranian society, including revolutionary leaders and some clerics, are moving beyond the rigidity of the Islamist ideology in favor of a more pluralistic system. That is not to say that this was a movement of atheists or irreligion, but one that stressed civic rights over religious duties; to save religion from the state that operates under the rubric of a narrow religious interpretation.
The book also situates the history of the Green Uprising within Iran’s long history of contentious politics as well as the revolutionary history of the region. Because the uprising predates the Arab Uprisings, the book also considers its connectivity to 2011 and how the “Arab Spring,” in turn, impacted the Green Movement when opposition leaders tried to harness its momentum to rekindle their revolt.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PA: While the book is based on my PhD dissertation, it is very much autobiographical—even though I am not directly present in the book. There are a few footnotes that include some relevant family history, but I do not speak in the first person beyond a disclaimer in the introduction. This is probably true of many Iranians who grew up in the United States and write about Iran; it is a history that not only shapes us but has followed us here. As such, much of what I have written and taught, even as an undergraduate when I student-ran a course on modern Iran at UC Berkeley, is rooted in the Iranian Revolution. That is precisely why this history is fascinating; these roots not only ground us but they have shaped our past, present, and future—and that is how the Green Uprising came to my attention. It harnessed the history, symbols, and dominant ideology of the Iranian Revolution to contest the outcome of that very revolution, the Islamic Republic.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PA: I hope anyone interested in modern Iranian and Middle Eastern politics will read this book. I also hope that anyone who is interested in Islam, especially those who think Islam and the state are inherently intertwined and must produce authoritarianism, will give the book a chance. If so, they will see that the hegemonic state-centered Islamic discourse can produce a popular resistance to it using the same emotive universe—that Islam can be used to legitimate a state but similarly legitimate a resistance to that very Islamic government.
I also hope people interested in the place where Palestinian liberation intersects with radical Iranian politics will read the book. It is often asked “Why are Iranians more Catholic than the Pope?” when it comes to Palestine. I explored the answer that very question in chapter four, “Contesting Palestine: Generating Revolutionary Meaning.”
Moreover, I hope readers interested in women’s studies and Iran will give the book a chance. I very much tried to ensure that gender issues and the role of women in this history were centered.
In the end, I hope the reader sets the book down understanding that history is a “crooked line” but a line nonetheless; that history informed the Green Uprisings, and the history of the Green Uprisings informs subsequent protests and uprisings. It is one genealogy of contentious politics, and I hope readers and activists bind this history with the history of events that follow the Green Uprising.
J: What sort of impact would you not like the book to have?
PA: I am very concerned that the book will be used as a license to justify hawkish foreign policies vis-à-vis Iran. In fact, I am so worried about such a misuse of the book that I laid out my intentions for writing it in the preface; I have chosen it as the excerpt to share as part of this interview.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PA: My most recent project is one that is finally removed from the Iranian Revolution—though it still focuses on the efficacy of political symbols. It is a chapter for an edited book on the psycho-history of post-September 11 discourse—how the Bush administration deployed certain language and symbolism to garner public support for its disastrous war of choice in Iraq.
In the long term, I hope to heed Ervand Abrahamian’s call. He made a point several years ago at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference that there is a lack of academic works pertaining to the Iran-Iraq War. It is wonderful to see scholars slowly filling this void. I hope to contribute to this expanding literature.
Excerpt from the book (from the preface):
I applied to the PhD program at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2008. What I had envisioned for my graduate research was completely supplanted by the events of the summer of 2009 in Iran. I matriculated in the fall while watching the post-election turmoil unfold in the country of my birth. By the spring of 2010 when the crisis had largely subsided, I took a course with Geoff Eley, for which I wrote a seminar paper on crowd action in the Green Uprising – the kernel of what would become my PhD dissertation and later this book.
When I began writing the seminar paper, I used “the Islamic Republic,” “the Islamic government,” and “the Islamic state” interchangeably. By the summer of 2014, after I had completed my graduate coursework, teaching requirements, and preliminary exams, and was researching and writing my dissertation, I had to go back and remove “Islamic state” from my chapters. By then, the so-called Islamic State group had spread its tentacles over parts of Syria and Iraq, and referring to the Iranian government as “the Islamic state” would have been confusing. The Middle East, indeed, changes quickly – for better or worse – making the job of a graduate history student or a historian all the more interesting and difficult at the same time.
While writing this manuscript and keeping it updated, I have often contemplated how this history will unfold in the years ahead. Of course, it is not the job of the historian to make predictions, but I have striven to write this book in a manner that is open ended in terms of the history that I have chronicled. In other words, this is not merely a book about what happened in 2009 and how the preceding decades inform that history, but also how the Green Uprising can inform subsequent history.
At the same time, if I am completely honest, I seriously considered not publishing this manuscript at all, and leaving it confined to the dissertation catalogue at the University of Michigan. I worried that people or groups would take this research and deploy it in the service of their narrow political agendas. In the end, I decided against burying it because of the connection that I felt to the historical agents present in it. The women and men of this period deserve to have the truth of what happened heard. I do not mean to aggrandize the importance of my scholarship. It may very well be that few read this book – in today’s world fewer and fewer books are being read. In any case, I hope to control its uses and potential abuses by outlining my intentions clearly for the reader.
Under no circumstances should this book be used to legitimize confrontation of any kind with Iran. I emphatically believe that the future of Iran should be determined solely by Iranians in Iran – those who know best the reality that they face. More importantly, the fact that Iran’s future affects them first and foremost also gives weight to the primacy of their views and wants. They retain their agency, and have erupted in revolt time and again. The Green Movement is part of a long, robust, and organic history of Iranians seeking more humane and representative governance. To be clear, Iran’s future is not the business of any other person, group, or government. Foreign heads of state, especially those who speak of freedom for Iranians while either denying it to others or enabling and protecting authoritarian regimes, do more harm than good in their “support” of the Iranian people. Their interference empowers the Iranian government to cast cracking down on dissent as part of an effort to stave off imperialism. Added to this are Iranians in the expatriate community, from which I come, some of whom fail to listen to their counterparts inside the country, instead telling them what they should want, need, or do.
What is more, outside interference has frequently undermined those who seek democratic governance in Iran, with the decisions or actions of another country retarding Iran’s organic political evolution. No more obvious example exists than the US-led overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Another example can be found in October 1979, when President Carter decided to allow the Shah into the United States for medical treatment. That decision ultimately led to the militant seizure of the US embassy in Tehran – a crisis that the Islamists exploited to outmaneuver their opponents and pass their constitution. The subsequent Iraqi invasion gave the state the necessary political cover to consolidate power by castigating its challengers as traitors for criticizing the government at a time of war. Two decades later, with his “axis of evil” State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush inadvertently assisted the conservative backlash in Iran against a moderate president, Muhammad Khatami. Most recently, President Donald Trump has violated international law, subverting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, known as “the Iran nuclear deal”) by pulling the United States out of the agreement. In doing so, Trump undermined the centrist presidency of Hassan Rouhani by legitimizing the long-standing attacks of his conservative enemies. Before signing the agreement, they had accused Rouhani of naivety for thinking that the US would ever honor its agreements with Iran, and doubted whether America could ever reconcile itself to the outcome of the Iranian Revolution. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has certainly given credibility to the conservative push against Rouhani.
I firmly believe that sanctions, military strikes, “regime change,” and especially war will set Iran’s struggle for democracy back decades – just as the US-led overthrow of Muhammad Mossadeq did in 1953. Above all, such policies would exact a human toll that should be avoided at all costs. Iranians and the people of the region have been through enough. In other words, while this manuscript is a testament to the injustice that so many Iranians have faced at the hands of their own governments, it should not be taken as a license for hawkish foreign policies toward the Persian Gulf country.
On a late Thursday afternoon in spring 2006, my father, Shahram, and I went to the martyrs’ section of Behesht-i Zahra Cemetery in Tehran. What we did not know was that every Thursday before the Islamic day of rest, many families gather beside the graves of loved ones who died in the revolution or war. They had watermelon slices, dates, and candy to give to passers-by like us on the promise that we would pray for the soul of their departed.
My father and I approached several families to talk with them and express our condolences. I was unable to speak, but my father uttered my every sentiment without me telling him what to say. After visiting the fourth or fifth family, I took a deep breath and stayed back to talk with a chador-clad mother whose son had died in the Iran–Iraq War. She told me something that has stayed with me to this very day, and throughout the writing of this manuscript: “I hope my son didn’t die in vain, and this generation fixes Iran’s problems.” If Iranian history teaches us anything, it is that every generation is up to the task.
I hope that this manuscript attests to the ability of Iranians to rise to the challenge, and I hope we stay out of their way and let them continue with the mantle that generations of fighters have passed onto them.