The Iranian regime faces a daunting puzzle: How to translate the ideals of the 1979 revolution to a new generation.
That question launched Narges Bajoghli into her research in Iran, which focuses on pro-revolution communication.
“In Iran this is an important question because over 75 percent of the population is under the age of 35, meaning they don't remember the revolution,” Bajoghli said.
Bajoghli told KGOU’s World Views that young Iranian people want reform, but they don’t necessarily want another revolution. They prefer a slower process.
“The revolution there just happened a generation and a half ago,” Bajoghli said. “You hear a lot of young people saying, ‘we don't want revolution. Look at what revolution got us.”
Narges Bajoghli is an anthropologist and filmmaker, who is currently a postdoctoral research associate in International Public Affairs at the Watson Institute at Brown University. Bajoghli immigrated from Iran to the United States when she was three years old. She returned to Iran later in life to research.
At twenty years old, Bajoghli co-founded the nonprofit, Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB). Her recent works include directing and editing The Skin That Burns, a documentary about Iran’s volunteer soldiers who were exposed to chemical bombs during the Iran-Iraq War. In addition to numerous publications, Bajoghli has worked with CNN and The New York Times Magazine, and contributed to a policy report on Iran for the United States President in 2016.
Iran’s Islamic Republic features two competing elements because it comprises of both a supreme religious leader and an elected parliament. The Revolutionary Guard was founded to support the supreme leader, and now has millions of active and former members.
But Bajoghli says people in Iran want reform.
“Among the general population there has been evidence, and very strong evidence, of a push to strengthen the Republican part of the Islamic Republic and sort of de-center the Islamic part as much as possible,” Bajoghli said.
She says there are the Revolutionary Guard even has its reformist elements.
“It's not a monolithic organization,” she said.
Iranian women have played a central role in the push for reform. While oppression exists in certain sectors of society, women are visible in many important roles.
“You see women active in every single sector of society,” Bajoghli said.
Women are now over 60 percent of the university population in Iran, Bajoghli says.
“These are the things that women were not granted, but have taken,” she says.
And, she adds, the women’s movement is the strongest movement in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
On predicting social movements
I think if anyone predicts revolution or not I think, sorry to say, but I think they're a fool because it's very difficult to predict social movements in any country around the world. . . It is extremely difficult to predict social movements. When they will come. How they will take place. So I'm not going to predict one way or another. But one thing that we have seen in the past decade and a half in Iran is a very conscientious move, especially by women and young people, to push for reform within the country. And one, there was a massive popular uprising in 2009 after the contested elections there. There was a huge push for for reform then, but not a push for a revolution.
On the U.S.’s perceptions of the Revolutionary Guard
It's not a monolithic organization and it assumes that there are not modern moderates and reformists components within the Revolutionary Guard. And there definitely are. So one thing that I think, and what I'm trying to show through my research, is that this organization and the paramilitary Basij organization are actually much more heterogeneous and there are so many different kinds of sort of thought processes and people who believe in different, who have different notions of what the future is.
Joshua Landis: Narges Bajoghli it's a pleasure having you here in Norman, Oklahoma.
Narges Bajoghli: Thank you for having me.
Landis: You write about Iran. You're an Iran. You're a Ph.D. you've written on the IRGC - the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - and their media operations. Tell us a little bit about how the revolutionary side of Iran tries to project itself. What are its objectives?
Bajoghli: Sure. So I you know when I was starting my research by sort of big question was How does a revolutionary regime that's become the status quo keep commitment to its original revolutionary ideals alive from one generation to the next. And in Iran this is an important question because over 75 percent of the population is under the age of 35 meaning they don't remember the revolution.
And so what I wanted to really focus on is look at how the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij organization which is sort of under the Revolutionary Guard used media to communicate these ideas that they have about the future of the Islamic Republic to this young generation specifically.
Landis: The IRGC reports directly to the Supreme Guide, to Khamenei, right. Yes not to the Parliament not to the president now. Right so now where does the army reports also.
Bajoghli: Yes. In Iran there is a division between the sort of regular army known as the artist and the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard was set up to to sort of safeguard the revolution because Khomeini when he triumphs in 1979 believe that the military was still too loyal to the Shah's regime and he feared a military coup d'etat. And so that's why he went in and set up the revolutionary guard. However in post-war Iran and the war that I'm referring to is the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War. In postwar Iran, there were more and more leeway given to the Revolutionary Guard to begin reconstructing the country after the war. And so today, yes, the Revolutionary Guard sort of responds to or answers to the supreme leader. But at the same time what's key to note is that the Revolutionary Guard today is the biggest and most independently wealthy institution in the Islamic Republic.
Landis: Four million people. So how big is a revolutionary guard?
Bajoghli: I mean the Revolutionary Guard itself is you know all of these things become very complicated to actually pin down number wise because you have the people who are in the different armed forces of the Revolutionary Guard from the Navy to the ground forces to the Air Force. But at the same time you have those who were veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who served in the Revolutionary Guard who now are no longer active members but are veterans and still sort of identify themselves as a part of the guard. And then you have those who have sort of retired from the guard but have gone into business. And so when we talk about you know the businesses that the Revolutionary Guard control what we're actually sort of referring to are these contracting and subcontracting companies that have been set up by people who were in the Revolutionary Guard but who have now some sort of since turned to businessmen. So you know it's difficult because we in the outside part...
Landis: How big of a part of the economy is that? I mean these are so important because everybody argues in the States "Oh the IRJC is too powerful. It's got all of this control of the economy. We're never going to change Iran. The moderates can't win. And let's stop trying to placate them."
Bajoghli: Well I think there are a few problems to that sort of line of thinking because, first of all, it assumes that the Revolutionary Guard is monolithic and it's not. It's not a monolithic organization and it assumes that there are not modern moderates and reformists components within the Revolutionary Guard. And there definitely are.
So one thing that I think and what I'm trying to show through my research is that this organization and the paramilitary Basij organization are actually much more heterogeneous and there are so many different kinds of sort of thought processes and people who believe in a different who have different notions of what the future is.
Landis: So you could get reform coming from within?
Bajoghli: Yeah it is definitely revolutionary forces.
Landis: It not unlike the communist party in Russia where we saw it evolve and ultimately it was the communists who decided they'd had enough and they wanted to change the country.
Bajoghli: I mean within Iran in the past 15 years the the leaders the political leaders of the rival of the reformist movement have been within the rank and file of the Islamic Republic. I mean it's driven from a bottom approach of the population pushing for that. But you have politically reformists from within the regime wanting reform. You also see the same thing in the Revolutionary Guard as well.
I mean especially once you mix in my opinion money with with ideology as the Revolutionary Guard have with the businesses that they have at. At the end of the day it becomes very difficult to know if money wins out or if ideology wins out.
And I think especially you know with the heavy sanctions regime against Iran yes there were parts of the Revolutionary Guard that were heavily you know benefiting from the sanctions but there were also other parts of the Revolutionary Guard and some of their businesses that were not benefiting from the sanctions regime and would actually benefit from a more sort of open trade relations with the rest of the world. And so these are things that it's difficult because outside we see them as being so sort of monolithic and they're definitely not like that.
Landis: The idea of an Islamic republic that was established in 1979 which is that God should rule. Man should not rule. Iran came up with this hybrid regime in it which is sort of a bit Republic and a bit Islamic in a sense that you've got a supreme guide Khomeini who's supposed to be the highest cleric that Mudgett to believe that everybody should emulate the Pope if you will of Shia Islam and yet you've got an elected parliament with some notion of popular sovereignty and a president who's responsible to the parliament. It's an odd hybrid regime. How many people in Iran believe in the idea that God should be the ultimate authority and should be ruling man and that man can't rule them self?
Bajoghli: Well I mean you know first of all the the notion of the rule of jurisprudence which Khomeini created prior to taking power in Iran you know some people have said OK well this is a traditional sort of idea and he implemented that. He created that idea. I mean it was there are many Shia clerics who do not agree with him. And this this notion of the role of jurisprudence.
Landis: But the rule the idea that God should rule. We've seen it in the Muslim Brotherhood. We see it in the the caliphate that ISIS created in Iraq and Syria. The idea that God is supreme and that humans are his servants and that they should not be making legislation, that this is arrogance and it's arrogating the position of God in society that is in a sense creating polytheism. And that's a critique of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists writ large Islamist in Iran with their Shiite or in the Sunni world. And it's an idea that flies in the face of enlightenment values that the United States is always kicking the Middle East to do to digest and in in some ways the Middle East is torn between these two ideas and there are people who are pulling on both sides. How do you know if you had to rate for us where that struggle is in Iran between these two concepts of sovereignty. God is sovereign or human sovereign. Where is that contest today?
Bajoghli: I would say that among the general population there has been evidence and very strong evidence of a push to strengthen the Republican part of the Islamic Republic and sort of de-center the Islamic part as much as possible. The clerics have some of the clerics who are involved in the politics of the Islamic Republic obviously have a vested interest in not having that happen. But the non clerics who are involved in the Islamic Republic as well as the general population are sort of pushing for the more Republican side of the Islamic republic rather than the Islamic side. And we see that from popular protests that erupt in the country every few years to just general discussions that happen in the newspapers and on television and radio within and outside of Iran. So I think that this is something that has been an ongoing and very vibrant discussion in Iran for for at least a decade and a half if not a bit more.
Landis: You sound hopeful that reform can work its way in a sense a British model where the vote gets broadened out as it happened in Britain in 19th century, you have a monarchy and a parliament at the same time and that the franchise which went on for only a few small property people was brought and the voting franchise over a period of 100 years a little bit less I guess in England ended women got it in 1920 so it took a long time to bring everybody into this way. You are hopeful that this kind of evolution that's non revolutionary, nonviolent could take place in Iran and that is that you don't expect to have a big revolution where the Islamic part of it is going to be overthrown violently.
Bajoghli: Well look, I think if anyone predicts revolution or not I think sorry to say but I think they're a fool because it's very difficult to predict social movements in any country around the world. I mean President Carter is famous on New Year's Eve in 1978. He was in Tehran and he toasted to the island of stability in the Middle East meaning Iran. And within months there was a popular revolution. These are things we saw with the Arab Spring. We see it with revolutionary movements pretty much anywhere around the world. It is extremely difficult to predict social movements when they will come how they will take place. So I'm not going to predict one way or another. But one thing that we have seen in the past decade and a half in Iran is a very conscientious move especially by women and young people to push for reform within the country. And one, there was a massive popular uprising in 2009 after the contested elections there. There was a huge push for for reform and then but not a push for a revolution. And one of the things that you hear a lot of in Iran is because the revolution there just happened a generation and a half ago you hear a lot of young people saying we don't want revolution. Look at what revolution got us. We don't we want things to sort of happen slowly. And they're moving in the right direction many people believe there are lots of bumps in the road. There are a lot of frustrations. But the demographic reality in Iran is on the side of reform. I mean it's on the pure basis of the youth population is just too large and that population wants change.
Landis: So if I hear you correctly if you're advising the U.S. government is be patient, be liberal, open trade helped build a middle class in Iran. Don't start it. Don't sanction it. Don't treat it in the meaner way, and it'll take care of itself. Iran is on the right track.
Bajoghli: Yeah I definitely believe that. I mean I think you have a very highly educated population, a very tech savvy youth population. You have women involved in pretty much all sectors of society.
Landis: Let me ask you about women. You went in your 20s, after growing up in the United States, coming here when you were three, you went back and spent a long time in Iran doing research. What was it like being a woman in Iran? Was it what you expected when you went there having grown up in the United States? Was it different? What did you notice?
Bajoghli: You know especially in the urban centers in Iran, and I was living in Tehran for most of the time, and that's a city of a little bit over 11 million people, so it's a very massive city. For the most part, women are visible in every single sector of society. And when the women's movement has been the strongest movement in Iran since the 1979 revolution especially against the government and it's a very it's a very strong movement it's a very active movement, and it's a movement that is constantly pushing for change. And because of that, you have a situation in which, yes, there are difficulties especially for example women still cannot be judges in Iran but they can be lawyers. There are certain sort of restrictions put in in that way. However you now have a situation in which over 60 percent of the university population in Iran are females. So these are these are things that women were not granted but have taken. And and because of that you have this grassroots movement that is sort of women themselves are pushing themselves into all different parts of society. I know from the outside people think of Iran and they think that it's this very oppressive place for women and there are definitely oppressive laws in place. I'm not excusing that. But on the ground, you see women active in every in every single sector of society.
Landis: That's great. Narges Bajoghli, it is a pleasure to be with you today.
Bajoghli: Thank you for having me.
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