Would the Shah Return?
Back in 2009, which was definitely “a”-but not the only, turning point in Iranian politics, there was a lot of resentment and anger towards the regime. Protesters who poured on to the streets after the infamous rigged 2009 presidential elections were actually not satisfied with the system itself. However, since it was Ahmadinejad who was in power at the time, the anger of the people had turned towards the Principlists. So, the hope was for the reformists to take power and make things better.
A deal with the US would be reached, sanctions would be lifted, economy would improve, man on the street would be making more money, there would be more freedoms. Everybody knew that when reformists grabbed power, democracy would not be installed in a day, but things would -at least, improve slowly. None of that happened. Years after Ahmadinejad was excommunicated by Khamenei, the religious head of the state and the military, in 2009, the moderate Rohani was given the power. A deal was reached with the West, but it had failed to endure in the long term. Sanctions are coming back, and the Rial is plummeting against the dollar. Although the government started instituting a policy of fixed rates, economy has come to a halt and Iranians feel they are getting poorer and poorer by the day.
Sanctions were not the only problem for Iranian economy, and it seems like this period has helped the Iranians understand this fact better. Iranian economy has structural problems, i.e. The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) having a grip on the economy, widespread existence of clientelism and patronage. To be able to run a simple mid-size business, one has to have ties with the IRG or have the permission of the group.
The absence of rule of law is also a problem for the market. The latest debate in Iran gives us a hint about the issue. The chief of staff of the Army, Firouzabadi, has been living in a Villa, to the north of Tehran, confiscated from a civilian during the revolution. Now he is being asked to hand it back. Although, Khamenei advised Firouzabadi to hand back the property in this specific case, the awful fact is that, the sources of assets of other Revolutionary elite are no different. And once IRGC or some other big gun of the regime wants to confiscate a property, there is not much to be done about it.
On the other hand, not much has improved in terms of rights and freedoms either. One symbolic incident, for example, was the death of Kavous Seyed İmami. Mr. Imami was a Canadian- Iranian environmentalist who was basically taking long hikes and advocating for the environment. He was put in prison with charges of being a spy, and he was later found dead in his cell. Authorities claimed he committed suicide. The world became aware of the incident because İmami was a Canadian citizen. There are hundreds of such cases. For human rights activists, life still remains to be hell in Iran.
Iranians have been realizing more and more each day that the problem is not the Principlists or conservatives within the system, but rather, the system itself. Even though “the left” or the “moderates” are inserted into the power, nothing much changes. It was not Ahmadinejad that was the real problem, it was the regime lords, who stand against the rule of law and basic freedoms.
The resentment against the regime has brought The Shah back into the conversation in a very peculiar way. His return is being talked about in different circles which is both surprising and not surprising at the same time. With the heavy doctrinarian ruling style of the regime, The Shah is understandably the only thing the young Iranians recognize as the opposite of the regime. And this is probably why this is the first political alternative that comes to young Iranians’ minds.
Back in 2009, I saw a graffiti on a wall, just across the Mellat Park, in the very heart of Tehran during the protests. It said: “The Shah must come back”. Back then, the protesters did not take it seriously, and thought it was written by IRGC spies to hijack the demonstrations. 9 years later after 2009, at the very end of 2017, protests erupted in smaller Iranian cities. Young people from working class families were pouring onto the streets. This was a youth without any hope and future, means, or the money. They were chanting on the streets of Rural Iran, for Shah to come back. Those young people probably did not know much about the Shah, since they came three generations after the fall of the Shah. They did not know about his brutal secret service SAVAK, or Shah’s police tearing Iranian women’s chadors. All they knew was, Iran was much more prosperous and connected to the rest of the world during the reign of Shah.
And now like a final drop, the bazargans, the salesmen of Tehran’s grand market, have been protesting on the streets of Tehran. Young people’s protests in smaller cities a few months ago were not taken seriously; even the IRGC was not mobilized, as local security forces have been sufficient in crushing down the protests. But now things are getting more serious. IRGC is mobilized to curb the Bazargan protests. Regime remembers these protests well: at the end of the day it had been the Bazargan protests back in 1979, that initiated a mass uprising against the Shah regime. This time though, angry salesmen are chanting against the current regime, and in favor of the Shah, in the very heart of Tehran.
Even the Instagram account, Rich Kids of Tehran, which manifests the rich and lavish lifestyles of the rich young Iranians, have been sharing Pro Shah posts. One of these posts compares the value of Iranian Rial against the US dollar during Shah’s time and now. Well, it may just be an Instagram account, but the only rich people in Iran are the regime’s elites. This Instagram account has been showcasing the lives of grandchildren of the revolutionaries, who had access to the means and the money.
When Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran in 1979, the now-famous headline of the newspapers was “Shah raft” which simply meant “Shah has left”. This was basically how the revolution happened at first glance. Now what would the same newspapers write if the son of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Reza Pahlavi was to return to Iran with some sort of a deal. Although it may be early to speak of such a deal and possibility, this region teaches you to be ready for any political choice, anytime.