Pegah Ahangarani was flicking through old family photographs when she landed on one that showed a group of kids — including her as a child — clambering around a tree somewhere in the Iranian countryside. There were smiles, boys showing off for the camera, and a man standing at the front.
His name was Gholam, a close family friend. Then the family stopped talking about Gholam. He stopped coming to their house. Gholam disappeared. In the photo, his face was scratched out. Ahangarani would later find out he had been executed in the late 1980s.
The rediscovery of this lost memory prompted Ahangarani to do what many other younger Iranians are now doing: looking for the ghosts of the Islamic Republic’s brutal past and interrogating the state’s version of history as it tries to suppress the biggest challenge to its authority since the revolution 44 years ago.
Ahangarani made a short film about Gholam and the impact his disappearance had on her as a child growing up following the overthrow of the shah in 1979. I’m Trying to Remember is part of a recent phenomenon among younger, often secular, Iranians of raking over traumas — some personal, some national — in podcasts, documentaries and Twitter threads. The scrutiny has intensified since the death of a young woman in police custody triggered the latest wave of protests in Iran.
“We’re fishing in the archives of our families and dragging out some sort of catch,” said Ahangarani, 38, who is a prominent actress in Iran. “There is definitely a link between this and the unrest.”
From the dictatorships of Latin America to communist Eastern Europe, many people who endured regimes and their security forces have stories to tell about relatives and friends who vanished. The Islamic Republic, meanwhile, has demonstrated an ability to withstand geopolitical upheaval and public dissent while authoritarian leaderships crumbled elsewhere.
That resilience is being tested like rarely before as the revolution marks another anniversary this weekend. The chasm has widened between the aging clerics determined to remain in charge and the more youthful protesters who want to upend the entire regime.
Iran’s Islamist rulers themselves came to power after violent street protests that led to the military stepping aside and the monarchy fleeing. They promised a prosperous economy open to the poor, the fair distribution of Iran’s vast oil wealth and a democratic political system — albeit amid the chaos of political reprisals, the taking of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran and the protracted war with neighboring Iraq.
More than four decades later, the economy is trapped between cycles of international sanctions and corrupt governance, an energy industry that lags way behind its regional peers and oil output that has never managed to reach levels seen before 1979. Millions of people rely on government handouts for fuel and food and poverty levels have soared this year, according to official estimates.
Non-Muslims and women are banned from high office, while minorities like the Kurds are marginalized or persecuted and homosexuality is punishable by death. Parties that don’t support Ali Khamenei, the country’s 83-year-old supreme leader, can’t exist.
The theocracy is underpinned by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. It has sought to crush the protests triggered by the death in September of Mahsa Zhina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who had been arrested by the so-called morality police for allegedly breaking the strict Islamic dress code.
The regime still has a “powerful repressive apparatus and a willingness to use it without any limitation,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Washington-based International Crisis Group. But much like the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, it’s an approach that cannot be sustained and will inevitably reach a “tipping point,” Vaez said. That could be Khamenei’s death, another revolution, a military confrontation, or — the most likely — a complete takeover of the state by the IRGC, he added.
Tuning In to Radio Tragedy
Most of Iran’s 88 million population was born after the revolution. Now, those who inherited the system that rules them are examining how much it has affected their lives and how deeply adrift they are from it — particularly women, and all turbocharged by the recent protests.
The social-media profiles of young protesters paint a picture of a youth culture ambivalent to the ideologies of the state. Lengthy threads and dedicated accounts on Twitter examine past events like the so-called chain murders of the 1990s that were widely blamed on the state.
Podcasts such as Radio Tragedy, Radio Marz and Gazette have — for now — bypassed censorship to build loyal followings among those inside and outside the country.
At Radio Marz, journalist Marzieh Rasouli dissects both past events and social issues by gathering first-hand accounts. Since the protests started, she has spoken to a range of women about the hijab head covering and to older Iranians who voted “No” in the 1979 referendum on establishing an Islamic Republic.
In an episode published in October, she spoke to young women who have been arrested by the morality police and “how this experience has created a distance between them and their families,” she said in the introduction. Rasouli herself served time in prison for “spreading propaganda against the system.”
A new wave of films and documentaries — by Iranians who were children in the 1980s — rely on archives, contemporary accounts and personal footage to address past events that were deliberately concealed, destroyed or distorted. Farnaz and Mohammadreza Jurabchian’s film Silent House last year studied three generations of an upper-middle class family in Tehran. Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider recounted how a devout man murdered sex workers in the religious city of Mashhad in the early 2000s.
“People are no longer forgetting, and they won’t stop forgetting — we will constantly talk about it,” said Ahangarani. “We won’t go back to how things were before.”
For Ahangarani, revisiting suppressed narratives is necessary to help banish the fear that many Iranians grew up with. She doesn’t know who scratched out Gholam’s face in the photo, or who scribbled blue pen on his body. But she does know her interpretation of what she remembers resonates with thousands of other Iranians who saw people disappear from their lives. Gholam, she said, vanished in 1988.
That helps explain the motivation of protesters who have continued to take to the streets since the death of Amini, and the response of the authorities. Protesters were among prisoners included in Khamenei’s annual pardon, which he announced in the runup to this weekend’s celebrations. But the gesture excludes anyone arrested in the demonstrations convicted of serious offenses and who may face the death penalty. Meanwhile, the most restive provinces in the northwest and southeast still pose a challenge to the security forces.
The regime’s intransigence over the past four decades has “continuously undermined its own legitimacy,” said Vaez. That reflects the “insular nature of the leadership and its lack of understanding of a society that, unlike the Islamic Republic, has evolved tremendously,” he said.
Failure of the Reformists
It would be a mistake, though, to ignore the backing the regime still enjoys from some sections of the population. Thousands of people will converge on Tehran’s Azadi Square on Saturday, scene of the protests that brought down the shah four decades ago. Officials and deeply religious families with women dressed in the chador, a black full-length cloak, will make up the bulk of the crowd as usual. Others will be lured by food handouts and free juice boxes.
Those supporters are in sharp contrast to Iranians like Ahangarani — well-educated, well-travelled, from the bustle of Tehran’s urban sprawl, and raised with the idea that change meant challenging hardliners and rallying around reformist political factions. Brief periods of economic growth, driven by healthy trade ties with Europe or record-high oil prices helped expand the middle class, and blunt the traumas of the past.
The leadership of former President Hassan Rouhani was the last gasp for reform, his efforts undermined by the US decision in 2018 to pull out of an historic deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Sanctions were redoubled. Rouhani also failed to live up to any promises to improve civil liberties or address corruption. The United Nations said human rights had worsened during his eight years in power.
For many Iranians, their relationship with the state was irreparably broken in 2019 on Rouhani’s watch. Security forces killed hundreds of people in fuel protests. Then, six weeks later, a Ukrainian airliner carrying Iranians was shot down by the IRGC shortly after takeoff from Tehran. The IRGC claimed it had mistaken the plane for an American missile following the US assassination of one of Iran’s most powerful generals just days earlier.
Iran’s complete control by the hardliners was cemented in June 2021, when Ebrahim Raisi, a deeply conservative cleric accused by various rights groups of having a key role in mass executions in the 1980s, was voted president on a record-low turnout after a heavily engineered race.
And while US President Joe Biden and European allies have sought to revive the nuclear deal, Iran is delaying. Any agreement looks unlikely with the ongoing protests and Tehran supplying Russia with military equipment for the war in Ukraine.
In another draconian move, Khamenei appointed Ahmad-Reza Radan, who pioneered efforts to enforce religious laws that target women, as head of Tehran’s police force in December. “They think they need someone who is that much more violent,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, Washington-based director of Femena, a group supporting female human rights defenders in the Middle East. It’s not just how Radan might treat women, she said, “but how he views Iranian citizens as a whole.”
Human rights groups say more than 500 people have been killed and at least 20,000 arrested since September. Four men have been executed. The authorities describe the protests as riots backed by foreign intervention. Among those killed are teenagers who enjoyed singing Taylor Swift songs, karate athletes and a nine-year-old boy who dedicated his school science project to the “God of Rainbows.” The authorities have denied involvement in any of the deaths.
Several leading figures in Iran’s reformist movement have released statements either admitting that they had failed Iranians or calling for the constitution to be overhauled urgently. They include Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime Minister who has been under house arrest since 2009 after losing that year’s disputed presidential election.
Ahangarani’s generation is motivated by the realization that the whole system needs to be upended, she said. The actress, who left Tehran last year to promote her film, believes the regime is “condemned to go.” Everyday, with each decision they make, they “tighten the circle around themselves” making it impossible to reverse course or redeem their image, she said.
“My generation was expected to forget about the killings and the murders, but now it’s saying ‘Mahsa’ every day,” she said. “We’re doing the opposite of what we did before.”
--With assistance from Caroline Alexander.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.