Covering Iran: Leftist Continuities and Discontinuities, from Propaganda to PR

By Arash Davari

A significant portion of those involved in the secularist left movement of the 1979 Revolution in Iran ended up living, and raising children, outside of Iran. If they didn’t directly influence diasporic knowledge production, they may have done so by virtue of what they instilled in their children––or what their children reacted against. This intergenerational story could yield insight into contemporary public debates about Iran.

Here are three propositions:

  1. There may be a relationship between what an earlier generation called propaganda and what second-generation diasporic Iranians today call public relations.

In the decade preceding the 1979 Revolution, the secularist left oriented itself around the popularity of a new mode of guerrilla warfare. Regardless of whether or not various groupings embraced this guerrilla warfare, all were compelled to respond. Guerrilla warfare in 1970s Iran was distinct. Its objectives moved away from organized mobilization and instead adopted symbolism. Guerrilla warfare was an act of publicity intended for an audience otherwise so enmeshed in its predicament it wasn’t able to change its own subject position to receive a revolutionary message, much less act upon one. This quality is perhaps best exemplified by Amir Parviz Puyan’s thesis of “two absolutes.”[1] At a time when any public form of political dissent had been foreclosed, urban guerrilla attacks were said to change the given symbolic terrain. By the very fact of their occurrence, they challenged the notion that the Pahlavi state exuded absolute control (absolute #1). That challenge would dissolve the notion that they were so oppressed as to preclude any form of oppositional activity (absolute #2). Even Bizhan Jazani, who offered a more grounded theory of mobilization, likely rooted in his early formation within the Tudeh Party, argued for the value of “armed propaganda.”[2] Leftists abroad, most of them student activists in the Confederation of Iranian Students-National Union (CISNU), adopted a similar strategy. Pre-1979 student activists were effective precisely because they wielded human rights discourse as an instrument of propaganda, bringing attention to the torture and imprisonment of guerrilla activists (at times with grandiose exaggeration) to delegitimize the international standing of the Pahlavi state.[3]

In his now classic study of the student movement abroad, Afshin Matin-asgari makes an important observation about democratic procedure: CISNU’s lasting impact lies in convening and achieving consensus despite significant ideological differences between various factions. This observation looks beyond what was said, focusing instead on how it was said.[4]

Can we similarly empty the content of an earlier generation’s propaganda? And if we do so, do continuities appear in the current generation’s work in public relations? Is it possible that what we learned from the older generation, who championed the presence of 100,000 political prisoners when no such thing actually existed, was how to manipulate public perception?

The previous generation mobilized symbolism as a strategy for achieving what they believed were higher ideals and objectives. What purpose does PR serve today? It’s not yet clear. The absence of utopian imaginaries (or at least public debates about them) and the voiding of the previous generation’s substantive concerns can facilitate the rise of knowledge production, and even a leadership class, without political aims. We respond to crises as they arise, hunting for likes, retweets, and approval. We are quick (and right) to reject the legions of shortsighted hacks pressing for “regime change” in Iran. But beyond a shared concern for what we don’t want (e.g. military intervention), we rarely discuss what we do want. Rather, we have ceded the space for political imagination to the most unimaginative––the most destructive imaginations––among Iranian expatriates.

  1. The second generation is at risk of unintentionally repeating the previous generation’s limits on public criticism.

If propaganda was a register successfully passed on from one generation to the next, public debate was not. The children of yesteryear’s revolutionaries often witnessed embarrassingly awkward, and at times violent, debate: shouting matches, questions that were actually long-winded statements, lost friendships. These experiences may have rightfully produced a reticence toward public criticism. And that reticence risks a disturbing coincidence. Good, media-savvy PR skills involve restraint and often a refusal to engage in––or at worst, entertain—critique. The celebration of these skills can preclude efforts to practice public criticism altogether.

To counteract this tendency, we must practice a sympathetic critique of the previous generation. For the past forty years, the Iranian left has been subject to ridicule and dismissal by scholars and pundits alike. To this day, reformist publications in Iran engage in cheap attacks on them. Those abroad assume “the failure of the left.”

In response, a revisionist historiography seeks to rectify the left’s status and worth. But revisionism must be tempered. It may inadvertently perpetuate restraints on public criticism. What is more, it may traffic in empirical inaccuracies. We should be able to acknowledge what the previous generation of leftists did well without turning a blind eye to what they did poorly: the movement’s rampant misogyny; persistent racism despite overtures of solidarity with non-Iranians or ethnic minorities in Iran; and the insidious betrayal of other leftists for the sake of affirming a short-sighted brand of anti-imperialism.

  1. The fear of empirical inaccuracy can lead to an over-emphasis on authenticity.

Many of those from the previous generation of leftists are disturbed by a crisis of representation––the idea that, despite their self-assured protestations, they were not in tune with the experiences and perspectives of the masses on behalf of whom they spoke. For them, it follows that they were blindsided by the revolution when it occurred. This sentiment is a more honest counterpart to the “hijacking” thesis prevalent in academic scholarship on the 1979 Revolution––the idea that the Islamic Republican Party, under the banner of Ayatollah Khomeini’s charismatic leadership, stole an otherwise popular revolutionary movement by disingenuously appealing to latent cultural sensibilities.

How has the current generation of knowledge producers reacted to this self-effacing admission? How might we react otherwise?

Current commentaries on Iran valorize empiricism. From sociologists’ and economists’ studied rejections of analysis rooted in ideology to anthropologists’ extensive ethnographic interviews and historians’ exacting reconstructions of cultural life, from cross-country surveys to inventive analyses of cinematic surrealism, scholars of modern Iran are increasingly precise and less prone to polemic. We make sure we don’t make the same mistakes. The knowledge we produce is better because it is better rooted in “the truth” by virtue of proximity: a fetish of the archive, of fieldwork, of sources.

In its attempt to compensate for the previous generation’s errors, however, this effort might also re-inscribe the Orientalist notion that there is in fact one knowable and authentic Iran.

Is it possible to remain cognizant of distinct experiences and knowledge produced “over there,” perspectives that must be engaged, while nevertheless valuing what we offer “over here” as itself distinct? There are many Irans and many Iranians. If Iran is an idea and not an essential identity–an idea that is not and cannot be contained within the territory of a nation-state––then perhaps those who identify with it from a spatial remove have something to offer by virtue of not being “over there.” Those of us able to affect some measure of temporal distance from the previous generation can offer a distinct and valuable perspective as well––so long as we reflect on our continuities and discontinuities.


References

[1] Amir Parviz Puyan, Zarūrat-i mubārizih musalahānih va rad-i t‘iurī-i baqā [Armed Struggle and the Refutation of the Theory of Survival] 4th ed. (N.p: Intishārāt-i sāzmān-i jibhih-yi millī-yi īrān khārij az kishvar (bakhsh-i khāvar-i miyānih), 1354/1975), 52-55. Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 52. Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy, and the Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010), 137, 142.

[2] Bizhan Jazani, Nabard bā diktāturi-yi shāh [War against the Shah’s Dictatorship] (N.p.: n.p., n.d.), 99-112. See also Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey, 30-31, 38-40, 51-52, 99-102, 175; Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause, 59-60.

[3] Golnar Nikpour, “Claiming Human Rights: Iranian Political Prisoners and the Making of a Transnational Movement, 1963-1979,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 9, no. 3 (2018): 363-388, especially 368-370.

[4] Afshin Matin-asgari, Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2002).


Arash Davari is Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College. He is currently completing a book manuscript that revisits historiographical debates about the 1979 Revolution in Iran.


Citation: Arash Davari, Covering Iran: Leftist Continuities and Discontinuities, from Propaganda to PR, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19103


Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:

Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East

Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring

Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif

Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle

Shervin Malekzadeh (2018), The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran

Joseph Ben Prestel (2018), When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s

Jan-Markus Vömel (2019), Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s


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