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Iranian Identities in Motion: politics, protest and the international

By Edward Wastnidge

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In early 2024, Iran marked the 45th anniversaries of the revolution and the subsequent founding of the Islamic Republic. As with every year, large crowds gathered in central Tehran, coalescing around Azadi Square, displaying the usual symbols of fealty to the Islamic Republic. This included placards displaying the well-known slogans of ‘Down with the USA’, ‘Down with Israel’, along with pictures of the Islamic Republic’s founder Khomeini, current Supreme Leader Khamanei, and the late Qassem Soleimani, perhaps its most lauded martyr. Displays of Iranian military might were displayed at a time of increasing regional tension following Hamas’ al-Aqsa Flood Operation and Israel’s brutal response in Gaza. As such, expressions of support for Palestine were even more prominent than usual this year. 

 On the face of it, this was a demonstration of enduring continuities in Iran’s revolutionary identity, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic worldview, chiming with the well-established themes of championing the causes of the oppressed (particularly the Palestinians) and rallying against the pernicious activities of the Islamic Republic’s enemies. However, rewind 18 months and Iran was convulsed by nationwide protests following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, and the subsequent founding of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement. If the international provides a space for a fairly consistent conceptualisation of what a national and political identity looks like from the perspective of the Islamic Republic, then the domestic picture is far more contested and subject to challenges to the legitimacy of the ruling system. 

Current concerns in contemporary Iranian politics, including the response to calls for women’s rights and the debate on compulsory hijab, and the nature of its relationship with its neighbours and the wider world, have once again brought up questions about the ways in which aspects of its political and social identity are contested and understood. The ‘idea’ of Iran has always had multiple meanings and representations. Both monarchical despots and Islamic ideologues have sought to shape and respond to ethnic, national and religious identities, as well as social concerns and gender issues, in their efforts at governance. In the sense of dealing with the competing demands and aspirations of its populace, Iran is not exceptional. However, its experience of a revolution which ushered in a form of theocratic governance in combination with a popular, participatory element remains unique in global politics. It is in the different ways and avenues through which this polity is experienced, articulated, and challenged that brings us to the focus of this report.

This collection of four short interventions by both established and up and coming scholars of Iranian politics and international relations explores a number of different issue areas pertaining to Iranian identities, focusing primarily on the domestic level, but also exploring how such identities translate into the international domain. Our contributors are based both in the West and in the Middle East, including Iran, and offer compelling insight into how Iranian social and political identities have been challenged and co-opted in the Islamic Republic in recent years. Indeed, such identities remain very much in motion. The following contributions therefore seek to engage with the interaction between Iran’s multifaceted identities, highlighting how the post-revolutionary Iranian state has sought to construct and respond to different identities through various policies.  

The collection begins with Shabnam Holliday’s exploration of how different forms of civic national identity in Iran can be understood in the aftermath of the WLF protests, and how the movement’s ideals can be understood in a revolutionary context. In doing so, Holliday argues how progressive rights-based movements can form the basis of a more inclusive civic national identity for Iran. The relationship between domestic identity concerns and regional influences is the subject of Banafsheh Keynoush’s examination of what she terms as the ‘Iraqization’ of Iranian identity. Here, Keynoush reverses the dominant narrative in policy and academic circles of seeing the Iran-Iraq relationship as one in which the Iranian influence is dominant. Mansour Anbarmoo’s contribution returns us to the movement for women’s rights in Iran, with a focus on one of its most critical elements - the issue of compulsory hijab. Anbarmoo highlights how the symbolic value of hijab has been used by the Islamic Republic both domestically and internationally. In our final intervention by Ahmet Özakyar offers a broader international perspective on how Iranian identity is articulated.  Here, Özakyar explores how Iran’s international educational outreach can be seen as a form of status-seeking in the international arena, demonstrating its efforts at soft power projection.










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