Despite critical differences between the two political regimes that have dominated Iran for nearly a century, there are striking similarities between the Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979) and the Islamic Republic (1979-present). Like Mohammad Reza Shah, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has built a cult of personality around himself and has engaged in “civilizational thinking” — a preoccupation with defining the eternal essence and world-historical destiny of Iran through references to a glorious (one might say “glorified”) collective past. Nonetheless, the two leaders have interpreted Iranian history in vastly differing ways that serve divergent ideological ends. In a Sultanistic regime,1 the Pahlavis sought to rebuild the “Great Civilization” (tammadon-e bozorg) through an authoritarian regime that took Cyrus the Great as its model and ancestor. For the royal family, Iran’s pre-Islamic imperial past was proof that the nation is capable of economic and political greatness, provided that it is ruled by strong leaders. Under this model, kingship, rather than religion, was the institution that guaranteed social order and economic prosperity. In contrast, Khamenei seeks to build the “Islamic Civilization” through a pseudo-totalitarian regime that expunges a pre-Islamic Persian past seen as an “Age of Ignorance.” However, neither system has fully realized its goals. In order to prevent a cycle of unfulfilled destiny, Iran’s next revolutionary movement must look beyond the top-down paradigm. Luckily, current uprisings demonstrate that Iranians are breaking out of the secular vs. religious binary, as many are now calling for a system that reflects Iran’s pluralistic society.
The “Great Civilization”
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi called his vision for Iran the “Great Civilization” to convey the secular values underpinning his political project. The United States and other Western countries supported his rule, but contrary to popular belief, the Shah did not seek to completely emulate the West. His mission was to prove that Iran could outperform Western nations, in terms of spirituality and ethics, based on a nativist return to self, or bazgasht be khish. The Shah told Westerners that he desired a society, “free from the blemishes of your [Western] society”.2
In an interview with a Indian newspaper in 1974, he stated, “If we [Eastern nations] protect [our] inheritance … I am confident that we shall avoid the abysses into which material and materialistic civilisations have fallen.” In his 1977 book, Toward the Great Civilization, the Shah predicted that upon reaching a population of 45 to 50 million, in approximately twelve years, Iran would reach the era of the “Great Civilization,”3 one free from poverty, repression, ignorance, illiteracy, corruption, and discrimination. He declared, “A highly humanitarian and democratic social order will prevail in Iran during the era of the Great Civilization.”4
Yet at the time the Shah published his book, 46% of Iranians lived below the poverty line, and no amount of rhetoric about freedom could compensate for the human rights abuses, particularly at the hands of SAVAK, the secret police. A mere two years later in 1979, the Shah’s aspirations for a secular and Persianate “Great Civilization” would be dashed by the Iranian Revolution and replaced with the radical religious rhetoric of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The “Islamic Civilization”
The early Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini did not promote civilizational rhetoric and deemphasized secular Persian culture, including its literature, music, and history. Instead, the Cultural Revolution of 1980-83 sought to create “the Islamic man” and eventually “the Islamic society.”
Ayatollah Khamenei, who was selected as the supreme leader in 1989, has revived civilizational thinking in Iran through his concept of “Islamic Civilization.” Formally articulated in 2000, this vision of civilization is rooted in Shi’a Islam and the uniquely Shi’a principle of velayat-e-faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist. Though the velayat-e-faqih seems antitethical to the Shah’s vision of a secular Iran, the two civilizational paradigms share several similarities.
Like the Shah, Khamenei argues for the superiority of his vision by criticizing Western materialism. For Khamenei, this decadence ensures the eventual downfall of Western civilization. He also argues that Muslim civilization preceded that of the West and made it possible. “One day, by using the knowledge and philosophy of Muslims, the people of Europe managed to build a civilization for themselves. Of course, this civilization was a material one.” Looking to the past, Khamenei yearns for the return of a civilization untouched by the Crusades, Mongol invasions, or Western colonization and imperialism.
Just as the Shah believed Western societies had fallen into “an abyss,” Khamenei states, “They [Western societies] became corrupt in terms of morality and they became hollow and empty-headed in terms of spirituality. Today, Westerners themselves are confirming this. An outstanding Western politician said to me that their world is hollow and empty and that they are feeling this.”
Furthermore, similar to the Shah’s vision of Iran as a civilizational-developmental beacon for the world, Khamenei seeks to establish Iran as an ideological beacon. Just as the Shah put his vision for Iran on lavish display at the 1971 commemoration for the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire at Persepolis, Khamenei affirmed his ideological project through ornate celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Revolution. And just as the Shah’s plan for the “Great Civilization” was scuttled by the 1979 Revolution, so too has Khamenei’s dream for the “Islamic Civilization” been slipping away.
In 2000, Khamenei outlined five stages for realizing the “Islamic Civilization”: the establishment of an Islamic system through Iran’s Islamic Revolution, consolidation through the Cultural Revolution, the birth of Iran’s true Islamic government, the creation of a true Islamic country through the renewed devoutness and faith of the Iranian people, and finally, the creation of an Islamic world through Iran’s pioneering example and leadership.5 According to Khamenei himself, Iran has yet to complete even the third stage of “Islamic government.”
The death of civilization
Since 2003, Khamenei has several times a year stressed the importance of the 150 million population mark for Islamic Civilization in his speeches,6 warning of the dangers of an aging population. Unabated pleas notwithstanding, this goal is unattainable. Over the past 30 years, the Iranian birth rate has fallen by 70%, which philanthropist Melinda Gatesreferred to as“the fastest decrease in the rate of childbearing per woman in the history of the world.”7 This decline in the birth rate has contributed to a population growth rate of less than 1%. In a desperate move to encourage an “Islamic lifestyle” and population growth, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has even instructed female members of the Basij paramilitary organization to have “at least five children.” The choice to not have children is not necessarily about religion, however; instead, it is often about realism and economic circumstances.
Due to the effects of sanctions, government corruption, wealth hoarding among the elite, and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, an estimated 57 million Iranians are at risk of impoverishment.8 Iran also has the fourth-highest global inflation rate, causing the prices for many basic goods to rise out of reach. For example, although meat is a traditional staple of the Iranian diet, a recent survey suggested 22% of Iranians could not afford it or consumed it only once per year.9
The most fundamental component of life is also under threat: As officials have now been forced to admit, climate change, overexploited aquifers, and corrupt water management have depleted Iran’s groundwater by 85% over the past 40 years. In an attempt to be agriculturally self-sufficient, the Islamic Republic has built 600 dams that have prevented water from replenishing aquifers,10 putting Iran on a path to “water bankruptcy.”11
Khamenei’s “Islamic Civilization” is figuratively and literally dying. Suicide rates in Iran are at an all-time high, with a 23% spike between May and July 2020 alone, during some of the worst months of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Drug addiction more than doubled between 2011 and 2017, and as the economic situation deteriorates further, the use of inexpensive intoxicants is only likely to increase. Spread of COVID-19 hit Iran early and did not let up, even as the government denied its severity and urged people to remain calm. As of July 2020, the official death toll stood at 14,634, giving Iran the highest death rate per 100,000 people in the MENA region. However, leaked government documents indicate that the actual death toll was 42,000, more than three times the reported figure. Further reports of officials urging nurses and other medical staff not to report cases or deaths corroborate reports of statistical manipulation.
Rejection of state religion
Even with 42 years of aggressive state-led “re-Islamization” of society, Iran is one of most “secular societies” among Muslim-majority countries, according to several Iranian observers.12 As state-imposed religion has crept into every realm of Iranian life through surveillance and law enforcement, aversion to religious restrictions is no longer limited to the urban elite. According to a recent survey conducted by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN), a non-profit institute in the Netherlands, only 32% of the population actively identifies as a Shi’a Muslim.13 A whopping 73% disagree with mandating the hijab, and even when those who identify as being from religious families are factored in, 60% do not say daily prayers. The regime has picked up on the growing opposition to religion’s role in the state and blames the “pollution” of cyberspace and increased internet access.
In the private sphere, many Iranians still practice religion. However, the majority feels that the state should neither derive legitimacy from religion nor force specific religious mandates on the public. According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, studies director at France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), Iranian youth are developing new attitudes toward religious commandments in daily life, especially in relation to leisure. Even self-identifying religious youth that live and study in Qom, Iran’s religious center, are defying religious edicts by reading books and listening to music banned by clerics.14 While 78% of Iranians still believe in God, only 26% believe in "the coming of the Messiah (Imam Mahdi)," a core belief of Twelver Shi’ism. According to a meta-analysis of 56 studies on religiosity in Iran, Iranians have accepted different forms of religiosity, many of which go against practices promoted by the Islamic Republic. For example, while the regime promotes participation in Friday prayers as a key symbol of religiosity, the number of Iranians who do so has decreased dramatically compared to the early years of the Islamic Republic.15
Calls for secularization also can be heard in slogans chanted during the growing number of mass protests, especially since 2017. During the 2009 Green Movement, protesters were still chanting religious slogans such as “Allah o Akbar” (God is greatest) or “Oh Hossein” (referring to the third Shi'ite imam) followed by “Mir Hossein” (referring to Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist candidate in 2009). Starting in 2017, however, a growing number of anti-clerical and anti-religious slogans have gained traction, such as "Clerics must get lost," along with "Death to the dictator!" and "Death to the Islamic Republic!” Religion has now lost so much public influence that at a recent labor protest in the Arab-majority city of Ahwaz, Khuzestan, clerics were laughed at and shooed away when they attempted to commandeer the crowd by urging them to pray as a means of protest. 16
Rising from the ashes
Harkening back to the Shah’s Persianate mythology, can a new civilization rise like a simurgh (phoenix) from the ashes of Iran’s failure?
The relentless energy of political protesters shows that the Iranian spirit endures, even as the “Islamic Civilization” collapses. Furthermore, the revolutionary spirit of the Iranian people is not limited to public protests, which are easily identified and violently repressed by the regime. There is an ongoing silent revolution, marked by changes in everyday behavior, like religious practices. Though very different, one common attribute unites these public and private acts of protest: There is no single guiding leader or ideologue.
The top-down visions of both the Shah and Ayatollah Khamenei have failed spectacularly, but the next iteration of Iranian civilization will not be forced upon the people from above. It is difficult to imagine the political regime that would result if the current revolutionary moment is successful within past paradigms. There is no telling what the exact framework of the next civilization will be, for the only constant in Iran’s course over the past decades — and the past several thousand years — has been change. However, both a secular democratic regime and secular nationalist regime are possible.
The idea of civilizational engineering may be doomed, but learning from history, one sees that Iranian civilization will continue in the vision of the Iranian people themselves. Though they face crushing conditions, there is still a “tendency towards hope” for the dawning of an inclusive and tolerant era. Much like a Persian rug, the future will be woven together with strands from all Iranians, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or language.
Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and, concurrently, a nonresident senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Asha Sawhney is a Ph.D. student at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, researching migration and urban survival in Iran and South Asia. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office – Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
 Homa Katouzian, “The Pahlavi Regime in Iran”, in H.E. Chehabi and Juan Linz (eds.), Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1997).
 Cyrus Schayegh, “Iran's Global Long 1970s: Empire, Civilisational Developmentalism, and the Crisis of the Global North,” in The Age of Aryamehr: Late Pahlavi Iran and its Global Entanglements, edited by Roham Alvandi, (London: Gingko, 2018), 277.
 Ibid, 273.
 Yvette Hovsepian-Bearce, The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei: Out of the Mouth of the Supreme Leader of Iran (New York: Routledge, 2016).
 “Population Growth,” Khamenei.ir, shorturl.at/jqsGH
 “Fertility rate in Iran drops by 70% in 30 years: AEI,” Tehran Times, July 16, 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/450068/Fertility-rate-in-Iran-drops-by-70-in-30-years-AEI.
 Nik Kowsar and Alireza Nader, “”Iran is Committing Suicide by Dehydration,” Foreign Policy, February 25, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/25/iran-is-committing-suicide-by-dehydration/.
 Gabriel Collins, “Iran’s Looming Water Bankruptcy,” James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, 2017, https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/irans-looming-water-bankruptcy/.
 Gunes Murat Tezcur, Taghi Azadarmaki, and Mehri Bahar, “Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 15, no.3 (November 24, 2006), 217-232, https://doi.org/10.1080/10669920600997035.
 Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, “گزارش نظرسنجی درباره نگرش ایرانیان به دین" (Netherlands, Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran), https://gamaan.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/GAMAAN-survey-on-religiosity-in-Iran-Persian.pdf.
 Maghsoud Farasatkhah, “فراتحلیل تعداد تحقیق ایرانی درباب دین ورزی,” Maghsoud Farasatkhah Blog, February 2011, https://farasatkhah.blogsky.com/1389/11/27/post-33/.