Commentary Magazine

The Death Spiral of the Islamic Republic

AP Photo

One day in 1891, Nasser Eddin Shah, who ruled Iran for half of the 19th century, woke from a deep slumber in his grand bedchamber and sent for his customary morning tobacco, only to be informed that there was none to be found in the palace. The tobacco boycott that was afoot on the streets of Persia had reached the Peacock Throne, the seat of his power. We might imagine the grimace that crossed the shah’s walrus-like countenance before he exploded into a fit of anger, striking his servants, wives, and children with his cane as he rampaged through the palace.

The tobacco boycott of 1891 was a remarkable act of popular resistance against a humiliating monopoly concession granted by the shah to a British firm. Under its terms, the Persian treasury was to receive less than a fourth of net tobacco profits, estimated at £500,000 annually, while the shah himself drew £15,000 a year. Responding to a boycott call by the ulama, or clerics, tobacco shops shuttered their doors, and millions of Iranians quit smoking almost overnight, including the members of the royal harem. The shah would rescind the concession by the end of the year.

Five years later, while the shah was supplicating the Almighty at a shrine outside Tehran, a cloaked figure approached him from behind, aimed a rusty revolver at the “king of kings,” and fired. Reeling from the assassin’s bullet, Nasser Eddin Shah reportedly croaked that “I will rule you differently if I survive.” He didn’t survive, however, and the pair of events—the 1891 boycott and the 1896 assassination—marked the beginning of the end of his Qajar dynasty.

Today, the evidence is mounting that the Islamic Republic has entered a similar death spiral. The nationwide eruption of labor strikes is only the latest sign. The Wall Street Journal’s Asa Fitch reported over the weekend:

Teachers went on strike in central Iran’s city of Yazd. Steelworkers and hospital staff walked off the job in the southwest city of Ahvaz. Railway employees protested near Tabriz. And a bus drivers union in Tehran battled the private companies that control many city routes.

These were among the hundreds of recent outbreaks of labor unrest in Iran, an indication of deepening discord over the nation’s economic troubles. Workers are turning not only against their employers but also Iran’s government, piling pressure on leaders who promised but failed to deliver better times in the two years since economic sanctions were lifted in the nuclear deal.

While working-class Iranians struggle to put food on the table— prices have climbed more than 10 percent a year, unemployment hovers north of 12 percent, and having a job is no guarantee that one gets paid—the Tehran regime has spent the lion’s share of the proceeds from the nuclear deal on military adventures from Yemen to Syria.

As Fitch noted, labor unrest is far from the mullahs’ only headache. The current strikes follow the New Year’s uprising, which saw thousands of Iranians pour into the streets in December and January. Their slogans initially concerned graft and corruption but quickly morphed into outright opposition to the Islamic Republic in toto. Then came the (ongoing) movement of women who publicly remove their headscarves in protest against compulsory veiling. In the most bizarre twist yet, last month’s discovery of a mummified body believed to belong to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the great modernizing monarch who deposed the Qajar dynasty, galvanized anti-regime sentiment, with soccer fans taking to their stadiums to chant “Long live Reza Shah!”

All this is reminiscent of the chaos and pandemonium that accompanied the collapse of the Qajars. In the final years of the dynasty, the Qajar fisc was perennially empty. Tribal chiefs refused to pay taxes. Radical underground societies of various stripes—Islamist, nationalist, communist—were spreading across the country. Prophets and assassins and prophetic assassins shook the land. The only difference is that the mullahs combine the venality and corruption of the Qajars with a fanatical and deeply anti-Iranian Islamist ideology, which makes them all the more vulnerable to a renascent Iranian nationalism.


One detail in Fitch’s report stands out especially for those alert to the rhyming patterns of history. “Standing on a wooden box outside Iran’s Haft Tapeh sugar plant,” the Journal correspondent wrote, “Esmail Bakhshi, armed with a microphone, exhorted a crowd of striking workers to take over the operation if they weren’t paid several months of back wages. The company which employs about 5,000, grows sugar cane and makes granulated sugar.” Bakhshi, the labor leader, told his comrades: “They say they have no money. We have no money either. But the difference is that we are experts in sugar cane processing, and we will manage the operations ourselves.”

Sugar, after tobacco, was the commodity that finally undid the Qajars. In the winter of 1905, the governor of Tehran ordered the flogging of some merchants over the scarcity of sugar. In protest, dissident clerics from Tehran migrated to the holy city of Qom and took refuge, or bast, in the mosques. By June 1906, some 2,000 clerics and their supporters had taken refuge in Qom, and there were another 12,000 bastis in Tehran. What began as a protest against the flogging of a few merchants soon turned into a demand for representative government.

On August 6, 1906, Mozzafar Eddin Shah (1853-1907), Nasser Eddin’s son and successor, issued a firman, or royal proclamation, granting a constitution “for the peace and tranquility” of Persia. A Majlis, or parliament, was established. Mozzafar Eddin Shah died six months later. It would take another two decades for the last Qajar shah to abdicate. The constitutionalist order that was born was short-lived; it was crushed under Russian cannon. Even so, the dynasty that today misrules the same realm might look back on the decline and fall of the Qajars with not a little anxiety.

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