The clash between nationalism and theocracy in Iran

Last month tens of thousands of young Iranians celebrated “International Cyrus the Great” day by visiting his tomb in Pasargade. What began as a celebration of Iran’s distant pre-Islamic glory days turned into a protest of the current regime and the usual police brutality and arrests. For a while, it seemed that old-style nationalism was being pitted against the ruling theocracy.

At first the crowds chanted slogans which sounded benign: “Iran is our homeland, Cyrus is our father”…but even such a chant was interpreted by hardliners as an affront to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader , who is sometimes called the “father” out of respect. A senior Shia cleric in Qom, Hossein Nouri Hamadani stated that he was “flabbergasted that people could gather at the tomb of Cyrus and we just sit and watch them chant the words we reserve for the great leader of the Revolution (Khomeini and Khamenei).

But as the protests heated up, the chants took on much more political overtones: The participants protested Tehran’s continuing involvement in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria by chanting “neither Gazza, nor Lebanon; I give my life for Iran” and “forget about Syria think about us”. Other chants such as “freedom of thought, impossible with the mullahs” and “mullahs’ regime, only oppression, only war” protested the nature of the regime itself. Unfortunately for them, the regime in Tehran has little or no tolerance for protests of any kinds and as one Iranian official simply said “the initiators of the inappropriate slogans against the regime’s values have been arrested”. What the official forgets to mention is that before they were arrested, they were brutally beaten and at least one of the protesters, a prominent Iranian poet by the name of Mohammad Reza Aalia Payam and was sent to hospital. One protester’s voice explained it all: “We pay tribute to a king who respected people everywhere, no matter what their religious or ethnic background”…paying tribute to such a leader is definitely an affront to the regime itself which respects only its own.

Those arrested, are to be prosecuted in court for unnamed charges which might include bogus charges such as “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “spreading propaganda against the state. But until they reach their trial dates, they will have to survive interrogations and torture – In fact, Mostafa Nabi, one of the arrested protesters was killed by his torturers shortly after his arrest.

Videos of the protests began hitting social media and within hours, they had spread virally all over Iran and once the news of the arrests reached social media, the debate had been sparked.

Cyrus the Great vs. Supreme Leader Khamenei or old-style nationalism vs. Islamist theocracy, the tensions surrounding these protests are bound to spring up again and again as long as the regime tries to crush such nationalistic sentiments. The fact that the regime is so fearful of such outbursts of ancient nationalism exemplifies the inherent weakness of the regime which cannot allow itself to accommodate any form of criticism. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 may have occurred to depose the Shah but it now is bent on deposing long dead leaders such as Cyrus the Great.