A Counter-Narrative for Iranian Tyranny

by Jeffry R. Halverson

The ruling regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is increasingly known for a militant foreign policy posture, abuse of the human rights of its citizens, and a suspected nuclear weapons program that threatens to destabilize the Middle East region. It is in the interests of all parties involved, save for the Iranian regime itself, to bring about the radical reform of Iran’s political system, especially in light of its increasing militarization. Any military effort to bring about such change would however be fraught with risks and extremely dangerous. Accordingly, soft power achieved through strategic communication is a much more attractive alternative.

An effective counter-narrative to further delegitimize Iran’s regime among its remaining supporters in Iran and abroad–especially among Shi’ite Muslim communities–may be a highly effective tool of “soft power” for promoting such change. The revolutionary Twelver Shi’ism articulated by Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) forms the basis of the regime in Iran. It contains a set of legitimizing narratives. In particular, the powerful Karbala master narrative provides a useful reservoir for antigovernment sentiment, opposition to tyranny, and religious mobilization that can be redirected at the leaders of the regime.

The Karbala narrative conveys an archetypal struggle between good and evil.1 The hero, Imam Husayn, sacrificed his life in battle against the army of the evil tyrant, the Caliph Yazid. Through his sacrifice, Husayn teaches his followers that it is better to die for freedom than to live under tyranny. In Shi’ite tradition, nearly all of the Twelve Imams were martyred at the hands of tyrannical rulers, most by poisoning. The Shah of Iran was identified with Yazid prior to his overthrow in 1979. The authoritarianism of the current Iranian regime has left it equally susceptible to the Karbala narrative, despite its explicit efforts to co-opt Islam as an instrument of the state.

The late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Shirazi (d. 2001), revered by some as Imam, was an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime and its conception of the Islamic state. Shirazi, his family, and followers were actively persecuted. When he died in 2001, many of his followers accused the regime of his murder, perhaps by poisoning. These accusations were bolstered by the conduct of the regime after his death, when soldiers stormed the funeral procession and stole his body. The events fit into the narrative structure and archetypes of the Karbala narrative. As such, Shirazi could occupy the pious role of Imam Husayn in the mobilization of a narrative against the Iranian regime of the tyrant Ali Khamenei.