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Book Roundtable on This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States

Session VII-01, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable brings together scholars of 20th century Middle East political theory, state formation, and social movements for a dialogue in response to a new monograph, This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutions in the United States (Duke University Press, November 2022). This Flame Within centers on the Iranian Students Association (ISA), an activist movement of Iranian foreign students who organized against US support for the Shah of Iran from 1960 through the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The book shows how a significant minority of Iranian foreign students were radicalized by the CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953 and by US domination over Iran via economic and military aid to the Shah’s dictatorship. These forms of indirect American Cold War imperialism seeped into the fabric of Iranian society, creating everyday encounters with state repression and resistance that proved formative for the Iranian new left. This Flame Within investigates the transnational process that transformed privileged foreign students into revolutionaries who joined a global uprising against colonialism from the imperial metropole of American college campuses. Based on in-depth interviews with veterans of the ISA, the U.S. affiliate of the Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union), as well as extensive archival research, the book traces “revolutionary affects” from encounters with imperialism and dictatorship in Iran to joint organizing with other radicalized student activists in the U.S. In the context of anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, the revolutionary affects of differently targeted populations converged into an “affects of solidarity,” an embodied force that animated Third World internationalism. Locating Iranian foreign students as participants in the Afro-Asian connections that marked a highpoint of the era, the author considers the gendered aspects of revolutionary affects as the conditions of possibility for the emergence of Third World feminism, and writes the experiences of the Iranian diasporic student left into that history. This Flame Within argues that the gendered experience of the Iranian left manifested in the March 1979 women’s uprising in Tehran, which brought into being an anti-imperialist feminism opposed to both Iranian and westernized forms of patriarchal domination. This intersectional anti-imperialism recognized multiple sources of oppression, and rejected the false dichotomy between the West and Islam, offering a powerful legacy that might reorient our political orientations today.
  • I will be presenting on the major themes of my new book, This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press, 2022), as they pertain to histories of anti-colonial movements in the Middle East, Third World feminism, histories of the left, and diasporic politics. The other participants will be responding and reflecting on how the book speaks to their research interests as well as these larger themes. My presentation will highlight a series of historical questions that are relevant beyond the Iranian context and that continue to impact the political horizons of possibility in the region and in diaspora. For example, how do the legacies of 1970s leftist movements continue to circulate today and what productive insights about the practice of transnational solidarity might be drawn despite the “failure” of these movements to lead to more democratic and just societies? What is the role of affect and emotion in the formation of revolutionary subjectivities and what was the affective basis for Third World internationalism? How do feminist critiques of anti-colonial movements that emerged from leftist women who participated in revolutionary upheavals circulate today and pick up new meanings as they travel? My book conceptualizes the pre-1979 Iranian foreign student diaspora as the product of the shifting relations between imperialism and dictatorship. I theorize the role of what I call “revolutionary affects,” embodied encounters with repression and resistance, in the transformation of students into revolutionaries. I will highlight the accomplishments of the Iranian Students Association, the US affiliate of the transnational Confederation of Iranian Students that organized against both the Shah and U.S. government and in solidarity with other racialized and colonized peoples. Drawing on women of color, postcolonial and transnational feminism, my approach works against the current diasporic Iranian tendency to view western imperial hegemony as the lesser evil to Islamist authoritarianism. I will give an overview of the major theoretical and conceptual terms in the book and offer an intersectional feminist approach to rethinking the Iranian diaspora outside of the Orientalist and nationalist binaries that have dominated politically and culturally since 1979.
  • The forthcoming monograph, This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press, 2022), is a text of major significance. This work examines the political movements of Iranian student revolutionaries in the United States in the lead-up to 1979, critically bringing them back into conversation with the Third Worldist and internationalist and anti-racist activists with whom they stood in solidarity in their day. In the roundtable, I will address the importance of This Flame Within to the scholarship of the 1979 revolution specifically within the field of Iranian Studies. Crucially, this monograph draws from queer and feminist theory, as well as American studies frameworks, bringing Iranian studies into broader scholarly and theoretical conversations with which it has all-too-rarely engaged. This work raises important questions about the archive of the revolution, asking us to consider the role of revolutionary affect among Iranians outside of Iran. These individuals have often gotten short shrift in the historiography of 1979, and have often been imagined as marginal or peripheral to the story of the "real" revolution. This Flame Within challenges this accepted wisdom, pushing us to think beyond the rubric "failure" so often evoked in scholarly work on Iranian leftist movements. In my presentation, I will look at the dominant historiographical trends of the revolution in Iranian studies, consider the challenges This Flame Within poses to these trends, and explore what new paths of inquiry might be opened for other scholars through this work.
  • My engagement with Manijeh Moradian’s important new forthcoming book "The Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States" will draw on my research on anti-colonialism in general and Middle Eastern radical movements in particular. I will focus on the utilization of the notion of “revolutionary affect” in this work, gauging its enabling role- as well as its limits- for the study of revolutions and revolutionaries in the Middle East as well as the exilic communities that emanated from that region. I will further reflect on Moradian’s innovative approach to solidarity and transnational connectivity, probing her extensive exploration of the networks that joined together diverse communities of struggle across national and subnational divides. Last but not least, I aim to discuss the challenges confronting former revolutionaries, including the Iranian cadres discussed in this significant work, in an age characterized by "leftwing melancholia".
  • "This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States" (Duke University Press, 2022), is a superb contribution to knowledge production on Iran and is relations with the United States. It both debunks myths and asserts the significance of intersectionality in dealing with a a complex web of imperialism, patriarchy, gender, and the post-colonial world. The themes the book addresses are timeless, and woven in a manner that sheds light both on the intricacies of Iranian politics and society as well as on the very concepts/topics themselves, including (anti-)imperialism, transnational social movements, feminism, and internationalism, all in the context of the global 1970s. Holding this roundtable with a variety of scholars who bring their own experiences and methodologies is likely to prove intellectually and politically productive for all involved, speakers and audiences.