The history of the Iranian revolution cannot be fully told without considering student organizing, for as Afshin Matin-Asgari has noted, from the crackdown of 1963 “up to 1977, the student movement in Iran and abroad remained the principal force of the opposition” to the shah's regime.1 Likewise, and as Manijeh Moradian shows in This Flame Within, the story of US campus radicalism, anti-imperialism, and global solidarity demands a thorough accounting for the role of tens of thousands of Iranian students that had attended American universities and colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. Iran topped the list of countries that sent students to the United States in that period, and these young women and men became the nucleus out of which the Iranian diaspora in North America initially emerged. At the height of the Cold War, they were supposed to demonstrate the benefits of colluding with American global hegemony. They were meant to be, in Moradian's apt words, an “imperial model minority,” a category she defines as a “transnational corollary of the domestic ‘model minority’ citizen.”2 Instead, many of them became revolutionaries espousing the very causes they were meant to negate, affiliating generally with the Left.

In 1979, thousands of these students went back to Iran, participating in its great social and political revolution. Ironically, the success of that revolution marked their political demise at home, their longtime exile abroad, and their marginalization within academic scholarship. This Flame Within substantially contributes to an emerging conversation around their legacies past and present. Given its high political stakes for Iranian communities across the West, Moradian's intervention is far from antiquarian in import. To begin with, her book confronts a long-standing tradition in Iranian diaspora studies of focusing on elites that fled the 1979 revolution. These elites generally identified with “Persian imperial identity” revolving “around an attachment to a so-called Aryan racial heritage associated with the pre-Islamic Persian Empire and a disassociation from Arabs and other people of color in the US” (23). In a welcome corrective, Moradian calls for “re-periodizing the diaspora,” centering a very different subjectivity embraced by the Iranian student left. Rather than aspiring to whiteness and aligning with empire and monarchy, this subjectivity foregrounded the politics of revolutionary solidarity across borders.

Moradian focuses her narrative on students who were active in the Iranian Students Association in the United States (ISA), an organization that was set up with CIA funding to promote pro-regime politics in the early 1950s (72) but that had become a locomotive of dissent by the onset of the 1960s. Her father, like many Iranians of his generation, was a participant in ISA. Animated by this close personal connection, she interviewed thirty former ISA members as well as six non-Iranian leftists who worked with the organization, further consulting relevant archives and personal collections. Moradian extensively uses this material to read the broader historical context through the lens of individual experiences. Her book interweaves a series of biographies, each of which is used to illustrate a set of themes: revolutionary becoming in Iran; activism in the United States; solidarity across racial, national, and ethnic borders; internal political culture; gendered participation in the Iranian revolution; and political disintegration and defeat.

The main conceptual thread tying these themes together is affect theory. As such, there is a considerable focus in the book on questions of subjective motivation. Throughout her text, Moradian asks why ISA activists made the choices they did, and she recurringly attributes their political decisions to their embodied emotions, feelings, and desires. This is in line with the affective turn that has been witnessed in several humanities and social sciences disciplines, especially in the fields of gender and queer theory, since the 1990s. It also echoes trends in the literature on revolution that have shifted attention from objective social causational and motivational factors to subjective determinants. Drawing on these scholarly currents, Moradian puts forth the notion of “affects of solidarity” to explain “embodied attachments to the liberation of others.” She argues that affects of solidarity “are generated when revolutionary affects, or desires for revolution, circulate and converge across different populations and movements” (11).

Moradian traces the emergence of these affects to the experiences of two generations of Iranian students: those who were born before the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup, and those who were born afterward but who grew up to witness its authoritarian and neocolonial outcomes (34). Her research demonstrates the centrality of the coup to the politicization of Iranian students, all the while revealing the transmission of other intergenerational experiences, including those generated by the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Throughout, she focuses on the “complex and unpredictable interaction between dramatic historical events and the intimate experiences of everyday life that shape people into political subjects” (34). Her primary method of inquiring into this interaction is to distill bodily and emotive experiences from the interviews she gathered over the years, connecting them to the ideological transformations and political decisions of her interviewees.

As such, This Flame Within affords readers access to stories abounding with intricate detail, reflecting multiple pathways to revolutionary being, and revealing a mix of personal and textual influences. Moradian has clearly worked hard to diversify these stories. One-third of her Iranian interviewees, ten out of thirty, are women (6). Yet, the vast majority—save for two Jewish women and one Sunni man—came from Shi'i Muslim backgrounds. Moreover, most of her interviewees belonged to upper-class or upper-middle-class families and descended from ethnic Persian backgrounds. She is aware of this limitation, is admirably forthcoming about it (31), and displays sensitivity to salient social hierarchies across the book. In some ways, her source base reflects the realities of Iranian student demographics in the United States. As Moradian explains, students in the 1960s mostly came from economically privileged backgrounds. The doors to foreign education for working-class students, including those from provincial and minority backgrounds, only began to really open after the 1970s oil boom. These students did not only end up in the northeastern and Californian campuses favored by their more affluent compatriots; they also gravitated to southern states like Texas and Oklahoma (83).

There is also a gendered angle to Iranian working-class educational patterns in the United States. As noted by one of Moradian's interviewees, conservative and poorer families were more likely to send men for education abroad than women. This was motivated both by fear for their daughters as well as concern for their financial well-being. A young working-class man was expected to fend for himself once he arrived in the United States; the same could not be generally said for women (205). This meant that young women activists tended to come from families that had a more liberal outlook as well as greater financial means to support their daughters. This contributed, in Moradian's words, to “skewed class and gender dynamics, in which the women as a group tended to be more affluent than the men” (205).

Regardless of their gender, class, and other social markers, what was particularly remarkable about radical Iranian students was the degree to which they challenged the status quo. Through the ISA, activists in the United States came to play a key role in the Confederation of Iranian Students—National Union (CISNU) and the international Iranian student mobilization that it led. While the politics and organizational dynamics of CISNU have already been accounted for in Afshin Matin-Asgari's excellent study of the Iranian student movement, Moradian adds to the literature fascinating stories from that struggle, especially as it unfolded at the heart of the US empire. Her narrative enriches our understanding of the shift that students underwent from reformist to revolutionary Marxist politics, a pattern that continued even after CISNU split along ideological lines in 1975 (86).

Moradian convincingly attributes this shift to four major factors: the Iranian regime's heavy-handed response to student activism, which produced radicalization as opposed to allegiance (89); the failure of lobbying concerned with ending the US government's unyielding support for the shah, something that repelled students away from seeking reform through proximity to US power (90); the rebirth of antiregime mobilizations in Iran, both during the Khomeini-led mass protests of 1963 as well as after the launch of leftist armed struggles in 1971 (91); and the existence of active global anti-colonial armed struggles in Palestine and elsewhere that inspired ISA members, expanding their conception of revolutionary possibility (92).

What was the outcome of the radical shift brought about by these impetuses? This Flame Within discusses in detail how ISA activists made “the most of an American education” by leading campaigns on Iran within the United States, participating in US domestic movements, and dynamically contributing to global solidarity initiatives. At the campus level, their branches targeted “the imperial university,” protesting academic complicity with the shah's regime (100). More often than not, they failed to entirely thwart university collaborations with their authoritarian monarch, but they did manage to achieve some partial victories, and they certainly raised considerable political awareness on campuses.

Of particular importance, Moradian argues, was their advocacy work on behalf of political prisoners and tortured detainees in Iran. Through careful and consistent campaigning, some of their messaging reached leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and even caused embarrassment for the shah in mainstream national media outlets like CBS and the Washington Post (108). As they received greater exposure, they faced considerable pushback from SAVAK agents, the FBI, and university administrators, and they accordingly channeled much energy into defending themselves. Their efforts, many of which are detailed in this book (102–4, 111–14), could offer helpful lessons for students engaged in contemporary causes, especially those (like the Palestinian liberation struggle) that regularly receive aggressive attacks.

While she is careful to give due credit to the ISA activists for their bold campaigns, Moradian also critiques what she identifies as some significant mistakes. At certain key junctures, she notes, they were “not realizing, or not caring, that Iranian revolutionary affects were woefully out of sync with the feelings of the American public at large” (115–16). For her, this was particularly in evidence in such incidents as the demonstrations that were launched against the 1977 visit of the shah to the White House and the 1979 “battle of Beverly Hills” that took place at the mansion that housed the shah's sister and mother. These events resulted in a massive backlash against Iranian students, the activation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service against them, and even the overhaul of that entire repressive arm of the US government, with implications for all immigrants for years to come.

Moradian views these events from the perspective of affective divergence pitting Iranian students against the US mainstream, but perhaps a more useful discussion from a social movement perspective would have focused on questions of strategies and tactics. Would a less militant strategy have prevented a US backlash? Would it have brought adequate attention to the causes the Iranian students were promoting? Here and elsewhere, multiple aspects of the revolutionary experience could have benefited from using a lens other than that of affect. I am partly referring to matters of political belief, ideology, practice, leadership, calculation, resource mobilization, intention, and method, but I am also thinking of objective factors pertaining to class structures, patriarchal orders, and the prevailing social balance of forces. This is not to take away from the merits of affective engagement in This Flame Within, foremost among which is the humanization of revolutionaries and a heightened appreciation of experiential factors that shaped them into the political actors they were. Given how (and how much) the Iranian leftist revolutionary tradition has been maligned—by Persian monarchists, the Islamic Republic, and US exceptionalists alike—this is no small achievement.

At a time when the internationalist solidarity tradition has come under assault, even within the ranks of marginalized communities, Moradian extensively reflects on the sustained commitment that ISA activists displayed toward US movements for justice as well as global anti-colonial currents. In approaching this solidarity work, she uses the notion of “a methodology of possibility,” by which she means taking “the collective feeling of hope or possibility itself—however fleeting or naive—as a legitimate object of study, as a way of rethinking the legacy of anti-imperialist revolutions” (25). Her concern here is showing that there were ways of “imagining affiliation and collective struggle” that were not rooted in “minority nationalisms and homogenized notions of identity” but instead were grounded in what she calls “shared affective states,” which entail the emergence of revolutionary responses “from subjectivities marked by incommensurate histories and structures of oppression” (137–39). Thus, although Iranian students did not share the same history of settler colonialism as Native American students, or the specific racialization experiences of Black, Chicano, or Asian American students, they were able to wholeheartedly stand with those groups’ struggles.

Moradian especially focuses on the ISA's participation in the three nodal arenas of African American, Palestinian, and Vietnamese liberation. She thus examines connections with Black organizations ranging from the Black Panther Party to student groups and unions, giving numerous examples of joint struggle (143–54). Closer to home, Moradian extensively reflects on the ISA's vigorous activism on behalf of Palestinian liberation. She explains that the liberation of Palestinian Arabs was of “paramount importance” to Iranian activists, not the least because of their understanding that “the Shah's government posed a significant obstacle to its realization” (154). The ISA regularly covered, and condemned, the shah's connections with Israel in its publications, making “the case that Iranians and Arabs faced the same constellation of repressive state powers” (154). Given this outlook, it was unsurprising that ISA activists led multiple marches and demonstrations in support of Palestine on their respective campuses as well as in the streets of the cities they lived in, appealing for solidarity from the broader American population.

Such was the dedication of ISA activists that Chicago's renowned Palestinian organizer Camelia Odeh told Moradian that they “were more Palestinian than the Palestinians! . . . [Their] fierce love for justice and equity put the Palestinian issue central to their work and their lives” (157). As Moradian insists, this was in conscious opposition to a common chauvinist tendency “which asserted Iranian racial and cultural superiority over Arabs and which still circulates widely among Iranians today” (158). At a time when Palestine was willfully invisiblized on US campuses, ISA activists ensured that they always inserted Palestine into the coalitions in which they participated. Moreover, they organized diligently to support Iranian revolutionaries who sought to build connections with Palestine. These included members of the “Palestine Group,” who were arrested by the shah's regime after attempting to train in the camps of the Palestinian revolution (161). For ISA activists, the fate of the Palestinian and Iranian revolutionary struggles was intimately intertwined as part of a broader regional liberation project that extended across the Middle East, not the least in areas where the shah militarily intervened, like Dhufar (165). In discussing these various anti-colonial struggles, the ISA was keen to expose their common enemy, which it identified as capitalist US imperialism. Given the fact that the US war against Vietnam was raging at the time, it was only natural that the ISA contributed vigorously to the antiwar movement, forwarding a radical critique that centered the voices of Vietnamese revolutionaries (169), rather than opposing the war on pacifist or liberal grounds.

By reflecting on the ISA's global solidarity, Moradian challenges contemporary nationalist attempts to isolate struggles in Iran from broader anti-colonial politics. This is especially pertinent for causes, like Palestine, that have become synonymized in some Iranian quarters with Islamic Republic politics. Her work is an important reminder of an older leftist tradition that far predated the attempts to co-opt the Palestinian cause for the purposes of regime legitimation. While demonstrating profound appreciation for this tradition that was exemplified by the ISA and its activists, Moradian critiques major failures in other political spheres, particularly women's liberation. She argues that the ISA was committed to that cause and benefited it in important ways; but like much of the Iranian left, the ISA also operated in accordance with the problematic logic of “gender-sameness.” On the positive side, this “offered an alternative to female sexual objectification and the normative roles of wife and mother” (181). Yet this logic rested, in Moradian's words, upon “the fantasy that by transcending gender difference and abandoning the degraded category of the ‘feminine,’ women could also transcend gender-based oppression” (181). This produced an internal political culture “and gender and sexual norms that subordinated individual needs and desires; these norms were based on the assumption that any individual might not live to see the better world to come” (183).

Moradian correctly notes that this deferral of liberation was not particular to Iranian leftist student movements; it was shared by anti-colonial groups ranging from the Black Panthers to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Here Moradian adds to a rich tradition of feminist critique, much of which has been produced by revolutionary women. That critique, particularly when it comes to questions of masculinization and sexist and patriarchal behavior within movements, is compelling. The testimonies of women Moradian interviewed reveal the harrowing effects of such behavior. One activist, for example, painfully recalled how she was pressured to abort her pregnancy, an event that scarred her for life (189).

Although Moradian is clearly right to note that sexual “oppression and compulsory heterosexuality were left untheorized and unchallenged, as was the gender binary itself” (181), some further historicization would have been helpful for readers. It is unrealistic, for instance, to expect that the ISA would have developed a queer politics before Stonewall. This is of course not to say that the frameworks or practices of Iranian revolutionaries at the time would have allowed for the incorporation of these urgent emancipatory causes, or that such limits to their revolutionary horizons should not be reflected upon. Some of these limits were tragically in evidence, as Moradian demonstrates, after activists returned to participate in the Iranian Revolution. Five to six thousand CISNU members, including many from the ISA, made the reverse migration to Iran to participate in the mass mobilizations that were to change the face of Iran forever (215). Significantly, Moradian centers gender in their experiences, arguing that “gender and sexuality were not only central to the discourses of a revolution against Western imperialism and to the mobilization of masses of women, but were also central to the shift from revolutionary possibilities to new forms of authoritarianism” (216). Moradian demonstrates this by reflecting on the March 1979 Women's Uprising, during which tens of thousands of women participated in “meetings, demonstrations, and sit-ins to demand full legal equality and to support a host of other democratic demands” (224).

Starting on International Women's Day (March 8), this major mobilization lasted until March 13, unfolding against a sustained patriarchal push pursued by Imam Khomeini. In the name of Islam, the state suspended the 1967 family laws with the intention of bringing them in line with Sharia codes; banned women from serving as judges; announced gender segregation in schools; and denounced International Women's Day as a Western innovation (225–26). The uprising that was launched against these policies yielded some immediate partial victories, resulting in the interim government's withdrawal of its plan to force women to wear the hijab. Yet this victory proved to be short-lived, and the hijab was imposed upon all women de facto by 1981 and de jure in 1983 (234).

With considerable nuance, Moradian avoids Islamophobic orientalist tropes, noting that the hijab was not the only legacy of the revolution and that women made many gains in its aftermath in the concrete spheres of education and employment. At the same time, she shows that the 1979 Women's Uprising offered far more expansive emancipatory possibilities. Given the subject of her study, it is only right that she extensively critiques the Left, including the returning diasporic Left that included many ISA activists, for its failure to fully embrace and support that uprising and its demands. Despite some condemnations from a few leftist groups, including the Fadaiyan, of the vigilante violence that was unleashed against protesting women, Moradian detects a leftist consensus that “the women's marches were a side issue,” distracting from “the primary fight against imperialism.” Women's mobilization was deemed to be middle class in ethos, irrelevant to the concerns of “poor and laboring women and the ‘toiling masses in general’” (235).

Moradian further attributes the Left's initial hesitation to mobilize behind the women's movement to fears of contributing to revolutionary divisions at a time when US and monarchist machinations were still a serious threat (238). This, she powerfully argues, demonstrated how “a heartfelt commitment to freedom in the form of national sovereignty” ended up reinforcing “masculinist forms of revolutionary subjectivity, in which a hierarchal model of oppression reigned and the demand for self-sacrifice as the dominant mode of liberation could be especially applied to women” (244). Whether a leftist challenge to Khomeini on gender-equality grounds would have succeeded is a counterfactual question. What is clear is that the betrayal of the cause of women's liberation had devastating effects—ones that continue to be felt to this day.

This was indicative of the course of the revolution after the Islamic forces consolidated their power and began to persecute the Left without restraint or mercy. Moradian discusses aspects of this violent suppression, all the while pointing out various forms of resistance, including organizing within factory councils (257). Notably, however, the resistance carried out by leftists, including many feminists, operating in national minority areas (particularly in Kurdistan) is largely missing from her discussion. Leftist revolutionaries active in the Kurdish struggle, including Shahrzad Mojab and Dianna Nammi, have written on this important aspect of the Iranian revolutionary odyssey, and their personal reflections, among others, would have added a further layer of richness to the book. Yet Moradian's fundamental argument stands: the Iranian radical revolutionary tradition in the diaspora and at home, for all the losses it suffered after the revolution, still carries emancipatory potential. This Flame Within ultimately rejects the idea that the Iranian people can only chose between national sovereignty under patriarchal clerical rule or personal freedoms under a xenophobic, imperially sponsored, capitalist monarchical order. In her intimate retrieval of a bygone past, Moradian invites a serious conversation about a more liberated future.



Moradian, This Flame Within, 74. Hereafter cited in the text.


Matin-asgari, Afshin.
Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah
Costa Mesa, CA
Mazda Publishers
Moradian, Manijeh.
This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States
Durham, NC
Duke University Press