Blogs > HNN > Iran in 2009--Redux of 1968, 1979, or 1989?

Jun 20, 2009 12:49 pm

Iran in 2009--Redux of 1968, 1979, or 1989?


In fifteen years of writing about the Middle East I have never encountered a situation that changed so fast that one could write an article that became outdated before you've even finished writing it. It seems that the Iranian elite has been caught similarly off-guard as well, and is still trying to read its own society to understand how broad is the societal discontent reflected in the mass protests.

This calculus is crucial; in some way more so than whether the results are legitimate or the result of fraud. It will determine whether the Iranian power elite—that is, the political-religious-military-security leadership who control the levers of state violence—moves towards negotiation and reconciliation between the increasingly distant sides, or moves to crush the mounting opposition with large-scale violence.

A lot depends on what the elite thinks is actually happening on the ground, and why the allegedly massive fraud unfolded as it did. Do the issues motivating the current protests ultimately derive from people's anger at perceived fraud and not having their votes counted? Or do they, as seems increasingly clear, reflect a much deeper level of anger at and even opposition to the nature and governing ideology and practices of the Iranian political system?

Equally important, if there was systematic fraud, was it perpetrated as a collective decision of a senior leadership unwilling to accept the cultural, political and economic liberalization a Mousavi government would initiate; or, as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and others have argued, did it owe to a sudden fit of pique by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini? His well known personal antipathy to Mir-Hossein Mousavi could have made the imminent prospect of his long-time political rival's victory so distasteful that he couldn't bring himself to sanction Mousavi's victory, leading to a hastily arranged fraud (many ballot boxes were allegedly never even opened before the official tabulation was announced) even as other parts of the leadership were laying the groundwork for a public announcement of Ahmadinejad's defeat.

What seems evident as the crisis deepens is that Ayatollah Khameini, who most commentators have long assumed holds near absolute power in the country as Supreme Leader, is in a weaker position than previously believed. The collective religious and military leadership, along with the Revolutionary Guard, will likely have a lot of input into determining what course the government takes.

And it is certainly questionable whether these factions have shared core interests during this crisis, as the Guard—from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad emerged—is both culturally more conservative and economically more populist than much of the political and religious leadership. The religious establishment is itself split into hardline, moderate and more progressive factions, each of whose members are tied to factions within the economic, political and security elite, producing a complex and potentially volatile set of competing and contradictory loyalties and interests.

Ahmadinejad's and Khameini's decisions in the coming days will be telling. If the official tally was in fact broadly accurate, then they will likely be more willing to agree not just to a recount, but even to a runoff election if that's what it takes to pacify the angry protesters. Indeed, a second Ahmadinejad win would severely weaken reformist forces and increase the system's legitimacy.

More generally, regardless of whether there was significant fraud the power elite could decide collectively that the protests are not motivated by broader concerns and thus do not threaten the stability of the system. This could also lead them to accede to a broad recount or runoff, even at the risk of a Mousavi win (and here it's worth mentioning that Mousavi is no liberal; the “core values” of Khomeini's revolution to which he advocates return are well within the mainstream of Iran's clerical culture).

Alternatively, if the protests do not lose steam in the coming days the leadership could decide that the opposition is too broad and deeply rooted to attempt to crush. In this case it would have little choice but to accede to protesters' demands or face losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the broader Iranian public, particularly if large numbers of protesters are arrested, injured or killed.

The greatest degree of uncertainty surrounds a scenario in which the power elite both concludes that the mass protests reflect deep-seated discontent by a large segment of the population, yet at the same time believes it has a narrow window of opportunity to deal with this situation forcibly before losing control to the rapidly encroaching street politics.

In this case, Iran could quickly approach a Tiananmen moment, in which the Iranian government calculates that crushing the pro-reform opposition will give it time to push the reformers back in the closet for the foreseeable future, and push the cosmopolitan liberal-cultural elite who have the ability to leave, to do so.

The problem is that Iran can't follow China's path. It is true that if oil prices continue rising they will produce enough revenue for the government to keep the poor and working classes happy, or at least quiescent. But what allowed the Communist Party in China to maintain its hegemony rather than merely dominance over Chinese society was its willingness to liberalize culturally at the same time it closed down politically.

Cultural liberalization became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist Party.

Needless to say, no such safety valve exists in the Islamic Republic, where a cultural perastroyka is precisely what Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the leadership and among the people want to prevent.

In China the government struck a bargain with the people, telling them “You can do whatever you want as long as you don't challenge the power of the state.” The Iranian government has over the last two decades negotiated a very different and more narrow bargain with its citizens: “You can do what you want behind closed doors, as long as you keep the music down. But we own the street and the public sphere. So put your headscarf on before you leave the house, and don't think about challenging cultural or political limits publicly.”

That bargain has now collapsed as hundreds of thousands of Iranians have, at least for the moment, reclaimed the streets. If Ahmadinejad has been railing against “Velvet Revolutionaries” since he took office, he is today counting on the situation in Iran resembling the Czechoslovakia of 1968 than 1989.

Yet with one of the world's youngest populations and an increasingly urban, educated and sophisticated citizenry, it's hard to know how long the Iranian government can continue to impose its conservative moral values upon a bourgeois-aspiring, culturally open technocratic class whose expertise and loyalty will be crucial for Iran's long term social, economic and political development (Saudi Arabia is a good example of what happens when you force a culture shut for too long).

There is a third way to interpret the rapidly unfolding protests. Here Ahmadinejad and the current political and religious leadership on the one side, and Mousavi and the reformers on the other, are merely rallying poles around which two bitterly opposed histories of and visions for post-Revolutionary Iran have rallied and are now doing battle long in coming.

Maybe, as one protester exclaimed, “There's no one in charge right now” either among the still nascent protest movement or the state that's trying to figure out how to suppress it without losing a large chunk of its legitimacy among the millions of Iranians who are likely still on the fence over who's election narrative to believe.

Indeed, this election might well have released a host of pent up forces—desperate hope for change, smoldering resentment at the vast inequalities plaguing Iran, utter disdain for the other side's core cultural identity—that will necessitate a bloody if cathartic settling scores between two irreconcilable sides over grievances that date back to the dawn of the Revolution, and its innumerable betrayals, failures and still unrealized goals.

This is not to say that the Islamic Republic could be replaced by a more secularly-defined republic any time soon. The thundering chants of “Allahu Akbar” at opposition rallies remind us that Islam and even Islamism (that is, political Islam) and democracy can, and should, go together. But Iran today is a very different place than during the early days of the Revolution, when the French philosopher marveled at an emerging “political spirituality” which in his mind had produced a "unified collective will; perhaps the greatest ever insurrection against global systems, the most insane and the most modern form of revolt the force that can make a whole people rise up... against a whole regime, a whole way of life, a whole world."

Iran long ago lost the singular, collective will that enabled the Revolution; the protesters are no longer imbued with the idea of bi-kodi, or self-annihilation, martyrdom and complete self sacrifice that toppled the Shah and helped the country withstand eight years of brutal war with Iraq. While some basiji volunteers retain the fervor described by Foucault, the majority of Iranians, particularly young people (even, one can imagine, the poorer and less educated ones overly represented among the basiji and Revolutionary Guard) would prefer to focus on its counterpart, khod-sazi, or self-construction, as the better attitude with which to build their society today.

If the protest movement that has flooded the streets in the last few days can forge a positive and inclusive vision for Iran's future, one that addresses the many social, ethnic, economic and cultural issues underlying the current protest holistically, they could very well change the face of the Islamic Republic, if not now, than in four years time.

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Folk Light - 6/22/2009

In a piece published in response to the events of 9/11 titled Melting Away the Matrix; Modernity, Terrorism and US Professor Levine passionately articulates his perspective of a desperate need for humanity to recognize and dismantle the “Modernity Matrix”.

[Today we all stand in judgment–not just the West, but the Rest too. Arguing that globalization has tied us together inextricably has become banal, but the events of this week bring home how much it has penetrated the imagined communities of race, class and nation. Unfortunately, not just Western policies or mainstream media coverage of the slaughter of 9/11, but also much of the critical writing on these issues has left unanswered the urgent questions of how to build alternatives to the status quo of occupation and autocracy in the Middle East, US hegemony in the world at large, and the widening cycles of violence they perpetuate.

To do so we all need dig beyond the easy symbolism of "freedom," "democracy," "Zionism=racism," and other mantras and challenge a matrix of discourses–modernity, colonialism, capitalism and nationalism; what I call the "modernity matrix"–that are each based on the creation of zero-sum oppositions between (individual or collective) Selves and Others, us and them, and which together have supported a five-hundred year old world system that supports slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania and IMF bailouts, organized terrorism and "le peuple du Seattle" alike.

Like its cinematic counterpart, the modernity matrix has for hundreds of years both determined our social existence and sugar-coated the oppressive, exclusivist and segregated reality underneath the glossy propaganda of markets, democratic capitalism, development, and freedom. But unlike the movie, there is no "one" who can lead us out of our dark age; the task is our collective responsibility.]

There is much in his logic I agree with however I have a differing perspective on the nature, scope and source of the world system he recognizes. I further believe humanity is totally incapable of extricating itself from the grip of this “system” whose origins and source of power operate in various dimensions or realms, being spiritual in nature. In short humans are caught in an epoch and a universal struggle that has engulfed earth. "The Hidden Revolution" that is manifesting itself via the tweets and on the streets on Iran today is tangled in this "systems" web as well. Money and Power have corrupted for ages.

As the partisan finger pointing continues the "rest of the story" goes barely noticed amid attempts to score political (and personal) points. Iran is bleeding and sophisticated attempts to obfuscate are ongoing nationally and internationally. This op-ed presents a likely scenario wherein power and greed co-opt a movement. I am certain some in Iran's clergy are aware of this and what is decided in Qum will signal to the power players in this corruption born scandal their time is over.

I pray those holding weapons will learn the of their manipulation.
"In Mr. Ahmadinejad, the public saw a man who repudiated the profligacy of the clerical class, a man who was ascetic, humble and devout. And he capitalized on that image to consolidate power and to promote his brothers in arms. Fourteen of the 21 cabinet ministers he has appointed are former members of the guards or its associated paramilitary, the Basij. Several, including Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, are veterans of notorious units thought to have supported terrorist operations in the 1980s.
This creeping militarization has not been restricted to the central government: provincial governors, press commissars, film directors, intelligence officers and business leaders are increasingly former members of the guard. The elite force controls much of the economy either directly — the Basij has rights to oil extraction — or through proxy companies like Khatam al Anbiya, which dominates construction throughout Iran". Read the Rest:;hp&ex=&ei=&partner=

We have been given volition and can choose, individually or collectively, to resist this “system”. Being born in this matrix was not our choice, being of it and owned by it is optional. Through disciplines of logic and meditational prayer, the truths of Biblical teaching shine ancient light desperately needed in our confused “modern” era. The Wise choose to use it in pursuit of truth.
-- Pray for Peace --

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 6/20/2009

remember, the iranian revolution itself was a product of the latest technology of the day--cassettes. khomeini had his sermons and other speeches snuck into iran on cassette where they were duplicated and circulated endlessly. so it's nothing new. but now, as roger cohen has been discussing in his ny times opeds, this has become a revolution of 'whispers'. so technilogy can play a great role, but if there's not a critical mass of people ready to hit the streets regardless of personal cost, it won't be enough, and if there are enough people ready to die for change, it won't matter if the authorities shut down the internet and cell phones.

Irene McClure - 6/18/2009

Hi Dr. LeVine – great post, as usual. I would be interested in your perspective on the role of technology in the Iranian protests... both the efforts of censorship and the virtual support we’re seeing internationally with people trying to provide “cyber cover” for Iranian protesters.