Violent Politics But Not Yet a Revolution in Iran
After last summer’s presidential election, Iran experienced its most dynamic outburst of civil unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The American media is mesmerized by the concept of a “Twitter Revolution,” a thrilling struggle coordinated by a young, technologically-savvy generation.
While this narrative is appealing and might eventually have validity, the term revolution is not yet appropriate; this is still political contestation on a dangerous plane. That such bizarre, risky conflict between segments of the elite is even possible indicates the tremendous political contradictions that exist in Iran.
Although the apparent fraud and post-election crackdown are clearly regressive signals, the election campaign itself was rather open all things considered. Although Iran is one of the few Middle Eastern states with contested elections, never before have candidates openly debated on national television; these debates featured vigorous and acrimonious public exchanges, including charges of corruption and ineptitude.
Two former presidents backed the main opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who campaigned with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, by his side, which itself triggered great controversy and a media frenzy.
Prior to the election the main clerical party (Jama’eh Rouhaniyat Mobarez) did not officially endorse the most conservative candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as it normally does. And then immediately after the election, several politicians and clerics wrote public letters appealing to the Supreme Leader, undermining his authority, for action on the allegations of fraud. Since the election, hostility towards the clerical establishment has grown, and there are numerous indications that the establishment is divided and becoming increasingly polarized.
While we often categorise Iran as a theocracy, clerics constitute at best around one third of the ruling elite, and there is sizeable political space for competition between clerics and non-clerics.
The Iranian regime does not have a single, designated “ruling party” that can mobilise popular support for the governing autocrats or serve as a patronage machine. Nor can the Iranian system be appropriately characterized as military authoritarianism, because the military has been under clear and defined civilian leadership. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the Revolutionary Guards, an ideologically-driven militia consolidated during the Iran-Iraq War, is growing in political and economic power. Former Revolutionary Guard members make up an increasing percentage of high-level elites, including presidential candidates in particular.
The balance sheet of the post-revolutionary period in Iran is contradictory to the extreme: undeniable progress in some spheres juxtaposed against regressive changes in others. The negative traits include serious human rights abuses, extreme fundamentalism, economic hardship, and political violence, while the positive developments include deep-rooted socioeconomic improvements and the emergence of a self-defining, vibrant and critical public discourse. The intellectual vigor of today’s Iran cannot be contested by serious observers.
Because the circulation of political leadership in Iran happens mainly at the bottom of the pyramid, it is important to observe and catalogue the figures involved. My research in this area indicates that a set of rather complex undercurrents is changing the Iranian political scene. Iranians are presently engaged in a new battle to establish some form of democratic rule.
Indeed, the core challenge facing the country is how to reconcile theocracy with democracy. The state must provide acceptable answers to questions such as whether all individuals are equal before the law regardless of gender or faith, or whether Shariah law is compatible with human rights and individual freedom.
On and off the streets, we now hear very loud and earnest demands for accountability, democracy, human rights, social justice, and tolerance. Long-standing features of Iranian political life, such as censorship, cult of personality, fanaticism, and violence, are being called into question. The leaders of the opposition are now solidifying demands that would make substantial, liberating political changes, but would not necessarily constitute revolution and a complete destruction of the current quasi-theocratic order.
Thirty years after the revolution that drove Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi from his throne, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to survive, defying predictions that it would collapse under domestic and foreign pressures. The opposition to the regime has still not yet demonstrated the organisational muster to lead a successful revolution, and it is not at all clear if this is even a desire. Mousavi and his fellow elite allies may be critics of the current nature of clerical rule, but we cannot yet classify them as revolutionary leaders.
Dr Mehrzad Boroujerdi is associate professor of political science and Director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Syracuse University in the US. For comments, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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