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The Crisis of Legitimacy and the Green Movement

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

11 Jun 2011 16:17Comments
Iran-Green-Revolution1.jpg[ comment ] Author's note: This past October 9, a symposium, "Iran Ideology Conference 2010," was held at the University of California in Los Angeles. The author was one of the speakers. What follows is a slightly updated and expanded version of the speech addressing the root causes of the Green Movement that was delivered by the author.
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The question that I have been asked by the organizers to address is whether the Green Movement is something totally new and unique, or simply a continuation of past struggles, beginning with the Constitutional Movement of 1906-1911, the oil nationalization of 1951-53, the uprising of 1963, the 1979 Revolution, and the reform movement of 1997-2005, including the uprising by university students in July 1999.

To address the question, we must first understand the fundamental conditions in which the 2009 elections were held, as well as their differences with those of the previous presidential elections. The 2009 elections were held at a time when the ruling establishment was suffering from several simultaneous deep crises that were virtually unprecedented. At the same time, the people decided to vote for a candidate based not on his nice smile, or on his being from outside the ruling establishment, but rather based on their perception of which candidate could address their concrete demands and aspirations.

The economic, political, and social demands of the people and their aspirations for a better life and a more open society, accumulating since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, coupled with the inability of the ruling elite to address them, had already given rise to several movements, including the movement for women's rights, the labor movement for better working conditions and wages -- as manifested by the bus drivers' and teachers' and other strikes in many industries -- and, of course, the university students' movement. The reform movement that gathered strength in the 1990s and culminated in the landslide victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was partly a response to what was happening. But the hardliners, and in particular Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies in the security, intelligence, and military forces, prevented deep and lasting reforms through the use of violence, repression, coercion, and censorship. Toward the end of his presidency, Khatami said that the hardliners created a crisis for the nation every nine days and that they wanted the President to be their "butler." That, coupled with Khatami's caution, the reformists' reluctance to publicly question the fundamental shortcomings of the concept and system of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by the Supreme Leader), and their illusions about the practicality of a "religious democracy," resulted in the failure of the Khatami administration.

Let me emphasize that I believe that the Khatami era did have many achievements, not the least of which was, as the reformist strategist Dr. Saeed Hajjarian once put it, partially lifting the curtains of power so that people could see some of the things that were going on behind the scenes. But in crucial ways, such as not pursuing the true culprits of the infamous Chain Murders all the way to the top to reach Minister of Intelligence Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi, former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, hardline cleric (and father-in-law of one of Khamenei's sons) Aziz Khoshvaght, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi (who would become Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor for a time), Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei (now prosecutor-general), and perhaps even Khamenei himself; not strongly supporting the university students' uprising in July 1999 and leaving them to the hardliners; not resisting the slaughter of the independent press that began in April 2000; not resisting the order by Khamenei that year upholding the draconian press law passed by the Fifth Majles in its last days in June 1997; not taking any meaningful action in response to the jailing of journalists, human rights advocates, and university, women, and labor activists; and agreeing to hold the elections for the Seventh Majles despite the Guardian Council's sweeping elimination of almost all the reformist candidates -- in these crucial ways, the reformist leaders failed, contributing to the deep disappointment that many Iranians of different social strata of the society felt by 2005. The result was that many voters stayed home during that year's elections.

But by then another process had started. The IRGC -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- and Basij militia no longer wanted to act as the foot soldiers for the conservatives, clerical or nonclerical. They wanted to take control of the affairs of the state. The third city council elections in 2002 and the vote for the Seventh Majles in 2004 brought to the forefront the growing power of the security/military forces. Many in the security/military apparatus became Majles deputies. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the total support of the IRGC and the Basij militia was another facet of this process. His cabinet was packed with IRGC commanders, and provincial governorships and other important organs of the state were mostly filled by security/military men. The hardliners' fantasy of a unified ruling establishment had seemingly materialized. They appeared to control all branches of the political system.

But the repressive and oppressive policies of the ruling establishment, coupled with the utter incompetence of the Ahmadinejad administration in addressing the economic needs of the people, his rhetoric that did not match his performance, and a reckless foreign policy -- if it can even be called that -- in particular regarding the nuclear program and Israel created not one but several deep crises for the ruling elite. The crises began long ago, but they reached their height in 2009, all at the same time, and gave rise to the conditions in which the elections were held. What were the crises?

(1) The crisis of ideological legitimacy: It is no secret that the hardliners have an ideological view of everything, from state affairs to Israeli-Palestinian problems, and other issues. But due to all the crimes that have happened in Islam's name and the inability of the ruling elite to address the needs and aspiration of the people for a modern and forward-looking nation because of the devotion to the Velaayat-e Faghih system, not only has the ruling establishment lost ideological legitimacy, so also has its ideological political system. The loss of ideological legitimacy has been so severe that the hardliners now resort to none other than God to justify their rule. But, as the joke goes, even God has thrown up his hands and refers all matters to Khamenei.

(2) The crisis of political legitimacy: It has become abundantly clear that the hardliners cannot win any free, fair, and competitive elections in Iran. If they could, they would not resort to all sorts of illegal and quasi-legal acts to prevent candidates who have some credibility from being elected, or even running for office. The circle of khodis ("one of us," insiders) has become very small. The Majles elections have become meaningless, except for a very narrow segment of society. Even the small minority of Majles candidates who have some credibility and somehow pass through the draconian filter of Guardian Council vetting and are elected, are prevented from doing their jobs. Ahmadinejad declares that the Majles should be submissive to his administration and that he does not carry out legislation if he does not like it. Mehdi Karroubi took a nap during the evening of the 2005 elections, and when he woke up the results had been completely changed; reformists won at least eight seats in the elections for the Tehran City Council in 2006, but only four of their candidates were actually declared winners, etc. As Karroubi put it, the political system's ship has shrunk to a small boat.

(3) The crisis of economic incompetence and corruption: Vast corruption and looting of national resources by mafia-like groups have created another deep crisis. Fifty billion dollars worth of loans have been provided to 270 people, including $40 billion to just 100 people, with the banks professing their inability to recover the funds. One billion dollars disappears from the Treasury and no one knows what happened to it. First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi is implicated in a fraud that may involve up to $1.1 billion. Turkey confiscates $18.5 billion as it is being transferred out of Iran en route to Syria. Simultaneously, a large part of the population suffers from high inflation and chronic unemployment and underemployment. Ahmadinejad once said that it is okay for someone to have university education and be a cab driver. The utter incompetence of his administration, rejecting scientific planning for the country's development and abolishing the Organization of Planning and Budget, wasting the oil income that has been unprecedented in Iran's history -- totaling $500 billion over the past six years -- and creating a political atmosphere that has deterred foreign investment even in the oil and natural gas sector, as well as the almost negligible rate of growth -- it was 1 percent last year -- all contributed to the crisis of national economic management. As Dr. Hassan Rouhani, former chief nuclear negotiator, said of the Ahmadinejad administration, "They have wasted the last pennies and have nothing to show for it."

(4) The crisis of constitutional contradictions: The contradictory nature of the Islamic Republic's Constitution -- granting people's democratic rights in chapter 3, but bestowing divine legitimacy upon the Supreme Leader and demanding blind and absolute obedience to him -- coupled with powerful sentiments for republicanism -- that is, a truly democratic political system -- in a population of which 70 percent is under 35 years of age, with 100,000 bloggers, 32 million Internet users, five million university students (60 percent of them female), and 90 percent literacy, and the glaring gaps between the words and deeds of the ruling establishment have further eroded the system's residual legitimacy.

So to answer the question that I was asked by the organizers to address, I would say that the Green Movement does indeed represent a continuation of the century-old struggle of the Iranian people for a prosperous and free nation, but the collective conditions that gave rise to the movement were unique, in that the ruling establishment had never suffered from so many deep and insurmountable crises simultaneously.

These conditions have also given the movement some unique characteristics. The Green Movement is not based on the charisma of its leaders or symbols. It is not against or for religion, but rather concerned about its proper role. Most importantly, ideology has lost its place at the table. The movement aspires to address the suppressed and oppressed demands and dreams of the citizens, and as such aspires to give new meaning to citizenship in Iran, meaning that has never existed: One in which all citizens are equal, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, and social class -- one that is worthy of an old nation with a glorious history that has made many contributions to humanity. Yes, the movement is repressed at the present moment, but it is in fact a raging fire under a heap of ash. It has already had many achievements, but that should be discussed separately.

Thank you for listening.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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