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Scenario Building for Iran


06 Jan 2010 17:3147 Comments
mesbah-1.jpg[ analysis ] The political crisis in Tehran has four main possible outcomes. At issue is the struggle over the "Islamic republic" form of government. Islam itself is not at issue, but a virulent form of Islamist ideology led by Ayatollah Mesba Yazdi, which is explicitly anti-republican is. There are also two complicating issues for any new constitutional order: what to do about the international issue of Iran's nuclear programs; and what to do about "peace and reconciliation" issues regarding the extrajudicial killings, torture, and summary executions practiced by the Iranian security state.

Power at the moment in Tehran is divided between religious legitimation and the coercive powers of the state. Religious legitimation has been seriously tarnished for Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the person holding the top position of velayat-e faqih or what the American press calls "the Supreme Leader." (In Persian it is Rahbar, Leader or Guide, a fascist title, but without the explicit references to der Führer or Il Duce that it evokes in translation). Khamenei's credentials as a top-rank religious leader have always been in question, and in the past weeks protesters have taken to demoting him back to "Seyyed Ali," when they are not chanting "Death to Khamenei" (something unthinkable a few months ago).

In the fraudulent June election, which sparked this crisis, Khamenei failed to stand above the fray and mediate at least a procedurally plausible solution. Instead he chose to declare President Ahmadinejad's reelection a landslide victory. Ahmadinejad is known to have been systematically placing members of the Revolutionary Guard in positions of power throughout the state machinery, as well as according them control over large parts of the economy. Was Khamenei already captured by the power network of the Revolutionary Guard? If so, would they eventually push him aside and just declare a military regime? And would it be secular in the sense of valuing technocratic expertise over mere ideological commitments, or would it be those parts of the Revolutionary Guard that follow Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who argues for the people being allowed only to affirm the decisions of the religiously inspired?

There appear to be four possible outcomes in a classic scenario matrix: the Green Movement becomes sufficiently strong to sweep away the current government and establish a secular constitutional democracy (call this the secular republic); the Green Movement in combination with pragmatic and technocratic factions of the Revolutionary Guard creates a new constitutional order (call this a tutelary republic); a military figure takes over à la Reza Khan in the 1920s, Attaturk in Turkey, or Mobarak in Egypt (call this a dictatorship which could be more secular, or more religious as Zia ul-Haq was in Pakistan); or the Revolutionary Guard could install Mesbah Yazdi as the new Supreme Leader (a theocratic dictatorship).


Of the two complicating issues, the nuclear may be the easier to solve. Under any of the three outcomes except the theocratic dictatorship, the formulas for Iran pioneering a new international model for the control of the fuel cycle for nuclear reactors of all types might be feasible. The internal domestic political issue may prove more difficult: What is to be done with such perpetrators as the judges and prosecutors who abused their offices and were behind the many extrajudicial killings, torture, and summary executions of the past decades. It is not only such easily identifiable individuals, but also the many enforcers in the Basij militias whose salaries, access to higher education, and government positions came from the patronage system. This may be why the lower left cell of the scenario diagram may be the transitional form necessary to maintain order, albeit as in other such post-authoritarian settings, such a solution will be full of pitfalls of complicity.

It is important for Iran's future and that of the world that more attention be focused on these alternative outcomes, so as to avoid the worst of them. Iran needs less our intervention or sanctions than an insistent questioning of who the players and their connections and alliances are. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement, may or may not be enduring leaders of the movement, but they know the people they are confronting. The decentralized Green Movement needs to also be clear and prepare for the next steps.

These next steps require not just immediate tactics, but strategies for all four possible outcomes. Basic to such strategizing is exposing or making more and more transparent the alliances and connections among the factions and players in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), so as to anticipate how they might move, and to hold them accountable. The IRI runs on secrecy, innuendo, backroom negotiations, and ambiguities. These need exposure to the healing light of the sun. The complex marriage alliances of the clerical elite families need to be understood and made open to pressure, just as the state allows home visits, books, and other affordances to its prisoners, as well as seizing property and bank accounts, as ways of trying to manipulate them. Just because someone is an in-law doesn't mean the two sides agree on politics or actions, but they are usually available to one another and so possible levers of pressure from democratic forces as well as from the other side.

Similarly a public accounting of the holding companies and decision-making of the IRGC in the economy need to be mapped out, if only to understand pressure points and points of strength. Mentoring lineages and conflicts within the IRGC as well need mapping.

The Direct to Secular Republic Scenario

In an ideal outcome for the Green Movement, the IRI state apparatus will collapse allowing a purely civilian leadership to guide the control of events. This will require the clerics and Revolutionary Guard currently in control to turn on their closest allies and thereby undermine their own power that they cannot continue. Both security forces and clerical legitimation will shift to the side of the Green Movement. In classic revolutions, this has happened when the state, needing money, turns on its primary supporters to extract the most immediately available sources of wealth, as when royalty taxes the aristocracy or the finance bourgeoisie, thereby losing their support.

In Iran this happened under the shah when severe bottlenecks developed in the wake of the inflationary expansion of construction after the 1973 price increases, and the regime first tried to scapegoat the bazaars for rising prices, then squeezed other sectors. Today, the potential parallels lie in the underemployment of the educated classes, the pressure of rising prices for the working classes, and the increasing demands to know where billions of petrodollars have gone in a corrupt system. Indeed this last was perhaps one of the most damaging charges fired during the 2009 televised presidential debates, one of the places where cleavages within the elites began to be exposed.

Should there be this kind of collapse, then perhaps there would be time and space for a transition to allow a new constitutional convention that would create a framework for checks and balances and accountability in the structures of governance. The transition requires a coalition of leaders of constituencies, leaders who can speak to religious and security constituencies, to civil rights issues, to economic planning, as well as some guidelines for how to deal with the past. Musicians and media creators, including comedy, might well be important in this transition to model the ability of different people to interact, chadored women with unveiled ones, for instance.

So will leaders who can make the distinction between secularism in governance (that religion, Islam, has been and is inevitably corrupted by involvement and attempts to control daily politics) and secularism in belief (a secular republic does not require giving up of faith or belief, only not forcing it violently on others). After all, the high road of Islam, particularly in Iranian poetry, parables, and epics, has always been internal purity and faith while living in a corrupt world.

Tutelary Republic Scenario: Focus on the Transition

The transition period may not be so smooth as in the "direct to secular republic" scenario. In the 1979 revolution although there was a period of euphoria and coalition, and although the security apparatus was neutralized, the transition over the course of the year, and through the process of writing a new constitution, turned into a struggle for power and control, and as in so many revolutions an authoritarian outcome emerged followed as well by a terror and violent retribution against members of the old regime, which turned also against coalition partners. In Iran's 1979 revolution, it took the form of the velayat-e faqih bolstered by a series of cleric-dominated control bodies (the Assembly of Experts, the Council of Guardians).

In addition, as in many revolutions, a dual power structure was established which became first the defenders of the revolution and then the enforcers of state ideology: the Revolutionary Guards were unified into a military parallel to the army and eventually grew stronger than it; there were revolutionary courts, revolutionary councils in factories, bureaucracies and universities. Rather than being transitioned out, these grew over time, a process reinforced by the emergency of the war with Iraq. In the aftermath of the war, children of those killed as well as veterans, were given various kinds of compensatory access to higher education and jobs, again establishing a dual structure, in which ideological commitment was credited over expertise. Ideological exams were part of entrance to universities, and separate funds were made available to the ideological cadres. On the streets, as well, veterans guarded their legacies and trained a new generation of militias (Basijis), some of whom ritually engaged in attacks on more affluent youth in north and west Tehran.

To guard against a repeat of this, quite regular, process might require the hand of a strongman, and the problem always is how to ensure that the tutelary structure so imposed does not become permanent. The primary function of such a strongman, presumably coming with backing from pragmatic factions of the IRGC, is to prevent bloodshed and mayhem by stirred-up Basijis, families supported by the IRI's patronage system, and former officials and enforcers fearing retribution by a new order of affairs.

Indeed one line of speculation is that Khamenei would prefer, or has so acted to make more likely, such a succession to a more unpredictable cleric succeeding him, who might find it politically expedient to purge Khamenei's family and holdings as part of a corrupt past that needs purification and correction (see scenario four below). He, like Khomeini, might distrust Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and his allies, and, despite the latter's ties to Ahmadinejad and key figures in the Revolutionary Guard, be cannily playing to out maneuver them within the IRGC ranks.

The three closest examples are Attaturk, Reza Khan (who thanks to the clerical opposition to a republic crowned himself shah), and Mohammad Reza Shah (who was restored to power not only with American and British help, but with the support of Ayatollah Kashani who divorced himself from supporting Mohammad Mossadegh). All three committed themselves to modernizing their societies, and arguably did far better than their counterparts in Pakistan. One could conceive of a new Reza Khan who would build upon those efforts and those successes of the IRI such as expanding university education both demographically and to the Ph.D. level, and the expanding experience with the idea of elections, who would also learn to allow democratic institutions to be built. Ideally, this again would be a defender of a secular constitutional structure, with well run, transparent and accountable elections. And it would be a defender of a transparent judiciary that did not rely upon the national security state of the secret police (SAVAK and SAVAMA) or extrajudical killings and disappearances approved by clerical or political authorities.

Free and popular elections are not sufficient. Plebiscitary elections by themselves are subject to wild emotional swings of mood, and are unstable means for policy-making. A true democratic structure is one with various institutional checks and balances to channel and regulate the competing interests and power formations in a society. This was the point of the arguments in the Federalist Papers of the period leading up to the American Constitution, and recall that the Americans did not get it right the first time, and required important amendments the second time around. One can argue that the American Constitution as a model had various flaws, quite apart from initially and for many decades, not counting all human beings as voting citizens. It could be argued, and has been, that it favored too much one or another form of political economy.

Here some of the goals of the democratic coalition of 1978 in Iran might be recalled: to diversify the economy away from an oil rentier state, to diversity trade relations, to institute a free press and civil rights, to build a democratic political structure. These need to be thought through again, and not allow the Plan and Budget Organization, for instance, to be a place of just making up numbers, or slogans of social justice to be unproductive distributions of money that tie people to patrons.

Arguably a mixed tutelary republic would, in foreign affairs, engage in regional and global diplomacy that would build upon Iran's strategic interests to stabilize the region, expand the diversity and robustness of its global trade and technical links, and in that context strengthen its position in the nuclear arena by helping to pioneer a new age of international controls over the nuclear fuel cycle for energy, and give up its nuclear weapons programs (as Brazil did in an earlier decade) in exchange for becoming a robust economic power.

Civilian-Led, IRGC-Backed Mixed Republic

One of the foundational problems of the tutelary (Attaturk) republic scenario is legitimacy, and this would be even more the case if Britain and the U.S. had a hand in helping it to come about, however grateful segments of the population might be. This, despite the aid of Ayatollah Kashani, was the problem of Mohammad Reza Shah's restoration. It is a moot point now whether if he had democratized and diversified the economy, gradually empowering the growing middle classes, the outcome might have been different.

The better alternative then would be a Mandela-like scenario. In South Africa (to simplify greatly), Mandela, with the restraining and backing of the armed African National Congress, was able to lead a negotiated civilian transition from the old Afrikaaner security state, one that also, with the help of Bishop Tutu, was able to provide an imperfect, but still politically effective, public peace and reconciliation process.

Whether or not a Mandela figure emerges in Iran (alternatives to a singular figure can be imagined in the range of potential coalition figures), it might be possible for a strongman or faction of the IRGC leaders to back such a civilian-led transition and the process of establishing a new secular constitution. The role of senior clerics such as Ayatollahs Sistani, Sanei, Dastgheib, and others could be helpful in maintaining a strong sense of the moral authority of Islam. Again: a secular state does not require an anti-religious population. In many societies, class structures contain popular religious enthusiasms, and can again in Iran, in the sense that religious hayats (ritual and mutual help organizations) need not be abandoned, but they need to be integrated into productive economic networks (as they were once through the bazaar economies) rather than being greased with state ideology-tied funds. The tariqat (Sufi organizations), often tied to middle class teachers and bureaucrats with their mystical understandings of Islam, need no longer be suppressed as they have been by the IRI.

It is possible to imagine a vigorous democratic debate leading to a robust constitutional republic supported and made accountable by the rich press and Internet activity of the past decades, and aided by the talents of lawyers, economists, engineers, social scientists, polling professionals, and others whose talents have been underutilized, coming together from both inside Iran and the diaspora. Most of the more hopeful elements of the previous scenario could then apply here.

Reinforced Theocratic Scenario

Finally there is the scenario of either an IRGC coup installing Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi or one of his allies as Khamenei's successor, or without a coup the successful maneuvering by Mesbah Yazdi, as he has been doing, to have this done by a vote of the Assembly of Experts, or even of a repeat of 1979 through an out-maneuvering of an initial more liberal coalition transitional government.

There are more than one logics along which this could occur. One logic includes the fear among groups of the IRI elites of retribution from any new constitutional order. It has been speculated that unlike the affluent classes of the 1970s, these elites might find it less easy to leave Iran having considerably less experience and comfort outside the country. It has been speculated by many commentators that Khamenei and other IRI leaders are stiffened in their resistance to compromise by their memories of 1978, that any sign of weakness or compromise will only engender further demands.

A second logic is the rationale of so-called "hardliners" since the taking of the American Embassy hostages in 1979, that Iran needs protection from domination by the corrosive capitalist Western and global economy, which distorts the ability of Iran to pursue its own independent course. The heightened emotional populism of the embassy takeover helped pass the Constitution that had seemed defeatable, and institutionalize the multiple institutions of clerical "supervision" of, and final word over the government. Arguably one of the successes of the IRI has been to diversity its trade relations and global political alliances, initially a third-worldist approach, but more importantly building up relations with India, Turkey, both Koreas, and perhaps China. In any case, this second logic is one reason that such a scenario would likely imply intransigence on the nuclear weapons front. It, together with the third logic, is also the source of the language of infection and contamination used to fend off the commoditization and lifestyles of the West, and effect a "criminalization of youth culture" as Shahram Khosravi puts it in his 2007 book, "Young and Defiant In Tehran."

A third logic is ideological, the claim that an Islamic state can be created with will and discipline, force and executions if necessary, and that the result will be one of a good society sustained by faith. In this logic, faith is protection against mental illness and depression, homosexuality and social deviance. It has authoritarian hard edges, apocalyptic messianism, and a kind of Heideggerian care of the soul, of authenticity, and of Being, the knowledge of which last, and thus of the divine intent and ordering of the world, is revealed to the true faqih. It also can be expressed in a language of intimate family-like paternalism, which followers can find comforting.

Even if this scenario were a temporary outcome, the danger is of a renewed major Terror, with executions of opponents justified in the ideological terms that have already labeled leaders of the Green Movement 'corrupters of the earth' and similar terms which carry the death penalty. It is likely that there would be, as is already being called for, another "cultural revolution" as when the universities were shut down for three years in the early 1980s with purges of students and professors. Marx might speculate that such a scenario stage might have to be undergone in order to finally isolate and destroy this faction of the ideological state. One hopes not.

Mesbah Yazdi and his prominent allies among the clerics cannot act alone. This is a reason, as argued from the beginning, that one of the most important tactics, certainly not the only one, in the short term is to track and make visible the networks of influence in the institutional structure that this faction is building and to redirect or block them.

Michael M.J. Fischer is a professor of anthropology at MIT.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Having seen and heard the speeches of Khamanei and AN, I would not write them off so easily. Khamanei speaks with humility to his own and inspires deep affection and loyalty amongst the IRGC/Basij most of whom are young and taking their family plus all those martyrs families who are supported by the various bonyads plus some of the clerics and their followers, they probably add up to several millions if not tens of millions. Added to this is the fact that by many accounts AN has actually improved the lot of the poor and helped the development of small towns and villages. Besides many of the lower classes including many young see in him an aspiration realised, after all he was the son of an ordinary blacksmith. If for no other reason than class, and unless he does commit an action that seriously affronts the majority which I doubt he would do, I can see no foreseeable prospect or reason for him to hand over power voluntarily to the Green movement. He is a man with a mission and would probably be willing to die on the job! But then so is Mussawi!

rezvan / January 7, 2010 3:46 AM

Excellent analysis and it seems like a better representation than the (secular, religious)(democracy, dictatorship) matrix.

Maziar Irani / January 7, 2010 6:04 AM

The regime have started what they learned back in 1980. prison the opposition and kill them later.
It is a shame that we allow the oppressive history of dark days of Khomeini to repeat.

gooya / January 7, 2010 6:06 AM


By the way you spell "Mussawi" it apears you are Arab and not Iranian. makes sense. Just about every Khamanai and AN supporter on the internet is Lebanese or Pakistani. hmmm. I wonder why! $!$!$

Iranian people's voice have been heard loud and clear: "No Gaza, No Lebonan, My life is for Iran"

When Khamanei goes, so will the Hamas, lebanese Hezbollah, and dozens of other freeloading organizations.

Ahvaz / January 7, 2010 7:32 AM

@ Rezvan: "tens of millions"

Where did you come up with this far-fetched number? Khamenei would not be in such deep s**t if your wishful number was at all near the mark.

A realistic estimate would likely be in the ballpark of 1-3 million (Basij members & families) maximum.

Why? Because if they were more than that, how come they didn't show up in the "tens of millions" during Ahmadinejad's "victory rally" in June, or as pro-state rallies on 13 Aban? Oh wait -- most of their scant ranks were busy terrorizing people!

Amir / January 7, 2010 10:20 AM

Rigid variables and an oversimplified matrix, incorporating many flawed inputs.

Where's a continuation of the status quo? A future smooth transition process for the position of velayat-e faqih? Just to name two additional potential outcomes, of which there are many more.

Sorry, it would take too much effort to critique this academic's effort. I pass.

Pirouz / January 7, 2010 12:06 PM

rezvan-why is it all you Islamist always arrive at the same conclusion, DEATH?Iran's economy is a disaster.A few kind words to a group of thugs by Khamenei or printing out worthless paper money with the intent to buy support among the poor and ignorant is not going to save Iran in the 21st century.The Islaic Republic is a house of cards with only one solution to prolong its miserable existence.

Jalali / January 7, 2010 2:40 PM

Ahvaz - I am told I will get paid in heaven for my efforts in speaking the truth & being fair! But how about u, did u manage to get some dosh from your neocon/zionist friends who are spending money that rightly belongs to the US taxpayer & could help many of them keep their home and jobs, if only their media actually told them the truth, the millions of $ being spent on destabilising Iran, billions being given to Israel and other client states. Money that could have been better spent at home. I heard they are dishing it out the $ by truckloads to Tehran but hope you are getting a few droppings!
Jalali- Haven't you heard the mighty US economy is quite literally bankrupt. If it was not for the Chinese & some of the Arab states & its ability to print the global currency of our time, the economic collapse would have been complete. The US has no ability to pay its debt but its debtors cannot afford for it to collapse. Iran, considering the sanctions and a burgeoning population, has done quite well even according to a World Bank report. Its govt smartly diversified into selling oil in € and is developing its own nuclear energy generating capacity which is what the advanced European economies are doing anyhow but they want to deny that to Iran.

rezvan / January 7, 2010 7:16 PM

@ Ahvaz

good observation. and great response!

Amir / January 7, 2010 8:24 PM

Rezvan said: "I heard they are dishing it out the $ by truckloads to Tehran"

Oh they are dishing it around alright. $400 a month to dahatis to beat up men and women. Also, they dish out juice and cookies by the truckload to villagers to swell the numbers of the pro-government "supporters".


I wonder how much gas they used for all the bussing in.

The days of Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and all the groups that Iran has wasted the Iranians money on is coming to an end.

Googoo / January 7, 2010 10:55 PM

This analysis by Mr. Fischer is astute, and helps to shed light on several possibilities ahead. Contrary to Pirouz's feeble attempt to critique it, one cannot expect every single possible outcome to be outlined in one place. What this analysis does is it gives insight into some of the most prominent forces behind the Iranian political structure. Also, it raises awareness on some important political science concepts. I'm sure there is much that the author missed, but that cannot be held against him! Instead, Iranians can use this analysis and combine it with others, and build a better understanding of the past, present and future of Iran's drive toward a true republic.

Saeed / January 8, 2010 1:45 AM

Googoo - Typical Greengo logic


This one is definitly a greengo on a north Tehran trail

Zebel / January 8, 2010 1:54 AM

rezvan -
It is their money and they can spend it any which way they please.China generates the money due to and thanks to American investments in that country.One hand washes the other.Americans created the basis for Chinese who in return invest their new found wealth in still the biggest economy on this planet, $13Trillion.America will bounces back and it will be business as usual.Now, you mentioned some Arab countries.Which ones?The biggesr Arab economy is Saudi Arabia's $350Billion economy,thanks to American technology. If you add up the entire economies of the Islamic world you will get a figure equal to one of the leading European countries economy.What economy? The Islamic world knows nothing about economy.It is only recent that some of the Persian Gulf countries have started to think about Oil Free economies for 2040-2050 and beyond.Take a look at your own Lebanon.If it was not for hand outs from other countries you would starve to death.Next time you decide to talk about economics I suggest you hit the books first.There is no magic in your Islam but misery.

Jalali / January 8, 2010 2:03 AM

@ rezvan
It wasn't enough to be blessed with Piroz on this site, now we have another Mahdi's soldier as well.

Cyrus / January 8, 2010 5:19 AM


How about these people?


Are they also "Greengos"?


Stepping all over Khameini/Khomeini posters to get some snacks.

GooGoo / January 8, 2010 5:26 AM


no he is not from north tehran - his clothes don't meet n. tehran fashion standards. He looks dahati to me.

Well said jalali

@Cyrus - I agree with you - we have Pirouz and rezvan (and zebel) are probably the same guy unless the iri is really wasting its money and actually paying 3 people to write their rubbish

Agha Irani / January 8, 2010 6:24 PM


1. Please spare me your neocon, Zionist labels.
I have always been sympathetic of not only the palestinian cause but all oppressed people regardless of their religion and origin.

2. RE your stetement "am told I will get paid in heaven for my efforts in speaking the truth & being fair"

-there is no room in heaven for people who support a government that commits injustice, murder and rape of its citizens in the name of Islam. It is time for you to reexamine your priciples.

Ahvaz / January 8, 2010 7:21 PM

This guy is straight from Sandiss Army of President AN.


Ahvaz / January 8, 2010 8:15 PM

another interesting analysis on Iran.


frank / January 8, 2010 8:46 PM

Ayatullah Misbah is too feeble to play the sort of role you envisage. Indeed, Misbah seems to be a scapegoat for much anti-regime fantasy. Khamenei is not going anywhere. The greens now need to distance themselves from the seditionists who turned off the masses on Ashura. The govt needs to show that it is only suppressing civil war and insurrection, not legitimate protests. None of these groups will achieve their goals. The result will be ever more dissatisfaction with no tangible political results. The people will bear with more repression to avoid civil war.

sanjab / January 8, 2010 11:05 PM


You sound soooo much like Shah supporters in 1978. The irony is almost comical.

For pictures of your "masses" please see Googoo's comments.

Re: "The govt needs to show that it is only suppressing civil war and insurrection, not legitimate protests."
-Great, let's have a pemit for greens peaceful demonstration without threats of bullets, teargas and Bassij with knives and chains, and see how many will show up.

Ahvaz / January 9, 2010 2:58 AM

If you are going to say it then tell the whole story.
1978/79 was not accomplished by Iranian people alone.Foreign powers created a leader on the outside, gave him logistical, political, propaganda as well as financial support, sent in their general to neutralize the military and when the time was right facilitated a jumbo jet to fly Khomeini to Iran.
Does the Green movement enjoy any of that? No, because it is indeed Iranian.
Unfortunately, it is a confused Iranian movement.While it is fighting for justice, secularism and democracy, its leader Mousavi does not want an end to IR and additionally we see moves from outside to reform the system from within.Parallel with Mousavi's wish.
Do you see any genuine help other than lip service coming out of the so called free world?
Mousavi can not deliver due to his Islamic background and the Greens do not have what it takes to defeat IR.
We are in a real mess surrounded by lots of wishful thinkers at the moment.

Jalili / January 9, 2010 2:19 PM

Ahvaz- Fair point- there is indeed and it would not be worth going to a heaven where those who commit injustice, murder and rape in the name of Islam or God are also there. Those who do that are acting against the Islamic message. This was what the struggle and sacrifice of Imam Hossein was about at Karbala, that it is right and proper to stand up against injustice and tyranny even if it is committed in the name of Islam and even where there is an outward pretense of an Islamic order as was at the time of Yazid. Mossavi and other reformist religious intellectuals are performing a role similar to Imam Hossein today and despite what some of the Islamophobes and anti-Islam Aryan nationalists advocate, this is probably the greatest gift that Islam(esp. Shi'ite Islam) has given to Iran. The ability, confidence and courage to stand up to tyranny and injustice no matter what its source. There are not many populations in the modern world, and certainly very few in the Muslim and developing world, where large sections of population get so quickly mobilised over such a fundamental breach of trust as an electoral fraud, real or perceived and not give up.
It is iconic that the lead person in this movement is also named Hossein. May God give him success and all who are striving for truth, justice and peace.

rezvan / January 9, 2010 6:06 PM

Do all of us a favor.Take your Islam, both Husseins and the rest of the goodies back to Lebanon with you.May you all prosper together.May God give you success and all who are striving for truth, justice and peace in Lebanon.Amin.

Jalili / January 9, 2010 7:34 PM

Well, we'll just have to see how it turns out. My guess is that the protests will not lead to any of the four outcomes Fischer suggests. I think people will become more cynical, and the Greens will not win sufficient support because of the motorcycle-burner window smasher types trying to steer the movement toward revolution. Just as the govt cannot let protests continue without teargas, so too, the protesters cannot carry out a non-violent protest. So, the religious majority in the country just gets turned off to all of it. Time will tell, but I'd bet on the Leader staying in power until called to the next life.

Sanjab / January 9, 2010 7:43 PM


thank you for your response,
I do agree that foreign intervention was involved in establishment of IR. But as usual, they ended up creating a Frankenstein monster. (see arc of crisis by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's FP)

I also do believe that IR can be brought to its knees by its people. There are countless examples of seemingly invincible regimes toppling due to the will of its own people (see from dictatorship to democracy by Gene Sharp)

Fighting Opression is a human issue , and has happened in diff religions and cultures, eg. India, S Africa, US black movt, poles vs Nazis. But you are right Yazid vs Hussain is an example that hits an emotional cord of many Iranians. except Iranians these days arent interested in symbolic martyrdom. They want to win their freedom and keep their lives.

A footnote: IR has done a great deal of damege to the Palestinian cause by supporting violent orgs like Hamas and Hizbullah, and using them as pons in its fight with US. I wish palestinians would instead follow the example of mandela in S Africa: here is the African black majority brutalized by an invading colonizing racist regime, supprted by a superpower (England).
See how mandela did it, then replicate it.

a lot of Iranian's anger towards Arab's is the betrayal they feel from some who support Iranian's oppressors, while Iranians have always been supportive of palestinians cause.

Many of us aren't anti islam, or fascist Aryan. we are simply tired of religion shoved down our throats. we believe in sep of religion and State.

Ahvaz / January 9, 2010 8:06 PM

Rezvan is probably a Pakistani who doesn't care less about Iran or Iranians. The only thing he is concerned about is the Establishment of Islamic Ummah...He doesn't know Iranians. This is not the first time in Iran's history that the Islamist terrorists have tried to hijack the Iranian nation.

Rezvan, I recommend you read the history of Iran and how we had dealt with those who wanted to sacrifice Iran in the alter of Ummah...

sabz / January 9, 2010 8:44 PM

As recently as a week ago, I heard my aunt who interestingly had walked in the 1978 uprising that "If Shah had killed a few more people we would not have to deal with this now". I am sure you have all heard different versions of this phrase numerous times during the past 30 years.

It is a phrase that blames Shah for not being violent enough to ebb the progress of the revolution or preclude its success. In other words Shah was not strong enough. Well, thirty years later this myth can prove or disprove itself. I believe Islamic Republic is prepared to use maximum force against the demonstrators in part because of this myth. They too believe that it was Shah's weakness that lead to the success of their revolution and not the will of the people who walked in the streets. There is little doubt in my mind that this myth is about to be tested. This time we will know for sure if violence can stifle and destroy the will of a nation hungry for change.

abcdefg / January 9, 2010 9:00 PM

Another scenerio, ahmadinejad is impeached for the prison torture, replaced by lahrijani, who takes mousavi as prime minister...

Anonymous / January 9, 2010 10:24 PM

abcdefg - Had he ordered the murder of his people in order to stay in power, what would you have called him today? Do you honestly believe refusing to murder innocent people is weakness? Strange logic.

Niloofar / January 10, 2010 4:58 AM


Take a look at the comments to this blog posting. There is an interesting discussion of the possibilities of what will happen in Iran.

observer / January 10, 2010 9:36 AM

With much respect to Professor Fischer's works of the past, this essay puzzles me in multiple respects. For starters, it's highly abstract, and skips over so many what-if's.... and in many respects seems quite divorced from actual statements of the greens. Where does he get the assumption that the green movement's "ideal" scenarios is for a secular republic? Or is this his preferred outcome? Or is he getting this from Makmalbaf & (Abbas) Milani? His four scenarios don't include serious reform of the system. Alas, it seems he's off doing comparative social science of revolutions elsewhere, instead of analysis informed by Iranian history & culture.... very puzzling for one of Fischer's long Iran experience.

havaiwill / January 10, 2010 7:31 PM



happy / January 11, 2010 7:07 AM

Professor Fischer's statement "In the fraudulent June election, which sparked this crisisher's..." tells it all! How does he know it was a fraudulent election? Just because others say so! Was he there? Can he explain the process of election in June from the time a person appeared to vote to the time when votes were counted? Just because oppositions say it was a fraudulent election doesn't make it right for Professor Fischer to say so. I thought anthropologists try to be objective!?

an anthropologist who participated and observed how people voted / January 11, 2010 7:40 PM

Mr. Anthropologist who participated,

What school of anthropology did you graduate from? Ahmadi 12ers? Your ridiculous question is a non-issue today. Every logical and thinking human being across the globe laughed at you people. Open your eyes and see the reaction of the Iranian people, minus those with orange juice and sandwich, of course. You don't even have the courage to post your name which clearly explains your position in life. We have a great saying in Persian,"tell this story to a cooked chicken and it will laugh at you".Your unelected president is a joke. You, your leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad can pass for three stooges. Vulgarity maximus.

Jalali / January 12, 2010 1:17 AM

It seems some "anthropologists" who participated and observed how people voted never learned simple math, logic and statistics. Nature Journal is looking for your next thesis professor.

What do you expect from Bassiji students. "Daneshjooye Sahmieh ... Hamineh Hamine."

Ahvaz / January 12, 2010 2:49 AM

Only a professor of anthropology at MIT could have put various possible outcomes of Iran's political future into a clinical matrix. Who'd have thought of that?

In his almost surgical thesis here, what Fischer misses out on is the "Human Element" of Iran, that has time and again rendered the shrewdest of forecasts, into impotent misconceptions .

Time will tell, soon!

Majid Patterson / January 12, 2010 5:00 AM

Six Sigma practices borrowed from another faculty will not work when it comes to sane forecasting of an outcome in Iran's political future by an anthropologist.

A pitiful attempt at political analysis. Fischer would be far better of sticking with Anthropology.

Siamak In NYC / January 12, 2010 7:00 AM


I want to make sure you get this comment so I am posting it here as well. I want to give you a better understanding of Iranian character.

Ask any Iranian:
1. what are the most celebrated events in Iranian calendar? Do you think they'll say Ashura, Birth of Prophit Muhammad, or ALi, 22 bahman? No. It is Noruz- Persian New Year, Chehar shanbeh suri- the festival of light, Shabe yalda, and Jashneh Mehregan. These have been celebrated in Iran for thousands of years and are still, by far, the biggest events in Iran. This fact is true eventhought IR has done its best to supress them.

2. Ask any Iranian about the 3rd 4th or 6th Shiaa Imam. They may tell you a few sentences they were taught. Then ask them about the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab and watch their faces light up. Please, ask any Iranian, religious or not.

3. Ask any Iranian What is the most read and popular book in Iran?
Quran?? No. they will tell you It's Shahnameh by Ferdowsi

You have said before that Iranians compare Khamanai to Yazid , and take lessons from the martyrdom of Hussain. True, but believe me when I say the legend of Zahak and Fereidoon hits a nerve in us far deeper. Why do you think Iranian people compare Khamani to Zahak more often than to Yazid? On green slogans on banknotes, you read Khamani=Zahak far more often than Khamani =Yazid.

Rezvan, Iran is an Islamic country, and we are predominately Muslim. But just like an Iranian girl who wears a beautiful colorfull dress under her black chador, Islam in Iran is superficial and skin deep, while our fabric, flesh and blood is Persian. Iranians accepted Islam due to the severe corruption of Zoroastrian priests at the time, but we never gave up our culture or language.

Dont get me wrong,
I am Muslim (by birth), I dont mean to put down islam, and I dont want to sound anti-Islamic. But your understanding of Iranian character is not accurate. It is irrelevant what you and I would like it to be. It is just how it is.

For better understanding of contemporary Iranian character and culture I encourage you to read "In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's First Prophet"- by Paul Kriwaczek

My Iranian friends please correct me if I am wrong.

Anonymous / January 13, 2010 10:18 PM

A very accurate analysis of Iran's politic today

Anonymous / January 15, 2010 4:53 AM


I personally agree with your statements word for word until the "severe corruption of Zoroastrian priests". Although you are historically correct, but you should not leave out the rest of the history of the time. It is not correct to say Persians accepted Islam with open arms. Islam was forced upon Persians by sword. There are many books written on the subject. Persians were butchered in great numbers, their wealth looted and their sources of knowledge destroyed.
Are we to assume Islam will disappear from Iran when the inevitable happens and corrupt mullahs are brushed aside? Obviously not. Islam will be practiced just as it was prior to 1979. In the privacy of one's home or the place of one's choosing.Muslim, Christian, Jew, Bahia and Zoroastrian lived side by side without any problems. Ancient people were not any different either. It is simply human nature. However, when you behead people in public as it was practiced by Muslims then many converted out of the fear of losing their own lives as well as their family's. These are historic facts. When Persians became Muslims their first course of action was to change it in their own image. They even recreated their religious characters. The Arab Muhammed, Ali, Hussein etc. etc. are very different to their Persian recreations. They even poisoned Reza and created a central place of warship around him for their own in Mashhad away from those dominated by Sunni Arabs. The truth is far more complex than what the Mullahs would like us to believe that we opened our arms and accepted another religion because of a few corrupt Zoroastrian priests.

Jalali / January 17, 2010 12:45 AM

Mr. jalili,

Thanks for your comments. We seem to agree on most but one topic.
I did not want to imply that Persians were not pressured by force by Arab invaders. We were. But Zoroastrian Perians suffered a great deal under Alexander too. He burned perspolis to the ground. He destroyed original Zoroastrial documents and scrolls that vanished forever. Yet Iranians did not give up their religion.

We were ruthlessly invaded by the Monguls (after Islam). They wanted to destroy every thing they didnt understand: our cities, our houses of worship, our culture, our way of life. but we Persians kept our religion and culture.

The same Arabs ruled over Spain for many years, but the Christians there managed to keep their religion, as did many jews and Christians that lived in the middle east and continued to live there for centuries. Why is it that Christians and Jews managed to keep their religion under Islamic rule, and not us Zoroastrians?

Would it have been possible to force -by sword alone- an empire as strong and proud as Persia into such utter humility and submission that it would give up such intimate part of it, its religion? Were we that pethatic, weak and spineless, that we would be forced to take the religion of invading nomads that we considered inferior?

May be. but I dont think so. I think that Persians' trust in their religious leaders must have had diminished caused by corruption and intolerance (similar to what is happening in Iran today.) I argue that we converted because we had lost faith in the religious establishment at the time. This exact phenomenon is repeating itself today right before our eyes.

The late corruption, intolerance and powergrab of Zoroastrian priests are well documented in historical accounts of the time. I referenced a book by Paul Kriwaczek in my earlier post.

" A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." -W. Durant


Ahvaz / annonymous / January 17, 2010 9:33 AM

Dear Ahvaz, allow me to remind you, "Although you are historically correct, but ....".

Jews and Christians are both tolerated by Muslims and Zoroastarians are not. Arabs came to Persia with the very intention of spreading a new religion, Greeks and Monguls did not. Respectfully, these are not accurate comparisons on your part.

Also, I would like you to study the reaction of the catholic church after the departure of Moors.It was not a peaceful transition. Since historically Catholic deeds have made the Muslim's look like a walk in the park.
Please review the historical parallel of South America where millions where put to death and that of the Islamic conquests with emphasis on Persia.

Iran will remain a Muslim country after the departure of the Mullahs in which the phony go-betweens are disposed of. The stories of Babaks are every proof to Persian resistance.

"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
Dear friend, where in this statement are we told a failure from within leads to a change in a nation's faith?

Jalili / January 18, 2010 5:01 AM

1. We will defeat this regime.
2. We must fight for the political ideology of democracy.
3. We must develop a "Green book" for democracy.
4. We should hold a constitutional convention on the internet. The purpose is to create a blue print for a future Iran. A template for how government should function.
http://iran115.org/constitution is the beginning of this project.
5. I believe that people in Iran understand grassroots organizing. This is a movement that must be built from the bottom-up. In secretive cells focusing on political, social, economic, and intelligence.

We fight for a democratic nation of Iran.

Jamshid / January 22, 2010 2:47 PM

Mr. jalili,

Frankly, you completely missed (or bypassed) my point. Understandable, as you seem to be under the illusion -against historical facts- that our ancient Zoroastrian priests were somehow immune to corruption and degradation!

Your insistance that we Zoroastrian Persians were simply victims of a forced religion by threat of death stems from the same Hosseinian victimization mentality that has afflicted many Iranians , ironically you as well!!!

Furthermore, I never implied that Iranians will give up Islam after IR. I suspect an outcome similar to the European Renaissance after the dark ages of papal theocracy.


Ahvaz / January 23, 2010 7:40 AM

Hello All,

I am a little disturbed by the comments as I read the name-calling, labling, accuzitions, and, even, insulting words. I would prefere a conversation around the possible outcomes for Iran. This is too serious to have our egos stuck in the middle.

I, too, believe that Mr. Fischer's matrix may be an oversimplification but it is a step in the right direction. Let's all work togethre towards a proud and democratic Iran.

What would you like to see Jalallli. Rezvan, Ahvaz, etc?

Does the form of government matter? Should it be secular? Do we care about the color of the falg or that is secondar? Does the picture of the son warm your heart and the lion makes you feel strong? Or, it doesn't matter.

Is Cyrus the great our common denominator or what is?

Farideh / January 25, 2010 8:00 AM

The analysis is excellent and the construction of 4 possible scenarios helps guide the reader in the consideration of possible outcomes. Nevertheless, the piece is weak because it does not rank the scenarios in terms of likelihood and attaches no time-frames for change to occur. In this form, it is good for purposes of discussion, but worthless for planning.

Richard / March 4, 2010 5:29 AM