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Iran and the 'Arab Spring'


02 Jun 2011 22:55Comments
Iran_30th_retro_03_483666a.jpgThe Islamic Republic is a whole other story.

[ IDÉ ] A specter is haunting the Middle East -- the specter of democracy. This has been an underlying theme of much of the punditry that has been published in reaction to the epochal events which have been unfolding in the region over the course of the last several months. However, once euphoria's rose-tinted spectacles have been lifted away, one sees that the realities on the ground are proving more complicated. The Hegelian forward march of history propelled by the Spirit of Freedom and the inevitable telos of Western Liberal Democracy have repeatedly been exhumed to explain the enigmas and quandaries of the present; both meta-histories run into serious problems when one begins to look more circumspectly at the evidence and one's own preconceptions. These latest incarnations of "historical determinism" have been firmly rejected by prominent theoreticians of nonviolent resistance who write in the name of democracy and its promotion such as Gene Sharp, who are well aware that even though the battle may have been won, a protracted war of attrition still lies ahead.

Moreover, while demands for "freedom" (what kind of freedom is never really delved into) have been indispensable, such demands are clearly balanced by many others, such as demands for social justice, social mobility and economic opportunity, political participation, and respect for the dignity of persons. Similarly, the role of the United States in the region and its history of support for authoritarian, albeit putatively secular regimes in the name of energy security, peace with Israel, and stemming the tide of "religious fanaticism" has been neglected in numerous reflections on the so-called Arab Spring. A historical analogy, if we choose to follow through to its logical conclusion, casts the United States in the role of the "Evil Empire," whose imperial grip on the region teeters on the precipice, while it erratically inhales its last gasps.

Reality has a way of resisting such impromptu musings and ad hoc theorizations. Our paradigms and conceptual schemes, while they provide a veneer of explanation, must be revised in light of their inability to brush aside anomalies and patent failures in the face of unforeseen historical events. When all is said and done, such facile analogies are often misconceived and unhelpful. The recent uprisings in the Arab world have already obliged us to undertake a fundamental rethinking of our understanding of the region and the staple concepts and analyses that have become the rote responses to questions of political change, rentierism, and democratization in the Middle East.

Even as the Arab Spring blossoms, the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to have dexterously repressed the democratic aspirations of its people. The Iranian leadership has gone so far as to tout the recent developments in the Arab world as a victory for the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with Egypt and Tunisia walking in Iran's proverbial footsteps. At a glance, the recent developments in the region certainly appear to favor Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's offer of sanctuary to the exiled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the Camp David Accords of 1978 that lead to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the two countries had frosty relations for decades. Sadat's decisive shift into the Western camp further diminished the prospects for good relations between the two countries. With the demise of the Mubarak regime, which sought to perpetuate this state of affairs, the prospects of greater cooperation between the estranged states are conceivable, especially regarding peace negotiations addressing the nature and parameters of a future Palestinian state. There was a possible sign of things to come in late February when two Iranian warships were permitted to pass through the Suez Canal, much to the chagrin of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

Another issue that also continued to rear its head during the course of these momentous events has been the near hysteria surrounding the possibility of a Khomeini-style revolution in either Egypt or Tunisia. In both cases the comparisons are clumsy and have been repudiated "Islamist" or arguably, following Asef Bayat, "post-Islamist" protagonists in both countries. Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi, the once-exiled leader of the Renaissance Party, explicitly rejected the Khomeinist paradigm and stated he had no intention of running for the presidency. Similarly, after Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, claimed that the protests witnessed in Cairo and elsewhere bespoke a desire for an Islamic state inspired by the Iranian model, he was firmly rebuffed by the Muslim Brotherhood, who stated that what was taking place in Egypt was not an Islamic revolution, but a revolution made by the Egyptian people.

So even if the overweening predictions and virtual hysteria provoked in some Western quarters were proven correct and the Muslim Brotherhood was overwhelmingly elected into office (which doesn't seem likely), there is no guarantee that this would translate into serious strategic gains for the Islamic Republic. A more probable long-term corollary of independent and democratic regional states will be their propensity to highlight the real dearth of democracy at home, and undermine the regime's carefully crafted "state of exception" which constantly invokes the looming threat posed by the regional penetration of the "Great Satan" and its allies.

In some respects the converse is visible in the case of Syria -- Iran's longstanding and sole strategic Arab state ally in the region. While at the moment, it seems as though Bashar al-Assad's regime has managed to survive, allegedly with the help of its Iranian allies, the end of the Ba'athist regime could potentially have devastating implications for Iranian foreign policy. Hence, in stark contrast to the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, Iran has maintained a self-interested and nervous silence. Not only would the demise of Assad's Alawite-dominated regime entail the empowerment of Syria's Sunni Arab majority, who would favor Syria's return to the Arab mainstream, but also potentially the end of Hezbollah as a formidable military force. Even if Tehran managed to circumvent this eventuality, its greater isolation would be accompanied by a severe reduction in strategic depth.

While there is little doubt that Iran is affected by regional developments and has a large stake in the future of the new fledgling regimes of Tunisia and Egypt as well as unfolding events in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, it is on the domestic front that feathers are being ruffled and hitherto unforeseen internal challenges are emerging. In June 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran faced arguably the most serious challenge in its 30-year history. Millions poured into the streets of Tehran and other major cities over what was perceived to have been large-scale electoral fraud, which returned the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to power. Since then, Iran has witnessed mass arrests, executions, and Stalinist show trials motivated by an extravagant dread of a Velvet Revolution. Even regime insiders, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Majles Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, haven't been immune to the reach of the increasingly securitized environment in which the main power brokers have emerged as the Supreme Leader's office and senior appointees in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The two figureheads of the Iranian opposition movement, which has come to be known as the Green Movement, have been under house arrest for more than 100 days. After a new round of protests on 25 Bahman/February 14 that sought to revive the Green Movement's flagging momentum off the back of the uprisings taking place across the Arab world, Mousavi and Karroubi were isolated and cut off entirely from the outside world, preventing them from communicating with their followers and sympathizers. Since their disappearance, there has been relative calm, despite the fact that the Ahmadinejad government has had to execute controversial plans to cut vital subsidies to fuel and basic foodstuffs, cuts for which a serious backlash has yet to be seen.

Before touching upon the internal fissures among Iran's political elite, certain important considerations need to be enumerated. First, Iran underwent a popular revolution in 1979 and a radical transformation of its power elite, state structures, and state-society relations. Some three decades later and despite the palpable anger and sheer mass of people who poured into Tehran's streets during June 2009 and on several occasions since, the Iranian populace, or at least that portion of it who wish to see systemic change in the nature of the governing order, are demanding change that is not only nonviolent but also relatively gradual. The character of this popular opposition movement has been reinforced by apathy, lethargy, and a healthy dose of skepticism vis-à-vis comprehensive emancipatory projects and promises of political salvation. Years of revolutionary turmoil and the brutal conflict with Iraq in concert with the minor gains afforded by the earlier reformist period (1997-2005) and direct experience of a religiously legitimated autocracy contributed in different ways to genuine, though by no means all-encompassing, changes in Iran's political culture, characterized by broad-based grassroots civic participation, along with demands for human and civil rights, constitutional government, and the abjuration of violence. (These changes are evident in the so-called Green Charter, which sets out the basic principles and objectives of the Green Movement.)

Second, the opposition, or at least its leadership, emerged from within the very system they sought to transform and therefore the depth and extent of their challenge to the status quo has been ambivalent from the outset. This is in stark contrast to the cases not only of Egypt and Tunisia, but Libya as well. Iran is a postrevolutionary state, and therefore the language of reform rather than revolution has been the prevailing mode of political engagement among Iran's opposition movement. The fact of the revolutionary victory also means that the discourses of anti-imperialism and national sovereignty, while hardly neglected, do not now play the same role that they have in the Arab Spring -- a role that has been greatly played down in the Western media.

Third, Iran is ruled by an ideological-revolutionary regime with an ideologically indoctrinated military force, the Revolutionary Guards (under whose authority the Basij paramilitary force was formally subsumed in 2008), whose raison d'être is the defense of the political order, the gatekeepers of which are the self-appointed Shia clerical elite. There is however one supreme arbiter who does not merely mediate between disparate factions and branches of government, but who rules by virtue of his divine mandate justified by the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih, the rule of the supreme jurisprudent. In recent years, less and less lip service has been paid to popular sovereignty, while most overtly since June 2009 (though this trend began several years earlier), political power has become personalized and indeed sacralized in the hands of the leadership, representative of God and the Hidden Imam on earth, or so the apparatchiks wax lyrical.

A recent documentary, Zohur Besyar Nazdik Ast (The Appearance Is Imminent), proclaiming Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, as prefiguring the Hidden Imam's imminent and apocalyptic return, is just one among a growing number of proclamations of Khamenei's quasi-divinity in the discourse of the Leader and those who support him. This discourse itself seems to have emerged as an effort to make up for the profound charisma deficit that has long plagued Khamenei in contrast to the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This deficit has contributed to Khamenei's own sense of insecurity and wavering confidence surrounding his own political authority. Khamenei has also shown himself to be bureaucrat by temperament and prone to micro-management on a colossal scale -- the complete antithesis of the revolutionary patriarch, Khomeini, with his more detached and sporadic interjections into the daily affairs of government.

Finally, the polity is genuinely divided. The regime does have a base of popular support and clients whose loyalties are sustained via a myriad of networks and parastatal organizations by means of which oil revenues and other financial and nonfinancial incentives are distributed.

However, new antagonisms have recently materialized, not between the Green Movement and Ahmadinejad, but between the president and the Supreme Leader. Factionalism doesn't equal greater political pluralism, and the Islamic Republic has always been characterized by inter-elite rivalries, which have thus far resulted neither in greater democracy nor an expansion of the elite. If anything, the roster of ruling elite has progressively shrunk, with the Reformist Khomeinists the latest victims in a long series of purges. A dispute that initially expressed itself in concerns about Ahmadinejad's closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and some of his "controversial" pronouncements in a bid to appeal to the middle and lower-middle classes in the garb of a quixotic fusion of Iranian nationalism and implicitly anticlerical millenarianism, has spiraled into a far more serious tug-of-war over the very modus operandi of the executive, more specifically the presidency in the Islamic Republic. In brief, it seems that the Supreme Leader desires the presidency to be little more than an appendage to his own office, and Ahmadinejad is proving reluctant to oblige.

The event that precipitated this unprecedented confrontation between the president and the Supreme Leader was Ahmadinejad's acceptance of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi's resignation on April 17. The Intelligence portfolio has always tacitly been the pick of the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad's acceptance was immediately overturned on the Supreme Leader's order and the president in protest boycotted his own cabinet for some 11 days. Since Ahmadinejad's open act of defiance against the Leader's order, not only have there been calls for Mashaei's arrest, but a number of other associates have been either publicly threatened or detained. Prominent figures on the right -- the so-called principlists; senior clerics such as Ahmadinejad's erstwhile protectors, Ayatollahs Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati; and key Revolutionary Guard officers -- have joined in the chorus of vituperation against the president and his coterie.

For now, it is not clear how Ahmadinejad will spend the last two years of his presidency. Bu it is doubtful, given his character and gruff management style, that he will obediently fade into the background and live out his remaining time as a lame duck. The opposition, however, have shown themselves fundamentally incapable of capitalizing on this intra-conservative feud where greater democracy is clearly not the main bone of contention, and at least for the time being will have to sit content with regarding themselves, as the Persian saying goes, "fire beneath the ashes."

IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine. Photo from the 1978-79 Revolution.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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