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Comment | Sanctioning a Revolution?


31 Oct 2012 16:46Comments

By fueling identity politics and undermining civil society, Western economic pressure actually helps prop up the system.

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Behzad Sarmadi is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto's Department of Anthropology. All opinions are his own.
[ analysis ] The anguish that accompanies deteriorating living standards is widespread in Iran today. Yet there are factors that should be considered before one forecasts that this social distress will translate into a "revolution."

The sharp devaluation of the rial, its ongoing instability, and the subsequent decline in purchasing power and real wages cut across class lines. While discrepancies in wealth and income affect the severity of risks to which Iranians are exposed, the ongoing currency crisis affects practically the whole of society. Mass layoffs in Iran's industrial sector and a petition of complaint about economic conditions addressed to the labor minister that bears the signatures of thousands of workers have coincided with sizable protests by Tehran's bazaaris. Middle-class Iranians meanwhile continue to see their savings eroded and money transfers with their kin in the diaspora increasingly difficult to arrange due to sanctions aimed at international financial transactions.

Still, the idea that even a sharp and sustained economic decline will provoke a groundswell of protests escalating into revolution reflects an ignorance of Iranian history and politics -- a failure, more specifically, to appreciate the significance of identity politics in determining political legitimacy and the detrimental effects of sanctions upon the functioning of civil society.

Sanctions and identity politics

It is tempting to assume that a crisis such as the current one cuts across the lines of identity politics. Yet it is precisely during periods of structural crisis when the importance of identity politics is elevated. The manner in which blame is assigned, solutions are prescribed, and coalitions are forged will hinge upon the sociopolitical identities of the actors involved. The notion that the legitimacy of politicians is reducible to an index of economic prosperity or hardship is oversimplistic.

Talk of sanctioning Iranian society into a revolution and unleashing "serious public discontent" often downplays the ideological significance of the fact that it is foreign governments and institutions that are imposing this state of affairs. The trumpeting of sanctions by the Obama administration and the European Union and the efforts to further expand their scope, even as news of their impact upon the everyday lives of Iranians spreads, works not only to vindicate the Islamic Republic's continuing invocations of Western imperialism, but also to arouse the sense of national degradation and aborted progress at the hands of foreign intrigue that features in the shared imagination of many Iranians. The awareness that shortsighted domestic policies have exacerbated the currency crisis and inflation does little to cloud the optics of foreign hegemony.

When coupled with the specter of a "preemptive" military strike and the jingoistic rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is not hard to see why many Iranians would view the unfolding state of affairs through a nationalist lens. The urban crowds who reject the moral geography of the Islamic Republic with the chant "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life is only for Iran" are hardly empowered against the ruling establishment by foreign interventionism.

The oppression that has seen the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's ruling system wither among women and middle-class youth, for example, does not override the sense of national belonging and identity that members of these social categories share. Instead, they are likely to displace their antipathy toward their own government onto the foreign powers that are unabashedly wreaking havoc on their daily lives.

This is not the first time Western observers have failed to recognize the significance of identity politics in Iran, opting instead for a neat correlation between economic standing and political legitimacy. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unexpectedly elected president in 2005, commentators made much of the notion that it was due to rising levels of poverty or inequality and discontent among "alienated rural masses." Yet, as scholar Djavad Salehi-Isfahani recently noted, the level of inequality remained stable over the two terms of Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, and had even begun to narrow as of 2003. Booming oil prices had also seen poverty levels decline as Iran's per capita GDP increased by 4.6 percent per year between Khatami's first election in 1997 and Ahmadinejad's in 2005.

The extent to which the political affinities of urban centers and lesser-developed areas diverge along class lines was also widely overstated. In the second round of voting in 2005, when the electorate was left with the choice of two conservative candidates, most voters in rural areas actually voted for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani despite the fact that he was widely regarded as a wealthy exploiter of the Revolution and a symbol of governmental corruption. If Ahmadinejad's message of spreading economic wealth and "ending corruption" did not connect with these rural voters, it was because they are largely ethnic minorities with no desire to dignify an ultra-orthodox candidate likely to continue denying them cultural recognition.

The continued imposition of sanctions and threats of war from aboard are likely to further mute opposition voices. It is in conditions like those at present, after all, that the Islamic Republic can more authoritatively reiterate its brand of identity politics by invoking America as an ever-present threat while dispensing with dissenters as "infiltrators" (noofoozi) and perpetrators of "sedition" (fetneh).

Sanctions and civil society

Today, some ideas in Iran are literally not worth the paper they are printed on. The devalued rial has sharply raised the cost of imported paper, even as the government has restricted subsidies for such purchases. Referred to as the "paper crisis" in Iranian media, this development has seen some 100 independent publishers go bankrupt, while those that promote establishment views continued to be subsidized.

It is unlikely that widespread frustration will translate into sustained popular protests and broad-based opposition without critical dialogue and a collective vision of what is being pursued. Precisely what segments of Iranian society will take to the streets in large numbers, and what will be their threshold for tolerating the violence that awaits them? What concessions or policy changes would some segments be more responsive to than others?

International sanctions are tearing at the fabric of public discourse through which these questions might be addressed and a collective oppositional voice thus coalesce -- a point made by many opposition figures. The Green Movement, with its ideological thrust, will not suffice to articulate this voice when circumstances have elevated economic turmoil as a matter of national concern. In fact, a paradigm shift may be required whereby a discourse that focuses on economic rights and justice comes to increasingly complement, if not surpass, the emphasis upon civil and political rights by which the Green Movement was (and remains) largely driven.

The recent anti-riot maneuvers by security forces in the streets of Tehran, however, demonstrate the resistance that faces any such paradigm shift (much less its physical manifestation in the streets). The recent bazaar protests triggered by the decline and instability of the rial established a precedent linking sanctions to street protests -- a precedent whose repetition the state will endeavor to prevent.

This show of force also signals a departure from the traditional easing of the political climate in the lead-up to elections, customarily including the relaxation of press restrictions to help generate popular interest and boost voter turnout. However, the recent closure of the reformist Shargh newspaper, along with that of Reuters' Tehran bureau, indicates the mounting political tension -- directly attributable to the economic fallout from the sanctions regimen and the acrimony between Ahmadinejad and his political opponents it has exacerbated. Even the official media has not been exempt from this fallout, as demonstrated by the arrest of Ahmadinejad's senior press adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, head of the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency and Iran daily.

Finally, as sanctions diminish the capacity of civil society inside Iran, they also serve to isolate Iranians from international forums and their overzealous application now effectively bars middle-class Iranians from transferring money abroad. Combined with a devalued rial, this not only puts the roughly 35,000 Iranian students enrolled outside the country at risk of having to discontinue their studies (as many already have), it prevents others from participating in foreign gatherings where they could engage in critical dialogue and share their insights about circumstances inside Iran. The recent biennial of the International Society for Iranian Studies in Istanbul is a case in point: many could not afford to be there, while others were intimidated by the slandering of the event in the newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is the reality critical voices endure today: a worsening economy and threats of war have rendered the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic all the more sensitive to opposition, reflected in the profligate manner in which it monitors, harasses, and imprisons lawyers, intellectuals, artists, labor organizers, former politicians, and anyone else who has engaged in what might be considered dissent.

That Iran can be sanctioned into social upheaval and revolution is, ultimately, a prospect that does not survive analysis. All that may be forecast with some degree of confidence is that popular anger and frustration with the Islamic regime will not preclude anger and frustration with the foreign governments that have systematically subjected Iranians to economic adversity and anguish.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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