Iranian Realities

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

There are so many things that should be said and done right now, and I do not know where to start. I have already recommended sites that live-blog and cover the events, as they unfold, much better than I would be able to do (here, here, here and here). I still recommend them and still warn against possibly exaggerated numbers and statement, with rumors and unconfirmed reports ticking in constantly. The following text will most certainly also be outdated in a few hours or days … it is extremely difficult to blog on current events while history is being written and taking constant surprising turns. Yet, I hope there are some general points for consideration that may be of interest to our readers.

A crucial debate right now is of course whether or not Friday’s presidential elections were fair, rigged or actually a coup. There seems to have emerged two (or probably several) points of view among Western observers. I am in no position to evaluate which one is correct, but there are persuasive arguments and ‘circumstantial evidence’ to back up both sides, which I recommend everyone to take a look at. It is a question not only of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, but also that of the protest movement; and it is a crucial question for discerning a prudent way for other governments to tackle the situation.

Two counterproductive arguments are circulating: that Western analysts’ chock over the election is a result of their own wishful thinking about a reformist change in Iran; and that ‘we should accept this fact no matter how difficult it is’. The first gleeful argument seems to neglect the fact that most analysts actually refrained from predicting the outcome of the Iranian elections for a reason, which is ever more clear now: that Iranian politics cannot be predicted. Furthermore, both arguments dismiss and insult the belief and reality of millions of Iranians who are so evidently voicing their protests these days and asking the world NOT to accept the government’s ‘facts’.

With the above disclaimers, I personally do not think that all adds up. There are good reasons to be suspicious towards the statistics presented by the Interior Ministry of Iran. While one possibly cannot dispute the statistical probability of an overall Ahmadinejad victory, there are simply too many irregularities to accept it as a fair victory (summed up by Gary Sick and Juan Cole here and here, with additional Cole comments here and some analysis here). Even IF the statistics are correct, those ruling the Islamic Republic today (Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies), have done a terrible job at convincing people of their democratic ethics. Musavi will soon present his list of ‘evidence’ for fraud. However, I think it is highly unlikely that the Guardians Council – under the control of clerics appointed by the Leader and obviously supportive of Ahmadinejad – will ever admit to massive fraud. We may see a recount end in a, say, ‘52% win for Ahmadinejad’ – or even a new round of elections. But they will not change the basic feeling expressed by many Iranians these days. And this leads to my main point:

That – whatever the reality behind the elections – a huge segment of the Iranian population will never accept it as ‘reality’, or as representative of the Iran, they believe to exist. These days, the deep-running cleavages in Iranian society – not between poor and rich, not between young and old, not between North Tehran and the villages, but between conflicting cultures and worldviews – have once and for all become painfully clear. This is not a battle between ‘Islam’ and ‘modernity’: it is a battle over how to define modern Iran and Iranian identity. The protesters are not anti-Islamic, pro-democracy revolutionaries: they are Muslims who believe their democratic rights have been taken from them.

Similarly, we should resist another counterproductive tendency among observers: to forget the many millions of Iranians who not only voted for Ahmadinejad but believe in him as a historic leader and role model for all Muslims. These millions also see their fight for change as something that is shaping history these days: they see themselves as real reformers, re-revolutionizing the revolution to keep it alive, purging it of corruption to keep it healthy. Most importantly, they feel duty-bound to forcibly resist a coup attempt led by Rafsanjani, Musavi, morally corrupt individuals and traitors guided from abroad.

We should not forget that a massive pro-Ahmadinejad segment is part of Iranian realities these days, even though they get less media attention. The peril of overexposure (and implicit cheer) for the protest movement is, alas, to forget certain other realities on the ground. I am quite sure that unless the pro-Musavi protests intensifies over the next 48 hours, we will soon witness a massive show of force from that part of Iranian society. They are not just ‘paid-for mobs’: they are Iranians who are acutely concerned for their families, their nation and humanity.

I believe (and personally hope) that, in the end, Iranian unity will prevail, and that one day – maybe even sooner than we expect – the main slogan on the streets will become âshti-ye melli, National Reconciliation. The common shared ‘reality’ will, at the end of the day, be that of a centuries-old ‘Iranian nation’ – no matter how intense and irreconcilable the domestic polarization seems right now. In their coverage of the campaign, many journalists and observers called Ahmadinejad’s campaign nationalist. Well, Musavi’s was too. Specific notions of nationalism might be contested but basic patriotic pride is a feeling shared by Iranians on both sides of the spectrum – and outside of Iran.

So, right now, the ‘reality’ of the election may simply be that there was no ‘winner’: Khamene‘i announced that the Islamic Order had won, Musavi supporters that the will of the people of the Republic had prevailed. Both claims are now severely undermined; both systems are threatened.

The republic, founded through a dramatic historical process initiated by brave and visionary proto-democrats over a hundred years ago, is split in two. The republic will have to rise from the ashes to reclaim its legitimacy and authority at some stage, whether in its current form or another. The question is when and how Iranians will be able to settle their internal scores and rebuild their nation.

5 responses to “Iranian Realities

  1. no to tyranny

    All this hand wringing about making sure we acknowledge the supposed “millions” of Ahmadinejad supporters is pretty wrong, I think.

    Surely you know what the phrase “tyranny of the majority” means, Rasmus. And certainly you know what Velayat-e motlaqe-ye faqih is, and has been for 30 years, and how it is utterly contradictory with democracy, citizen’s rights, and basic human rights.

    Thus, I don’t think it matters one bit if 65 percent of Iran actually supports Ahmadinejad and if that support can also be assumed to mean 100% unconditional support for Velayat-e Faqih. The other 35% of the country has EVERY right to riot, protest, revolt, and ultimately, launch a coup to replace this rotting, undemocratic system with a true democracy.

    A dictatorship (or semi-dictatorship) is NEVER justified, even if 65% of the population “supports” it. (if they can be said to even have the ability to make such judgments, in the absence of free and independent media). And if we consider ourselves believers in human rights and friends of democracy, we shouldn’t give in to morally relativistic tendencies that, at this moment, ask us to politely weigh the demands of Ahmadinejad “supporters” (who were led in chants that called for the “execution” of rebels, or arazel and awbash, or whatever the term of the day was) with the struggle of a pro-democracy movement that would seek to ensure the rights of *all* Iranians, whether they voted for Mousavi or not.

  2. Dear reader,
    I understand you and it is no secret that I personally sympathize with views similar to those you express in your comment. I hope you also understand that this post was not an attempt to legitimize the ‘election results’ or to justify Ahmadinejad’s rule (or the velayat-e faqih, for that matter). Read the post again, please.
    All the best,
    Rasmus.

  3. no to tyranny

    Hi Rasmus,

    My ire was not meant to be directed at you, really, there is just a lot of frustrating analysis out there that I was reacting to. You’re doing a good job. But the part of your post that rubbed me the wrong way was this:

    “These millions also see their fight for change as something that is shaping history these days: they see themselves as real reformers, re-revolutionizing the revolution to keep it alive, purging it of corruption to keep it healthy. Most importantly, they feel duty-bound to forcibly resist a coup attempt led by Rafsanjani, Musavi, morally corrupt individuals and traitors guided from abroad.”

    I really don’t know if we have any right to say that millions of people believe that Mousavi’s support is largely coming from “morally corrupt individuals and traitors guided from abroad.” Regardless, it is a very dangerous thing to cast that belief as somehow acceptable or justified, because those people “are acutely concerned for their families, their nation and humanity.”

    Saying that, and you’ll forgive, please, the Holocaust analogy, is a bit like saying that we need to acknowledge that many Germans feel that Jews, Communists, and the French are in league to destroy German national aspirations and need to be slaughtered in order to preserve German “familes, nation, and humanity.”

    Sure, let’s acknowledge that sentiment, but then, in the next breath, we need to argue with it, fight with it, and struggle to de-legitimize it, because in Iran’s case, this line of thinking will lead to more bloodshed and more suppression of the legitimate human rights aspirations of a struggling nation.

    So no offense intended, Rasmus. Keep up the good blogging.

  4. Hi again,

    Thanks for your support. I am not suggesting that Musavi is a corrupt individual, I am simply saying that there are some people, who are not being covered by the media/blog/Twitter frenzy these days, who certainly think so. I am not justifying their views, only pointing them out.

    I think it is dangerous to equate the violent behavior of Basijis and Hezbollahis these days with the views and hopes of /all/ Ahmadinejad supporters in Iran. We should not forget that part of Iranian society, no matter how much we sympathize with its opponents.

    Best,
    Rasmus.

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