Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 1

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Here are my reflections on some of the discussions, news and commentaries on the Iran post-election unrest in the last week or so. What was supposed to be one blog post has turned into several posts. I will publish them over the next couple of days.

Talking about a revolution?
No. As Arshin Adib-Moghaddam so eloquently argues in his important commentary:

“When some commentators say that what we are witnessing is a revolution they are at best naive and at worst following their own destructive agenda. The dispute is about the future path of the Islamic Republic and the meaning of the revolution not about overthrowing the whole system.”

I would add that to many of the demonstrators (as testified by eye witness accounts, Twitter, YouTube videos etc. etc.), the last two weeks have certainly resembled a revolution-like eruption. This is particularly so due to the conscious use of slogans, images and tactics similar to those of the revolution that brought down the Shah 30 years ago. We could maybe even speak of a ‘revolutionary’ atmosphere and feeling.

However, that does not make it a revolution. There are simply too many components so far missing for the street-level protests to bring about a revolution. Furthermore, a revolution is far from what the leaders of the movement aim for. As long as the leaders – symbolic or actual – of the protest movement are from the ‘reformist’ camp associated with Musavi and Karubi, the goal cannot be ‘revolution’.

Thus, even when we hear slogans change from ‘Bye, bye Ahmadinejad’ to ‘Bye, bye Khamene‘i’, we should still not interpret the movement as one united in the aim of completely dismantling the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the image produced by Western media is often that of a young, pro-Western, secular, anti-Islamic, Twitter-savvy generation’s revolt against old conservative mullahs and violent Basiji maniacs. Reality is, of course, more complex.

The protest movement is very diverse and may not be united by much more than their rejection of the official election results. Sure, there are certainly elements within the movement who are calling for, or at least hoping for, an end to the Islamic Republic. However, it is my impression that such voices are still in the minority. Most people want justice, they want their voices to be heard and their votes to be counted. Sure, many not only reject the results but also the political culture that has produced them. However, even though many have lost faith in the system, only few are prepared for yet another revolution.

That does not mean that ‘the Islamic Republic has prevailed’ or anything similar to that. Both the personal image of the Leader and his president of choice and the ideological image/legitimacy myth of the political system have been severely tarnished. No matter how much it clamps down on protesters – and even though it might launch a series of ‘pragmatic’ concessions to appease the opposition at some stage – the ruling regime can never fully recover from this ordeal.

So, in the classical sense of a wholesale toppling of a political order, this is certainly not a revolution yet.

What will happen next?
Yet, it is important to remember that the nature and discourse of resistance – both on street level, in the more or less tolerated opposition and in the illegal opposition – has changed significantly. The protest movement has been radicalized in a short time, and even though it might not reach its immediate goal in this first phase, it will remain an active volcano under the ruling regime. In the words of Hamid Dabashi:

“I see this moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime”

See Dabashi’s interview with Democracy Now! here, where he also dismisses the myth of the current crisis being a battle between ‘rich/urban and poor/rural’ (for more on that, refer to Eric Hooglund’s piece here).

However we label it, the movement will define Iran’s future. As always, I highly recommend Gary Sick’s writings, now on his blog. In his latest post, Sick wrote:

“Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.”

I highly recommend the whole piece. It is impossible to predict the short- and long-term outcome of the crisis, but Sick has some very smart observations and important points.

Were the elections rigged?
The debate is still intense. I have referred to Meedan, where the two camps and their arguments are summed up nicely with loads of links: the case for and the case against.

The ‘rigged’-camp has been boosted by a detailed report from Chatham House, which can be downloaded here; and with another Juan Cole piece here to follow up on the report:

“The election was stolen. It is there in black and white. Those of us who know Iran, could see it plain as the nose on our faces, even if we could not quantify our reasons as elegantly as Chatham House”

As we now know, the Guardian Council has already admitted large-scale ‘irregularities’ involving not a couple of thousand but three million votes. These might not be the last officially confirmed reports of fraud. I’m amazed that there are still intelligent people out there arguing that the elections weren’t rigged. The argument that the majority of Iran observers project their own wishful thinking on the issue is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have protested in the streets; and an insult to the intelligence of all the Iranians across the globe who are asking where their votes are.

The question we can ask is: how massive was the fraud? Are we talking 3, 5 or 15 million votes? It is, as I have argued earlier, important not to forget that Ahmadinejad surely has many followers – even if they are not 25 million strong. However, to many Iranians, the numbers doesn’t even matter any longer. We will probably never know the truth. Nonetheless, in the words of Dabashi: that the elections were rigged is now ‘a social fact’ in Iran.

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