Category Archives: Iran

Kiarostami speaks

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I know that by now it seems that my only contribution to this blog is every second month or so when I write something about Iranian filmmakers and their political views. Again, I apologize and assure the readers that I will return with more stuff when I’m finished with my PhD thesis (which is, thank you for asking, still pulling out my teeth on a regular basis but nonetheless progressing)!

As you may recall, I’ve mentioned Bahman Ghobadi’s scathing criticism of Abbas Kiarostami, whom Ghobadi accused of not taking a stand vis-à-vis the political turmoil that erupted in Iran last summer. I followed up with a speculative comment when Kiarostami rejected an invitation to the Fajr Film Festival. Now, Kiarostami speaks :

“I don’t quite know to whom I am addressing this letter, but I do know why I’m writing it and I believe that under the circumstances it is both critical and inevitable because two Iranian filmmakers, both of whom are vital to the Iranian wave of independent cinema, have been incarcerated.

As a filmmaker of the same independent cinema, it has been years since I lost hope of ever screening my films in my country. By making my own low-budget and personal films, it has also been years since I lost all hope of receiving any kind of aid or assistance from the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture, the custodian of Iranian cinema.

In order to make a living, I have turned to photography and use that income to make short and low-budget films. I don’t even object to their illegal reproduction and distribution because that is my only means of communicating with my own people. For years now I have not even objected to this lack of attention from the ministry and cinema‫tic authorities‬.

Even if we choose to disregard the fact that for years now, the cinematic administrators of the country, who constitute the main cultural body of the government, have differentiated between their own filmmakers (insiders) and independent filmmakers (outsiders), I am still of the opinion that they are oblivious of Iranian independent cinema. Filmmaking is not a crime. It is our sole means of making a living and thus not a choice, but a vital necessity.

I have found my own solutions to the problem. Independent of the conventional and customary support granted to the cinematic community at large, I make my own short and independent films with hopes of gaining some credit for the people I love and a name for the country I come from. Sometimes the necessity to work calls for the making of films beyond the borders of my country, which is ultimately not out of personal choice or taste.

However, others, like Jafar Panahi, have for years tried to summon official government support, exploring the same frustrating path, only to be confronted with the same closed doors. He too has for years held hopes of obtaining public screenings for his films and receiving official aid and assistance from the relevant governmental bodies. He still believes that based on the merits of his films and the acclaim they have brought the country, he can seek legal solutions to the problem. The Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture is directly responsible for what is happening to Jafar Panahi and his like. Any wrongdoing on his part, if there is any at all, is a direct result of the mismanagement of officials at the cinematic department of the Ministry of Guidance and it’s inadequate policies which in no way leave any choice for the filmmaker other than to resort to means that jeopardize his situation as a filmmaker. He too makes a living through cinema.

For him too, filmmaking is a vital necessity. He needs to make himself heard and has the right to expect cinematic officials to facilitate the process, rather than become the major obstacles themselves. Perhaps the officials at the ministry can not at present be of help in solving Jafar Panahi’s dilemma, but they need to know that they are and have been responsible all these years, for the dreadful consequences and unpleasant and anti-cultural reflections of such policies in the world media.

I may not be an advocate of Jafar Panahi’s radical and sensational methods but I do know that the cause for his plight is not a result of choice but an inevitable [compulsion].

He is paying for the conduct of officials who have for years closed all doors on him, leaving open small passages and dead end paths.

Jafar Panahi’s problem will eventually be solved but there are numerous young people who have chosen the art of cinema as their means of expression and careers.

This is where the duty of the government and the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture, as the government’s main cultural body, becomes even more critical, for they face a large group of Iranian youth who aim to work independently and away from complicated official procedures and existing prejudices.

Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof are two filmmakers of the Iranian independent cinema, a cinema that for the past quarter of a century has served as an essential cultural element in expanding the name of this country across the globe. They belong to an expanded world culture, and are a part of international cinematic culture. I wish for their immediate release from prison knowing that the impossible is possible. My heartfelt wish is that artists no longer be imprisoned in this country because of their art and that the independent and young Iranian cinema no longer faces obstacles, lack of support, attention and prejudice.

This is your responsibility and the ultimate definition of your existence.

Abbas Kiarostami / 1388.12.18 [March 9, 2010] / Tehran.”

Is Kiarostami taking a stand? Or is he just too busy?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Remember the whole Bahman Ghobadi / Abbas Kiarostami thing? Ghobadi, representative of a new wave of Iranian cinema, severely lambasted one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Abbas Kiarostami, for not taking a political stand during the 2009 post-election violence. Well, now he might have.

At least, that is how the Iranian ‘reformists’ have interpreted the story that Kiarostami has allegedly turned down an offer to act as jury in the state-run Fajr Film Festival in Tehran this year. JARAS, a Mousavi-affiliated website has stated that Kiarostami – who is often a jury in international film festivals and has himself received the Palme d’Or of Cannes – has turned down the offer ‘for unpublicized reasons’.

Of course, there can be a number of reasons for this. Maybe Kiarostami is simply too busy? What does, however, give JARAS’ implicit speculation of this being a sign of political protest some credence is the fact that several other prominent members of Iran’s cinema community have also turned down this offer, including Farhad Towhidi, Fatemeh Godarzi, Minoo Farshchi, Ezzatollah Entezami and Asghar Farhadi.

However, until we hear from Kiarostami himself, we cannot be sure. This may also be part of the ‘buzz’ these days in a country where even coughing can become a political tool of passive resistance.

Ashura in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today is an important day in Iran for several reasons. It is Ashura, the culmination of the mourning rituals marked by Shiites throughout the world, remembering the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 680 AD. It is also the 7th day after the death of the leading ‘reformist’ cleric, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. In other words, there is much at stake and emotions are high.

I wont be able to liveblog today (as you may have noticed, I’m taking some time off from the blog in order to write my thesis!); however, if you want to stay updated, I recommend Enduring America’s blog here and the New York Times’ The Lede Blog here.

Catfight? Or time for a new direction in Iranian cinema?

By Rasmus Christian Elling.

Saturday, when I got back from watching Bahman Ghobadi’s new movie ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’, I was excited, almost in a trance, and felt I had seen the best Iranian movie in years. Actually, last time I had this feeling was when I saw ‘The Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine’ by Bahman Farmanara, some eight years ago.

I’m no film critic or cinema expert, but in my world, ‘Persian Cats’ is nothing but a masterpiece. In a style reminiscent of Fatih Akin’s  ‘Crossing the Bridge,’ Ghobadi introduces us to the Iranian underground music scene while telling a gripping tale of two young Iranian talents who wish to go abroad, where they can express themselves freely as indie rock musicians. They are trying to assemble a band to do one last illegal show and raise funds for a tour in Europe. During their quest to find musical soul mates and get the visa- and passport-problems solved in Tehran’s underworld, we see and hear some of the best in modern Iranian music: beautiful soul and blues in underground studios, pounding hip hop beats on construction sites in the asphalt jungle of Tehran, thrashing death metal in a cow house and much more. The musical journey is interwoven with a visual journey of extremely beautiful pictures, cutting up Tehran’s urban sprawl music video style.

‘No One Knows About Persian Cats,’ which won the Jury’s Special Prize at 2009 Cannes Film Festival, shows an Iranian music scene that – not unlike Iranian cinema itself – has grown in its inhospitable environment of repression and censorship into something wild and beautiful. Something uniquely Iranian. The fearless, passionate actors on this scene are not blindly imitating the West, they are not an Iranian MTV generation. They represent an authentic declaration of love towards music across borders and boundaries, and a drive towards defining what it means to be Iranian in the 21st Century. Among its many fascinating characters, we meet Hichkas – hands down, Iran’s best rapper and my personal favorite. In contrast to the protagonists and their dreams of khârej (outside of Iran), Hichkas makes a patriotic assertion of love to the fatherland, and he rejects an invitation to go abroad. We have rock musicians who quote Persian poetry and take equal inspiration from Western rock and Iranian traditional music. The scene is homegrown, 100% Iranian and 100% underground.

That said, ‘Persian Cats’ – like so many other films – also represents a utopia: the idea, so thoroughly cultivated and romanticized by Western journalists, exile-Iranian memoir writers and fans of Tehran’s cosmopolitan youth. This is the sometimes-exaggerated dream of a wild, secular and democratic generation waiting to burst through the cement walls of Islamic theocracy and conservatism. Surely, this idea, unless balanced with a view from ‘the other side of the story’, is a fantasy based on a false dichotomy. It is a projection of ‘our’ hopes and dreams for Iran on a canvas that is, in reality, much more nuanced and complex than a battle between modernity vs. tradition and freedom vs. religion and art vs. censorship. All young Iranians do not share the perspective presented in ‘Persian Cats’: not all are driven by the exact same passions we see in the protagonists and not all share their views on the sublime greatness of indie rock and hip hop. Not all speak, dress and act as they do.

Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to state firmly that since the late 1990s, the Iranian underground scene has exploded. It has taken over the space in Iranian popular culture once occupied by the exile-Iranian music scene in Tehrangeles, California, with its torrent of mindless pop. Statistics also speak their clear language about brain drain, and anyone who has traveled or lived in Iran will probably agree that many young Iranians do dream of going abroad, of being able to speak up and of not fearing the authorities. This is why ‘Persian Cats’, while being part fantasy, is also part reality. It is a fictitious documentary, ‘based on a true story’, and starring many of the people who actually live this life every day. This is not a one-eyed Western glance at our heroes in the Gucci Generation. It is a reflection on a profound cultural movement. An evolution much more powerful than Mousavi, Khatami and Karroubi’s ‘reformist wave’.

‘Persian Cats’ differ greatly from other ‘festival-type’ Iranian movies in its format, language and goal. While there is an underlying, sad story of despair and desperation, well known to fans of Iranian cinema, literature and poetry, ‘Persian Cats’ differ by being… well… funny. There is humor, there is the speed-talking streetwise figure of Nader, the lovable remnant of pre-revolutionary gangster flicks in Hajj David and the fast-paced motorcycle trips through Tehran. All together, it is an experience that is miles away from, say, Abbas Kiarostami’s slow-paced, lo-fi rural realism – and even from Kiarostami’s recent attempt at upbeat urban social critique, ‘Ten‘.

So is that why Abbas Kiarostami hates ‘Persian Cats’? We may soon find out, because today Bahman Ghobadi released a shocking open letter to the Grand Man of Iranian New Wave Cinema on the net. The ruckus allegedly started when Kiarostami gave Ghobadi a scathing critique after a screening of ‘Persian Cats’ in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago. Iranian media quoted Kiarostami saying ‘If Bahman Ghobadi thinks there are better circumstances for creating movies outside of Iran, I congratulate him. But for me, personally, I don’t believe in leaving Iran. The place I can sleep comfortably is my home’. He added that he had never seen anything good from those Iranians who left the country and that he would always want to create movies in his homeland and in his mother tongue. However, he might also have said much more than that, at least to Ghobadi himself, at least according to Ghobadi. Indeed, Ghobadi’s letter that surfaced today is, well, very harsh.

In it, Ghobadi states that he has always had great respect and much love for Kiarostami, and that before this, he wouldn’t even had dared to write Kiarostami a letter; but that, now, he is forced to respond:

‘It all started that damned night. The night when you grabbed my arm and pulled me aside and told me you didn’t like my movie. I wasn’t angry, but surprised. You didn’t see the movie for the first time in Abu Dhabi, but in my own home several months before. And you said you liked it’, Ghobadi begins. At the Abu Dhabi screening, however, Kiarostami instead lambasted not just Ghobadi, but also Ja‘far Panahi (Kiarostami’s former assistant director and winner of several prizes) in phrases Ghobadi had never expected from the Grand Old Man: ‘You accused me, and other filmmakers who have heard the voice of the people in the underground, in the closets, homes, streets and backstreets of our city, of lying in our films’ … ‘My dear and respected Master! I, and all film-lovers, respect your opinion on cinema. But that does not mean that we can allow you, in the manner of dictators, to tell everybody in the art world what to do, or to judge any film that is not silent, voiceless and unrelated to the troubles in society, like your own works, as worthless’.

Ghobadi continues to state that Kiarostami does not have the right to accuse and criticize filmmakers like Ghobadi for the ‘social responsibility’ they express in their films. He argues that Kiarostami’s criticism is a way for the Grand Old Man to justify his own ‘silence and conservatism’ vis-à-vis the acute problems in Iranian society: ‘In all these years, you have created films without the slightest influence from politics and society, which of course, is your right and your choice. Silence is also your right, even though if you were to open your mouth and criticize the rulers’ oppression and the chaotic conditions in society, you would still enjoy much more safety than the rest of us … The United Nations [would] stand by you. Nonetheless, as I said, staying silent is your right. What is not your right is to utter words that will become headlines in Iranian pro-government newspapers, [words that] make the regime happy. How can you allow yourself, with nasty words, to mock filmmakers who try to support the oppressed people, and worse, to state, in the language of religious dictators, what is forbidden? What has happened since we must hear these words, which we used only to hear from state officials [working with] cinema and from journalists at Kayhan, from you?’.

‘What is forbidden’ – nahi az monkar – is part of a Quranic quote used as an Islamist slogan by the Iranian state to forbid certain behavior and culture, and Kayhan is the vicious mouth-piece of Ayatollah Khamene‘i that is used to brand opposition politicians, intellectuals and artists as foreign agents, spies and sell-outs. That should give you an idea of how severe this counterattack sounds when read in its original Persian.

‘Earlier, you have stated that Iran is the best place in the world for making films’, continues Ghobadi. ‘Maybe for filmmakers such as yourself and for the kind of films that you make. But you are perfectly aware that filmmakers who are concerned with an independent and intellectual cinema, and who are concerned with Iran and Iranian society today, are suffering under military base-like conditions in the film industry. How can you claim that a country that enforces the strictest censorship on film is the best place for filmmaking in the world? In a situation where our filmmakers, one after the other, is forbidden to leave the country, and in which some of them, such as Ja‘far Panahi, lose their opportunity to partake in major, international projects due to [these restrictions], how can you – instead of defending and supporting them – reproach them for not making their films in Iran, which is, according to you, the best place to do so in the world?’

Ghobadi asks Kiarostami if he was joking? And if not, why he himself is making his next movie in Tuscany, Italy? And then Ghobadi retorts to the question of his leaving Iran: ‘I have never left the country by my own will and wish. They threw me out of my country. They closed all doors to filmmaking before me. Despite all these problems, and while you were preparing your new film in Italy, I created my last film in the heart of Tehran’.

Ghobadi indicates that Kiarostami has blamed him for making young Iranians want to leave Iran with ‘Persian Cats’, and then he returns to Kiarostami’s statement about sleeping comfortably at home: ‘How can you sleep peacefully when the whole world knows what is happening to Iran’s young people every day? How can you sleep calmly when the people of Iran can not; when they live in fear of a dark future for their children? Do you even know how it is to make a film in fear and terror and without a permit? Do you know how it is to be imprisoned due to your film’s success in Cannes, or interrogation due to things you said abroad? I have experienced all this on my own body, and that is why I cannot sleep comfortably at night like you. That is why the Iranian society is more important than film to me today. In order to help my compatriots who live in pain and injustice, I am even ready to leave the film industry and do my service to them’.

The part of the letter that really caught my attention (which has to do with my own research) was the following, in which Ghobadi relates to Kiarostami’s earlier statement about creating movies in his one’s ‘own country’ and in one’s own ‘mother tongue’. Ghobadi writes: ‘They have never forced you to silence because of your being Kurdish and your being a Sunni Muslim. But in that same country, which is also my country, they have never allowed me to make a movie in my own mother tongue [which is Kurdish], and one of their reasons for stopping my films was exactly that. Like you, I too want to make films in my own country and in my mother tongue. I am also in love with my country and my home. But all this has been taken away from me because I wouldn’t stay silent. And you have all this, paid for by not speaking up and by staying silent.’

Ghobadi finishes the letter: ‘Dear Mr. Kiarostami! In these sensitive and crucial days, whether you want it or not, whether it is right or not, the only criterion for dignity, honor and pride is to follow the people and not to follow those who oppose the people. With your statements, you have forbidden us to protest and to support the [Iranian] people at [international film] festivals, or to create films about social and political problems. The people will not forget the silence of artists. The people is the best judge of history.’

Harsh words, indeed. So is this a ‘beef’ in the industry – a catfight between two huge egos? Or is it indicative of a paradigm shift in Iranian new wave cinema? I believe it is a combination of both. Parts of Ghobadi’s letter is somewhat embarrassing, and having personally met Kiarostami and seen his films (including Ten, which certainly is not the clean, conservative and pro-regime material Ghobadi wants you to believe Kiarostami represents), I cannot help feeling that it is too much and too harsh. Of course, we do not know exactly what Kiarostami said to Ghobadi on that ‘damned night’ in Abu Dhabi. But calling Kiarostami a representative of the same stuff we read in Kayhan seems a little bit too over the edge. Blaming Kiarostami for not speaking out against the violence and repression in Iran lately is maybe not the right way to use your energy.

However, Ghobadi may also have some salient points in his implicit criticism of the Kiarostami-esque cinema: it does seem at times to lack balls. One problem is that the type of cinema Kiarostami creates, or used to create (and that Ghobadi, Panahi and several others, for that matter, have until recently created) were for many years the only type of cinema we in the West saw of Iran. A lot of exile Iranians became fed up when all we saw from their homeland were simple villagers, innocent children and handicapped people, refugees in barren mountains or desolate wastelands, never ending panoramic shots of rural landscapes and poetic meditations on ‘small things in life’. I’ve been at practically every screening of Iranian films in Denmark for the last ten years, and there were always a couple of Iranians who would get up and leave the cinema a few minutes into the films. ‘Why do they always portray Iran like this?’ would be the question. Film experts, on the other hand, would celebrate this type of cinema as unique and would tell us how the glance of an actor in a particular shot was actually a profound criticism of society, how a girls movement in another shot indicated intercourse, that Iranian film had developed its own secret language of criticism despite and because of censorship, and so on. It is my impression that many ‘ordinary’ Iranians – that is, non-film experts – really didn’t care. They wanted to see and feel the daily struggles and dramas of the homeland, and not the underacted contemplative art house stuff that so excited Western film critics.

With movies like Panahi’s 2000 ‘The Circle’, Rakhsan Bani-Etemad’s 2001 ‘Under the Skin of the City’ or Dariush Mehrjui’s 2007 ‘Santuri’ – and, as mentioned, Kiarostami’s 2002 ‘Ten’ – Iranian new wave artists of the first generation have take off the gloves, even several years before Ghobadi. Indeed, Iranian cinema has a long tradition of social critique. However, second-generation artists like Ghobadi – whose fiancée, the journalist Roxana Saberi were imprisoned on charges of espionage during this summer’s unrest in Iran – have now not only taken off the glove, but also grabbed a club, and started to hit back. He may expect others to follow suit and live up to their obligation as socially aware, critical intellectuals – like filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, touring the world as a Dalai Lama-like representative of The Green Movement or like the singer and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, who has told Iranian state media not to use his music anymore after the 2009 state violence against the opposition. Or Ghobadi may expect people such as Kiarostami at least not to criticize him when he hits back at the Islamic Republic.

So, is Ghobadi right in lashing back at the Grand Old Man, so publicly and so fiercely? I’m not sure. But it is certainly a debate that will help shape the future of Iranian cinema. Now go watch ‘Nobody Knows About Persian Cats’. I love that movie!

Signs of increased tensions between Saudis and Iranians

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I do not have time for an in-depth analysis, but the following pieces of recent news points to an escalation of the conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia:

Iranian Arabic channel taken off air

“The operators of Nilesat and Arabsat cited a breach of contract according to Egypt’s MENA news agency, but al-Alam said they had not been given a reason. Analysts say some Arab governments are worried about the channel’s popularity and Iran’s growing regional influence.”

Iran warns Saudi-Arabia against continued fingerprinting of pilgrims

“Tehran has shown strong reaction to the new rules set by the Saudi officials against Iranian pilgrims.”

Yemen accuses Iranian ‘religious institutions’ of backing armed rebellion

“Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a known base for al-Qaeda, is fighting a vicious war in the northern mountains near the border with Saudi Arabia against a Shia tribal group known as the Houthis. The authorities now claim to have seized an Iranian-crewed vessel carrying anti-tank missiles off the Yemeni coast near the Houthi stronghold on Monday.”

Iran is expanding its activity in the Red Sea

“Tehran aims to turn Yemen into a regional arena for conflict, as part of its ongoing dispute with several countries in the region”

Saudi air force bombs Yemen rebels

“Arab countries allied to the US, such as predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Egypt, fear Shiite power Iran could gain influence in Yemen through the rebels.”

Yemeni Shi’ite cleric and Houthi disciple ‘Issam al-Imad: Our Leader Houthi is close to Khamene‘i

“In the interview, Al-Imad describes the religious, ideological, and political affinity that has evolved between the Yemeni Houthis and the Iranian regime, saying that the Houthis have effectively converted from Zaidi Shi‘a to Twelver Shi‘a, which is Iran’s official religion”

What to make of all this? Discuss!

Reactions to Sunday’s attack on Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Sunday, a small radical Sunni group again attacked Iran. A suicide bomber targeted a meeting close to a small town on the border with Pakistan in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Among the around 40 dead were six or seven high-ranking Revolutionary Guard commanders. This is the latest act in a long-running small-scale war with insurgents in a volatile corner of multi-ethnic Iran. It is also yet another good reason why many Iranians feel their country is under attack by its many enemies.

According to the state-owned Iranian Press TV, Jondollah (aka. Jundullah, Jundallah) – a Sunni Muslim, Baluchi terror group – has claimed responsibility for the  (read more about Jondollah here). For at least six years, Jondollah has been behind several acts of terrorism, including ambushes on military convoys, assassination, abductions and execution of officials and soldiers.

Reportedly, a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders, Shiite and Sunni clerics and local tribal leaders were supposed to congregate at a ‘Unity Meeting’, where they would discuss security issues in the province, which has been marred for many years with drug smuggling, terror and armed gangs. Among the Revolutionary Guards were Brigadier Nour-Ali Shushtari (deputy commander of the Guard’s ground forces, head of the local main base), Brigadier Rajab-Ali Mohammadzadeh (provincial commander) and commanders of major cities and towns in the province. Several of the tribal leaders and both Shiite and Sunni clerics also died.

The terror act has been described by Iranian officials as a foreign-sponsored blow to the Iranian state’s endeavor at reconciling Shiites and Sunnis, and as an attempt at disrupting security and creating ethnic and sectarian strife in multi-cultural Iran. Namely, the US, Britain and Pakistan have been accused for supporting Jondollah. This is not the first time Iran makes this accusation, and there is still reason to take this claim seriously and not dismiss it categorically as just another piece of propaganda or political paranoia. In particular, there have been speculations for several years whether or not the US have been in contact with Jondollah, or maybe even trained and equipped them (see here, here, here and here – also see Press TV interview with Jondollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi’s brother here and here).

Just as with earlier episodes, Iranian officials have again linked Jondollah to ‘Talibanism’, Al-Qaeda and Wahhabism, and thus there is also an indirect accusation against Saudi Arabia, whom Iran has accused before for supporting not only Baluchi militants, but also Kurdish guerillas (see Uskowi Iran’s analysis here).

The Iranians have been very clear this time that the Jondollah is using Pakistan as a safe haven. Ahmadinejad stated that certain elements in the Pakistani state support the Jondollah. I interpret his statement as condemning not an overall Pakistani strategy, but rather the notion of rogue elements from within the Paki intelligence and military establishment – autonomous elements who share anti-Shiite tendencies with various extremist factions in Pakistan. The Iranian parliament demanded swift military action – including attacks over the border and into Pakistan. I don’t think this will happen unless the Pakistanis agree (maybe unofficially, as seems to have happened in the case of Iran attacking PJAK on Iraqi soil). Indeed, Iranian media have reported that during a phone call, Ahmadinejad and Zardari agreed to coordinate actions against Jondollah.

However, instead of dwelling on the different (conspiracy) theories and whether or not they can be true – including the admittedly interesting question of whether the US is (still?) supporting Jondollah – I will focus on the impact on Iranian public opinion.

It is my impression that Iranians in general do not perceive Jondollah as a group fighting for ethnic or sectarian rights – and certainly not for democratic values. The Iranian state-run media, government officials and the clergy have thus succeeded in planting the Wild East image among ordinary Iranians: that Sistan-Baluchistan has always been ‘wild’, plagued by unruly tribal marauders and drug gangs. The Jondollah is thus perceived as bandits (ashrâr) and not as political activists, symptomatic of a primitive barbaric culture that has more to do with ‘Afghanistan’ than ‘Iran’.

Pundits in Iran, however, are very well aware of the several layers of political and social implications in Jondollahs activities, whether ethnic, sectarian, regional or international.

In general, ‘opposition’ bloggers – that is, those bloggers who generally support a major democratic change in Iran, whether through the ‘reformist’ alternative or through overthrow – certainly do not cheer for Jondollah. Even though these bloggers are among the most ardent critics of The Revolutionary Guards, they forcibly condemn Jondollah’s suicide mission. One example is this blogger who is clearly not a fan of the Islamic Republic. His view is that of the classical Persian nationalist, and his blog post is introduced in the name of the Zoroastrian diety:

“This act clearly underscores that [Jondollah] do not care the least bit for Iran. They are a bunch of extremist Wahhabis, who are abusing the diversity of the Iranian people. They want to create ethnic strife, and on top of it, religious-sectarian strife. The existence of such people in Iran is a disgrace for all Iranians. The age of ethnicity and tribalism is over, and our country must discard all ethnicities in order to enter the new world – even though we’ve never actually have had ethnic units in our country”

Another ‘Green’ (that is, pro-reformist) blogger condemns the attack on ‘defenseless people’ and identifies the two sides of Sunday’s fight, The Revolutionary Guards and Jondollah:

“The Guards are now known to everyone, and they do not need thorough introduction. They are an organ, the members and employees of which may be of the Iranian race but surely do not share the positive traits of the people of this country… We have all witnessed how they violently and vehemently attacked [their own people] … But Jondollah, on the other hand, is no more than a bunch of bandits and thieves: people who stop innocent and unarmed civilians on the road, in the middle of the night, tie their hands and shoot them all down [referring to earlier Jondollah ambushes].”

He continues to portray Jondollah as ‘rabid dogs’, ‘hungry wolves’, ‘wild pigs’ and rhetorically asks those who have named Jondollah a ‘popular resistance movement’ exactly what good Jondollah has ever done for Iran. He states that the group’s leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, has never been and will never be a representative of neither the Iranian people nor the people of Sistan-Baluchistan. He concludes:

“I would personally never want my name alongside that of the Revolutionary Guards … and would certainly never cooperate with them. However, if I should ever be forced to chose between the Guards of the Islamic Republic and Jondollah, without doubt I would chose the fortress of the Guards, and I would fight to root out the terrorism of this extremist religious and Taliban-esque [Jondollah] …”

However, the more or less nationalistic view on the issue – i.e., Jondollah being a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and not the regime of the Islamic Republic – is also supplemented with more nuanced views. Indeed, in the Persian blogosphere one often encounters an understanding for the bereaved, extremely poor people of Baluchistan, as well as sympathy for civilians who are inevitably going to get caught up in the ‘bloody revenge’ promised by Iranian authorities. One commentator on a website wrote that ‘tomorrow they will surely round up four random, innocent guys and execute them in public as “terrorists”’.

As usual, there are several conspiracy theories floating around cyberspace. One blogger – identifying as an Iranian woman – argues that this bombing should be seen as the latest in a string of ‘IRGC eliminations’: in other words, she is implying that the killing of the Revolutionary Guards commanders is part of a wider attempt at eliminating the old cadres of the IRGC in order to let the younger members take over. That theory seems a bit too far-fetched, but nonetheless reflect how widespread myths and ideas about the IRGC are in Iran today.

However, in my interpretation, the main point that shines through most cyberspace writing in Iran is the belief that Jondollah is a mercenary group. Thus, both the regime and the ordinary people will see the latest attack as the mindless spilling of (more or less) innocent blood by foreign powers pursuing their own geostrategic agendas through proxies such as Jondollah.

In February this year, the US State Treasury branded PJAK, the PKK-affiliated Kurdish guerilla group fighting the Iranian state, as terrorists. It will be interesting whether or not the US under Obama’s administration will also place Jondollah on the list. According to this article from ILNA, an Iranian news agency, Obama’s administration is considering to do exactly that. It would be the only decent thing to do. Jondollah is an extremist and opportunist group, willing to work with anyone, and willing to shed the blood of both civilians and military personnel. It is not a ‘popular resistance group’, as VOA once introduced them. Jondollah is a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less.

The unsurprisingly sad irony of nuclear politics

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

While the war against Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program continues – with its usual suspects at the forefront and behind the screens (1, 2, 3, 4 … and counting) and with the usual stream of unreliable ‘sources’ being quoted liberally by global media to prove evil Iranian schemes and distorting the issue beyond recognition – a related and very relevant news item has received surprisingly little attention.

Last week, Muslim-majority states in the UN nuclear assembly pushed for a resolution – albeit, a nonbinding resolution – urging Israel to allow UN inspection to all its nuclear sites and to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What is amazing is that this is the first time in 18 years the nuclear conference has been able to pass a resolution criticizing Israel for its illegal, ‘clandestine’ program.

It has been a public secret for years that Israel has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, yet Israel has never confirmed or denied this. Furthermore, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is, of course, part of the absurdity in the global Israeli propaganda war and constant military threats against Iran that those Western and Israeli politicians, ‘experts’ and lobby groups so worried about an Iranian bomb rarely if ever discuss the issue of Israel’s weapons – as if it was completely unrelated to the nuclear politics of the region. It comes across as particularly hypocritical and ludicrous when the chief delegate of the US – a nuclear-armed nation that wages wars in the Middle East while actively obstructing any attempt to hold Israel accountable in the nuclear conference – rejected what she called ‘redundant’ and ‘an attempt to use this resolution to criticize a single country’.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Iranians have sought to capitalize on the resolution and the setback it represents for Israel’s allies who have prevented the resolution for nearly two decades. The Iranian ambassador Ali-Asghar Soltanieh has hailed the resolution as a ‘glorious moment’, and ‘a triumph for the oppressed people of Palestine’. He added that Tehran would happily pay the expenses connected with a probe into the clandestine Israeli nuclear program ‘for the sake of global peace and welfare’.

The Israeli response shouldn’t come as a surprise either. The Israeli delegate stated that the resolution was ‘openly hostile to the state of Israel’ and that the Iranians and Syrians are trying to create a smokescreen for their own pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It is the sad irony of nuclear politics that Israel is just as big a threat to the fragile NPT regime as Iran is: outraged when the US hints it might be a good idea for it to join the NPT, and then deriding the NPT for not being a ‘miracle cure’.

It is the sad irony of global politics that a state such as the current Iranian regime is put in a position to capitalize on the resolution and thus present itself in the Muslim world as a righteous power while doing its own dirty work at home.

However, none of this should come as a surprise. Should it?

A step in the right direction for Iran’s forgotten languages

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

On May 27, the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution – a powerful institution in Iranian cultural politics – took a very interesting step. Resolution 2950-88 declares that relevant universities are to be allowed to create two academic units worth of non-obligatory courses in the languages and literatures of ‘native tongues and dialects’. In other words, Iran is going to allow native non-Persian languages to be taught on a regular university level in several provinces. In particular, officials have mentioned Azeri, Kurdish, Turkmen and Baluchi as relevant to the resolution. As far as I can see from the sparse media coverage of the issue, the resolution is not necessarily limited to these languages.

The resolution is interesting for several reasons. First of all, language is at the center of the growing movement for ethnic rights among Iran’s many minorities. The resolution is clearly a concession to this movement and a high level recognition of the demand among minority proponents for the government to implement Article 15 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. This article stipulates that while Persian is to be the national language of Iran, local languages can be used in education and media. However, there have in effect always been limitations on and discrimination against the public use of ethnic minority languages in Iran.

Secondly, the resolution is important since it is exactly that: a resolution, and not just a proposal. Even though critics were quick to point out that it seemed very much like propaganda in the last days before the elections, the resolution is nonetheless passed and have been publicized. Even if we can expect major delays in its implementation, it will be hard for the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic to back down on this promise. The resolution was passed in the name of ‘strengthening and securing national unity’. The state is clearly aware that minority rights are an explosive issue. They want to preempt a full-fledged ethnic crisis.

Thirdly, we could maybe even call the resolution historic. Under the Pahlavi regime, ethnic minority languages were presented in official state discourse as despised remnants of foreign barbarism and medieval ignorance to be rapidly replaced with the pure Persian tongue of the ‘Aryans’. Tribal populations were subdued, Persian language strictly enforced and kids caught talking in their mother tongues in public schools were punished. The avant-garde of the 1978-9 Islamic Revolution promised freedom for all, language rights and multi-ethnic harmony, which never materialized. Minority media have only been able to work sporadically and under severe pressure, intimidation and repression; intellectuals and poets expressing themselves in non-Persian indigenous languages have been monitored and censored; and until recently, there was no institutionalized academic study of any of these languages in Iranian universities.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there has already been much skepticism about the resolution. Detractors argue that the resolution falls short of the demands of the ethnic movement: they want public education in the mother tongues from elementary school and up. They argue that in minority regions, children never learn Persian properly because they are analphabets in their own languages. They are supported by studies that clearly show the importance of mother language education for bi-lingual children.

Many remain skeptic if the resolution should even be seen as a sincere move. It is suspicious that it was passed on the eve of the elections and with the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself. Indeed, all opposition candidates talked openly about the ethnic issue and Musavi even promised a similar resolution. This may be no more than Ahmadinejad’s symbolic gesture towards voters amongst the discontented minorities.

Maybe the resolution will just end up somewhere in the vast bureaucracy or turn out in just a couple of showcase examples. Furthermore, it certainly does not look good that it is the Cultural Academy for Persian Language and Literature that is going to decide what languages are suitable and then design courses (even though they are to make these decisions in cooperation with another committee). It would also have been a good idea to set up an open process of cooperation with scholars and intellectuals, and to do some research into resources and perspectives, before announcing the resolution. It does not seem that the Council have done any of this.

It is going to be difficult to live up to the promises inherent in the resolution in a short period. Difficult, but not impossible: there are quite a lot of unofficial teaching materials in Azeri and Kurdish. However, the Islamic Republic will have to be willing to invest in updating and developing new materials, standardizing grammars, training teachers and cooperating with institutions in the Republic of Azerbaijan and maybe Iraq – and with scholars outside the region.

It is, for example, going to interesting to see if Iran is willing to teach with materials such as that of Baku, which is written not in the Iranian Turkic-Arabic alphabet but in the Latin (Azərbaycan əlifbası) alphabet. This would also create some interesting complications regarding the differences between what can be called Northern and Southern Azeri (and maybe even the future emergence of a Standard Azeri?). Furthermore, will there be two sets of teaching materials for the Kurds – one in Kurmanji and one in Sorani?

It will be even more interesting to see what the state will do with Baluchi and Turkmen: languages that have barely been studied and taught in Iran before, and languages that still need much academic attention and research. Iran will be able to learn something from their Turkmen neighbors in Ashgabat – but again, there is the Latin / Arabic divide. As far as I know, Baluchi is not taught in universities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian Turkmen and Baluchi have only recently become literary languages. A whole new branch of academic studies will have to be created. The list of interesting, inter-related questions continues…

But most interesting is that it would put the Iranian state in a precarious position of involuntarily supporting the trend towards increased communication and exchange over the borders that separates these ethnic groups. The alternative is that the Iranian state will develop a half-baked, amateurish set of teaching materials – maybe even of the heavily Persianized kind that made Iranian Azeris protest over the early state radio and TV programming in their mother tongue. That would surely be the recipe for disaster and one must expect the Cultural Academy to be more foresighted than that.

One can only hope that the Iranian state will live up to this new promise. Even though it is far from what proponents of the ethnic movement desire, it is a step in the right direction that will help strengthen national unity.

I’m intrigued. If anyone receives any new information from Iranian universities when the new semester begins, please let me know. I, for one, would love to see a brand new, standardized, government-approved Iranian set of teaching materials in Baluchi and Turkmen!

Forgetting the Brethren

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The Muslim Uyghurs of China are, in many ways, losers. Not just because they are a suppressed and persecuted minority suffering from economic and political marginalization, and not just because most of them live in poverty while their ancestral home is being colonized by Chinese settlers exploiting the region’s natural resources. They have also lost in the battle for headlines. It took a bloodbath before the Uyghurs finally caught some attention.

With its outrage over Chinese oppression in Tibet, Western media has for years engaged in a full-scale ‘war of sympathy’ on behalf of the Tibetans. Journalists, authors, artists and movie stars have used every occasion to highlight the plight of Buddhists in Tibet; the Uyghurs, however, being Muslim, have received none of this attention. Now, with over a hundred dead and thousands arrested, Western media have finally open its eyes to China’s other backyard. And still, there has been no clear expression of support for the Uyghurs by Western leaders who are too cautious not to harm their relations with the rising economic giant in the East.

Calling on the Muslim World
But how about the Muslim world? In the recent unrest in Xinjiang, at least one observer has noted what might be a conscious use of Islamic symbolism by protesting women to open eyes in the Muslim world. On The New Dominion, ‘OpkeHessip’ wrote about this picture:

“This is an image that will appeal powerfully to the Muslim world. This picture tells a story of brave boys who righteously stood up, as young men do, and who were punished by non-Muslim occupiers. The image is a mother, the keeper of tradition, the one who educates religious and ethnic values and traditions into her children, looking out for those children, missing them, coming to find them when they have lost their way. Here, she chides and scolds the men who have taken her son away, and, in their stillness, they seem to fear her.”

He also noted that

“Even if the participants were not necessarily religious, they would still identify as Muslims, making the headscarf a very visible symbol of unity, as well as difference from Han Chinese.”

and that

“…if someone politically savvy planned this action, then they may have actually called on female participants to wear headscarves. The image of a crowd of apparently traditional Muslims facing down what looks like a faceless army of Chinese can draw on over a billion sympathizers.”

The story behind the picture has indeed become front page material on the websites of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Al-Quds, Hürriyet, Milliyet, Sabah, Today’s Zaman, Yeni Safak etc. etc. On Pakistan Daily, one headline read ‘China to further ties with Pakistan’ and next to it, ‘Muslim Unrest in China’. Some of them carry extremely gory pictures of dead people. Xinjiang is clearly important stuff in the Muslim world. But not in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The issue of Iranian media responses to the Xinjiang unrest carries some interesting points.

From Pan-Islamic Solidarity to Tactical Realism
One of the main messages of the 1978-9 movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini was that the revolution was not just an Iranian revolution, but a Koranic uprising. The Islamic Revolution belongs to all Muslims, the  vanguard claimed; indeed, the revolution belonged to all mostaz‘afin: all the Third World masses who had been downtrodden by Imperialist powers. Khomeini blasted US, the Soviet Union and Apartheid South Africa. Iranian solidarity was to be extended to the whole non-aligned world; oppressed Muslims everywhere would receive Tehran’s support. When the revolutionary fervor settled, another picture emerged.

It is no secret that when clerics and their Islamist allies turned into statesmen, they quickly became realists, concerned primarily with the national interests of a clearly defined nation-state, and not the utopian visions of a global, boderless Ummah. In the long run, they even became pragmatists, calculating tactical decisions in their foreign policy that only rarely were based on considerations for the plight of Muslim brethren in other countries.

The Islamic Republic did not help the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when they were massacred in Hama by the secular Ba‘thist regime of Syria; the Islamic Republic sided with the Christian Armenians against the Shiite Muslim Azerbaijanis in the fight over Nagorno-Karabagh; the Islamic Republic did not help the Chechens when they were under full-scale Russian attack; and the Islamic Republic even prevented an agitated crowd of Basiji Students from leaving for Palestine when the Israeli war machine was pounding the West Bank into smithereens half a year ago.

And now it seems that the Islamic Republic will not stand up for their Muslim brethren in Xinjiang. This is far from surprising: Iran is extremely dependent on Beijing for investments and support in the UN Security Council, and careful not to damage this crucial relationship.

Silence – and opportunities
This is also why there is so little attention to the topic in state-run and state-affiliated Iranian media. In today’s Kayhân, the Supreme Leader’s mouthpiece, there is a small piece tucked away in the International section that mentions anti-government unrest in Xinjiang. The article does not even mention that Uyghurs are Muslims.

There was no mention of Xinjiang on the front page of the state news agency IRNA’s website this morning. On the Foreign News page, a new Iranian refinery deal with China was categorized as ‘Important News’, followed by two pieces on Hillary Clinton’s response to the Xinjiang unrest and Hu Jintao’s return from the G8 Summit. References were made to ‘ethnic violence’ and to Rebiya Kadeer as a ‘local leader’ – but the Uyghurs were not mentioned let alone their Muslim identity.

On the front page of the state-run Irân daily, a headline proclaimed “China, Iran’s Biggest Trade Partner in Asia”. No mention of Xinjiang. The front page of the state-affiliated Mehr news told of ‘The opportunity for Iran and China to cooperate on gas for the next 100 years’. No mention of Xinjiang.

And so on.

The many similarities between the ongoing clampdown on Uyghur protesters in China and the repression of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters in Iran has not been lost on Iranian ‘reformists’, however. Masume Ebtekar – former US embassy hostage-taker, former vice president and a prominent ‘reformist’ – has seized the opportunity and stated:

“For years, the Islamic Republic would react whenever and wherever Muslims and downtrodden masses were oppressed and subjugated. But in recent years, we see that this ideal has been modified in relation to the Eastern Bloc.”

She argues that state-run media has failed to understand and portray this as a Muslim protest movement, and she compares the lack of official condemnation to the Iranian government’s silence vis-à-vis massacres on Shiites in Kashmir and Muslims in Chechnya. However, the most interesting point, is that she describes the government clampdown exactly like the clampdown Iranian opposition were subject to during the recent post-election unrest.

Indeed, there are many superficial similarities: Chinese authorities have brought in paramilitary forces to quell the protests; mobile phone network has been shut down and access to weblogs and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook has been restricted; state-run media portray the demonstrators as rioters and hoodlums; and the government claims that the unrest has been masterminded and directed from abroad. Finally, Ebtekar sarcastically concludes, with reference to the Iranian government’s accusation against the opposition:
“I’m not sure if these similarities means that we are talking about suppression of a velvet revolution or not!?”

Twitter-users in Iran have also noted the similarities. One Twitter wrote:
“It is interesting to note that Russia and China – two intimate friends of the Iranian regime – are killing Muslims and the Iranian regime says nothing”

Another wrote:
“Friends, I am proud that our Green Wave and its valuable victories has also reached China …!”

And a journalist added:
“Ahmadinejad: Palestinians are not the only Muslims! If you’re a man, voice your protest against China! … China massacred its Muslims, Ahmadinejad kept his mouth shut…”

The Iranian China Model: More East than West?
What remains of the ‘reformist’ press in Iran has picked up the story, which figures on the front page of Âftâb-e Yazd today. On the ‘reformist’ website Âyande News, there is a long article with many pictures and film clips from Urumqi. The title of the piece is ‘Attacking Zionists, Smiling at Communists!’:

“The ruling Communist party’s Chinese model of mischievousness and provocation has finally caused the people of Xinjiang – one of the country’s Muslim-inhabited regions – to lose their patience, and in the aftermath of a peaceful demonstration, a bloodbath occurred.”

The ‘Chinese model’ is clearly supposed to be seen in the light of a similar ‘Iranian model’. The article explains in detail how 20 million Uyghurs suffer from anti-Islamic policies and economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government. With what appear as occasional hyperbole and sensationalist claims, the article portrays the recent unrest as something close to genocide. Like in the Ebtekar blog entry, the article enumerates all the government measures. It also states that the Chinese government cracked down on the Tiananmen Square unrest in 1989 with the excuse that the demonstrators were manipulated by the US. The Iranian state has leveled the exact same accusations against protestors in Iran recently.

The article concludes, again in a sardonic tone:
“It remains to be seen how the diplomatic machinery and other justice-and-freedom-seeking organs [in Iran] – who wear mourning shrouds when there are minor events in Gaza – will retain a pragmatic silence vis-à-vis the horrendous killing of Muslims in the province of Xinjiang; or whether they will apply the famous prophetic saying, and answer the call of freedom from the Muslims of that region with diplomatic support?!”

Apart from being Muslims, the Uyghurs are also ethnic Turks – indeed, the radical ethno-nationalist Uyghur groups call their homeland ‘East Turkistan’. In Iran, somewhere around 25-30% of the population is also of Turkic origin, or rather, speak a Turkic language, generally alongside Persian. In recent years, Iran has witnessed a wave of ethnic mobilization and unrest, even among the Azeris, who are considered the most assimilated or integrated ethnic group.

Iran’s Azeris have taken notice of events in Xinjiang. Bizim Tabriz carries a gruesome video allegedly showing Han Chinese men killing three Uyghurs. The website also reports on Turkey’s nationalist parties’ reaction to the events. On Âzâd Tabriz News, a writer states that ‘the Islamic Republic goes hand in hand with those who murder Muslims in East Turkistan, Chechnya and Karabagh.‘ He laments that none of the major Shiite clerics responded with fatwas against Armenians killing Azeris during the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, and he calls on Iranians to ask their spiritual guides now for a ruling on the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Muslim-killing countries such as China.

The radical Pan-Turkist groups are also paying full attention to the plight of their Turkic brethren. Milli Harekat has displayed gruesome pictures and are describing the latest events as part of a broader scheme to eliminate Uyghurs completely. Pan-Turkist groups have also sent condolences to their Turkic brethren in  the Uyghur World Congress.

An interesting facet is the way that not just radical groups, but also ‘reformist’ politicians can turn this into another point of opposition against the Ahmadinejad government. Indeed, when Ahmadinejad went to Russia during the recent unrest, Karubi evoked the centuries-old image of ‘The Russian Foe’ and stated that Russia has always interfered in Iran’s domestic affairs. This is an interesting twist to the blame game: normally, it is Ahmadinejad who accuses the ‘reformists’ of being lackeys of the West; now, the reformists can blame Ahmadinejad of being a lackey of both North and East.

Iran’s professed ‘Neither West nor East’ ideology is again questioned and the latent pan-Islamic ideals vs. national interests discussion can once again be (ab)used in factional rivalries.

It will be interesting to see if the Iranian opposition will capitalize further on the ‘Oppressed Muslims in China and Russia’ discourse. It is, however, most likely that the Uyghurs will again be forgotten – not just by CNN and BBC, but also by their brethren in the Muslim world.

Time for a Movement Post-Mortem?

Guest post by Kevan Harris, PhD Student in Tehran.

It would have made a nice experiment to place microphones in various neighborhoods in Tehran and measure the intensity and variety of nightly calls and chants that occurred after the election. After the events of 9/11, sociologist Randall Collins did something similar in Philadelphia, informally keeping track of new displays of flags and pro-US stickers on various streets. He found that while over 90% of people claimed that they had displayed a flag or some other national symbol on their house or car in the weeks afterwards, only 40% of the houses and cars located in those places he was watching did so. Furthermore, this latter figure was only seen at the peak of the emotional intensity felt by many Americans, which quickly subsided.

Last night at 10:40 pm I heard one lonely Allah-u Akbar outside my window in a middle class neighborhood (not in Northern Tehran which has seized the fascination and ire of so many). Tonight there were none.

The social movement that just occurred in Iran was highly innovative and added many tricks to the general repertoire of protest movements, some of which became fetishized in the Western press. But it also borrowed from socio-cultural norms and symbols in Iran that run deeply through its history. This is how most effective social movements operate, and we should not be surprised that the coming together of millions in a highly charged emotional setting directed towards a single goal would generate such a development.

Yet the rituals, the symbols, the ramping up of emotions, and the amazingly informal way in which action was communicated, could not be sustained by themselves. Nor can they ever. Of course the response by the state contributed to the demobilization of hundreds of thousands. However, the opposite was possible, as many participants at the time were hoping. The lack of direction was palpable, and the best thing for anyone interested in Iran to do may be to seriously take a look at what problems existed within the opposition. Unfortunately, some of them stretch much farther back than 2009.

For one, its strategies still seemed to reflect politics as such in Iran over the last 30 years – every man for himself. Last week, on the same day, Karoubi, Khatami, and Mousavi’s people supposedly made three separate calls for rallies. The problem was that they were proposed for three different places in Tehran. Nothing demobilizes a social movement like the perception of incompetence and disorganization at the top. Obviously they and their representatives were, and continue to be, under duress. But a nonviolent movement especially requires good organization and discipline. The “no-party” system that has allowed for the survival of so many politicians in the Islamic Republic, unfortunately also fomented a very individualistic political style. The constant mutation of factional splits (perpetually perplexing the Western journalists) is the result. Note how easily many elites are sliding away from oppositional stances now, in exchange for an institutional home.

Another problem may have been the campaign rhetoric itself. Neither Mousavi and Karoubi laid out much of an economic plan, even with teams of economists and former Khatami and Rafsanjani technocrats at their side. The “destruction” of the Iranian economy that many claimed to have occurred over the last 4 years is not very accurate. Indeed, some of the economic policies that Ahmadinejad pushed through, such as the unpopular cutting of subsidies for gasoline, were proposed by Khatami years ago.

The main issues in Iran, if you ask people, are security of living standards and income for the poorer classes, job creation for the middle classes, and for the upper classes, well, they’re not seriously complaining about the economy. The welfare state in Iran is mostly a non-commodified one – people get their primary health care, medicine, staple goods, and energy at subsidized prices that don’t fluctuate or are free (Even Iran’s “market price” for gasoline after your monthly ration ends is a whopping $0.40 a liter/$1.50 a gallon). Thus the rise in inflation, while eating away at wages, did not have as much of a devastating effect as some argued. The state picked up the tab, and it could afford to over the last few years. The Iranian economy has problems, of course. But, comparable to other middle income states in the world economy, even those with oil, it is pretty much in the middle of the middle for measures such as wealth and inequality, and in the top of the middle for well-being measures such as health, literacy, and education. Karoubi’s dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s simple economic charts and figures may have appealed to some Iranians who figure all government data as skewed. But Karoubi’s own figures were wildly inaccurate (both sides had problems), and he and Mousavi’s economic proposals barely differed from the status quo rhetoric.

This posed a problem once the social movement began. The streets were not filled only with students, or only those with complaints about the hejab police, but the media overstressed its cross-class composition as expectations rose. Store owners and workers certainly watched the marches go by, and shut their shops down when violence swept through their square on particular days. Many in the rallies wanted to keep pushing the marches southward every day. As an overt strategy that would have been interesting, but it came only as an afterthought and I never heard it uttered from any of the leaders. The cleavages in Iranian society were not an inevitable barrier to the broadening of the opposition’s base, but they were not invisible, either. Papering over them will not do any good.

It was an emotionally intense period, one that peaked without much of leadership, organization, or self-reflection. We should not expect these to naturally emerge henceforth, but at least we should watch for signs of change as the political fallout begins.