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.