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Iran: revolution beyond caricature

Rasool Nafisi
7 August 2009

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, made a significant remark in his speech on 3 August 2009 that both endorsed and inaugurated the second term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president. Khamenei described the popular uprising in Iran following the flawed election of 12 June 2009 as a "caricature" of the "great movement" of 1978-79.

Rasool Nafisi is an academic and Iran analyst. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. His website is here                                   Rasool Nafisi is co-author of The Rise of the Pasdaran (Rand Corporation, 2009)                             
Also by Rasool Nafisi in openDemocracy:

"The meaning of Ramin Jahanbegloo's arrest" (16 May 2006 )

"Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release" (1 September 2006)

"Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

"Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008)  The use of the term conveys a certain sarcastic intent. But more revealing is that this is the ayatollah's first public acknowledgment that a movement on a revolutionary scale is indeed engulfing Iran. What Khamenei means by a "caricature" is plain: he is referring to the methods used in the revolution that overthrew the Shah, which are now being employed by Iran's opposition to disseminate its message and encourage people to defy the government's ban on demonstrations.

These methods include creating communication networks that can bypass the regime's surveillance and interference, so that the momentum of street-protests can be sustained. But they also make good use of symbols and rituals that evoke the time-honoured Shi'a themes of martyrdom and commemoration of the dead, and the chanting of religious mantras. In 1978-79, such behaviour enabled Iranians to forge a connection between their deep national and religious traditions and their current political aspirations; the accumulating result was nationwide strikes, a split in the ruling military-security forces, and the downfall of the Pahlavi regime. Its effective revival in 2009 represents a crucial link between the two moments, of a kind that Ayatollah Khamenei's remark registers.

The elusive picture

The supreme leader's reference to the 2009 events as a "caricature" of the revolution out of which the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded also indicates that Iran's clerical leaders are fully aware of their need to wage a counter-revolution. The Islamic state's inner elite believes that the fall of the Pahlavi regime was the result of its relative lenience towards the oppositon; its practical lesson is the need to sustain an uncompromising stance towards the current national uprising.

The results include scores (perhaps hundreds) of Iranians killed as a result of repression by the state and its basij militias; as the demonstrations and protests continue, it is likely that many more will die. The Islamic republic claims its mandate from the heavens yet ignores the religious taboos respected even by its secular Pahlavi predecessor. The once sacrosanct mosques, shrines, and cemeteries are all exposed to the Islamic state's violation in its pursuit of its "traitorous" enemies. Even these holy places offer no sanctuary to the opposition.

Yet the protestors keep pouring onto the streets, engaging the plainclothes thugs and the militia in an uneven and hopeless battle. Their bravery is born of thirty years of what some opposition intellectuals call the clerical-military regime's "insulting and belittling of the nation". These resolute activists face an intransigent regime that understands violence to be the essence of its rule. A similar revolt in a multi-ethnic environment such as Lebanon might have led to another civil war. Iran's relative national cohesion ensures that skirmishes remain within bounds, while demonstrators look for allies from within the regime.

The popular uprising has so far been effectively leaderless: the role of the reformist opposition presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (and that of former president Mohammad Khatami) has been more of figureheads than revolutionary leaders. Yet the movement has persuaded a large segment of the clergy to take its side. Both pragmatists and the reform-minded among the ruling clerics have made known their views by denouncing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, boycotting his inauguration, defying Khamenei's disdainful interferences, and even attending the demonstrations. As the state-ordered atrocities continue, it is probable that some conservatives too will undergo a gradual change of heart.

The identity of many of the victims remains to be established. Some are the sons and daughters of prosperous families, whose fate when it becomes known will intensify the anger of the movement's middle-class supporters. The social rift and the widespread discontent, however, themselves do not guarantee a particular outcome.

It is still too soon to tell if national strikes will erupt or if a cataclysmic fracture within the military-security forces along the lines of the 1978-79 revolution will emerge. In their absence, the opposition will need to find even more creative methods of protest that advance beyond as well as replicate the successful approach of thirty years ago. The decisive test of Ayatollah Khamenei's "caricature" awaits.

Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after" (17 July 2009)

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