Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long

Reza Molavi Jennifer Thompson
25 June 2009

The western-backed Shah of Iran, who grandly styled himself as the "king of kings", was overthrown by "people power" when millions of Iranians took to the streets to call for his removal. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born out of this huge social mobilisation in 1978-79  when the entire country - men and women, young and old, urban and rural - came together to express its dismay, its total disgust with the social, economic, and political situation that the Shah had presided over. Reza Molavi is executive director of the Centre for Iranian Studies, University of Durham

Jennifer Thompson is editor of Policy Brief at the Centre for Iranian Studies, University of Durham

The "people" of this great movement came from all walks of Iranian life: the marginal and insecure from the cities and the countryside joined hands with the technocratic-academic middle classes, students and businesspeople in a national uprising inspired by one cry: the Shah must go.

What they had not thought about was who should replace the ruler they wanted to shake off.

Thirty years on, Iran is again witnessing "people power" at work. The numbers may not yet be comparable (the initial huge post-election demonstration of 15 June 2009 excepted) and the majority may so far from the educated middle-classes; but people from many backgrounds and walks of life are continuing - despite stringent security - to pour onto the streets. The immediate trigger for the protest is the irregularities surrounding the presidential election of 12 June, which official results almost instantly awarded to the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But this event, which has cast doubts over the very legitimacy of the state's leadership, has now provoked the deeper conviction among millions of Iranians that Ahmadinejad - whom many refer to as "the dictator" - should go. As in 1978-79, however, they do not know what they have bargained for.

A moral-political balance

The consistent hard line of the official leadership continues to flow from every political and media outlet. The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his speech at Friday prayers in Tehran on 19 June gave unbending support to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even more significant than his endorsement of the president as the true winner in the elections, was his allusion to the fact that the two men

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)

shared the same philosophy and approach to governing; indirectly, Khamenei was declaring that Ahmadinejad's main rival Mir-Hossein Moussavi was unfit for power as well as the election's loser.

Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the mouthpiece of the Guardian Council - the body charged with reviewing contested individual results and complaints - confirmed the expectation that the process would be little more than a formality. There was some acknowledgement of extraordinary inconsistencies (votes exceeding the number of registered voters in some areas, for example), but the overall conclusion was clear: "Fortunately, we found no witness of major fraud or breach".

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that voices in the west cheer the marchers on and challenge them to go out and continue the struggle to the end. The ruthlessness of the regime's thuggish apparatus should give them pause. When plainclothes basijis and regime diehards venture out on their motorcycles equipped with clubs, chains, knives and Kalashnikovs  - working in parallel with police in full riot-control gear - to suppress peaceful marchers, it is hard to ask anyone that they should endure the beating, arrest and even killing that may follow.

After all, the events of June 2009 contain echoes of the past. Iran's Islamic Republic has lived through many crises: it was forged in revolution and war, and experienced targeted killings of dissidents and mass student demonstrations in the late 1990s, during Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005). The actions of the regime - from vote-rigging to political repression -  must be seen in this context, as part of a long process of political and social turbulence. In such circumstances, outsiders especially must be very careful about exhorting people in Iran to confront the autocracy and violence of the state.

The very fact that the restraint and dignity of the huge majority of the marchers in Tehran and other cities are admirable, and that the forces ranged against them are powerful, should advise caution. Moreover, beyond the moral drama there are political realities that must be taken into account: that the supreme leader's inflexible stance guarantees further bloodshed, that the nuclear centrifuges are spinning at maximum speed in Natanz as part of an issue that still needs diplomatic resolution, that

Moussavi is as much of an establishment figure as Ahmadinejad  - and that political change is in the air in Tehran, even if it will take a little more time to arrive than Iranians and their friends in the west might hope.

A breach of trust

What core message, then, does the wave of current demonstrations and clashes send? The Ian Fleming short story of our title explains the "quantum of solace" as the amount of comfort and humanity sufficient for love between two people to survive, of trust in the belief that the other will not harm you. In attacking protestors on the streets of Tehran, the Iranian authorities are depriving their own citizens of this measure of comfort and humanity; the result is a dramatic erosion of trust between Iranian citizens and the Iranian state. The quantum of solace is gone, and there is no James Bond to come to Iranians' rescue.

The election fallout shows that the legitimacy of the regime is being deeply and publicly compromised. But this is only the first step on the road. It is truly shocking to see the blood in the

streets of Tehran and the security forces of the Islamic Republic shooting innocent people. Iranians will not forget this deplorable human-rights fiasco. But by standing back from the drama of Iran's post-election landscape, analysts might reflect more deeply on the current balance of power in Iran - and conclude that, this time unlike 1978-79, the change that is coming to Iran will be more through evolution than revolution.

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)



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