Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after

Fred Halliday
17 July 2009

It is already five weeks since the presidential elections on 12 June 2009 in Iran, whose official results and handling by the authorities provoked an immediate and nationwide outbreak of  popular demonstrations. It may appear that the authoritarian ruling clique headed by Iran's spiritual (Ayatollah Khamenei) and political (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) leader has in this period been able to contain and push back the challenge to its power.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)

The deployment of police, basij militias and pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) has crushed the mass street protests; at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of the leaders and top advisers of the reformist presidential candidates have been arrested; and a climate of fear has been imposed. The most visible manifestations of the hugely impressive popular movement of the "Persian spring" - whose eruption took almost all observers by surprise, and which quickly won an amazing breadth of support across Iran's social groups and regions - seem to have been closed down as suddenly as it burst into the open.

Yet even a vigorous clampdown has been unable to extinguish all public displays of dissent. The open defiance by thousands of opposition supporters around Friday prayers at Tehran University on 17 July 2009 is but a surface indication of the heaving anger below. The gathering heard a call by the former president and influential figure Hashemi Rafsanjani for those arrested in the protests to be released. It is a significant intervention in a delicate phase, when factions within the regime as well as millions of disaffected Iranian citizens are positioning for the even more decisive confrontations ahead.

If past performance is anything to go, the exertion of state violence since the election is only the beginning. In a pattern familiar from earlier phases of the Islamic Republic - as also occurred during the Shah's regime - opposition members will continue to be brutalised in prison and then forced to engage in televised "confessions": acts of deliberately preposterous humiliation designed not to reveal the truth (about "foreign conspiracies" or whatever), but to terrorise and break the will of the regime's opponents.

More ominous is what may follow this phase of detention, mistreatment, and humiliation. Many precedents, including the repression of the liberal and left opposition in 1979-81 in particular, suggest that once foreign correspondents have been expelled from Iran and international attention has moved on, the actual killing in prison of opposition members can proceed. In the past, such killings followed fake trials where executions were justified under the catchall charge of "waging war on God", or in supposed attempts to escape.

The revolution's dialectic

Many who know the modern history of Iran - be they Iranian or someone like myself who followed (and in part witnessed) the events of 1978-79 when the Islamic Republic came into being - will be struck by the many parallels, insights, warnings and differences offered by that earlier moment and the post-election upsurge of 2009. The apparel, slogans and precise demands may seem far apart, but at heart the opposed forces are similar.

The urge to repress, and above all the contempt for the peacefully and democratically expressed views of others, were evident in the first months of the Islamic Republic; they reached a critical point in the mobilisations of summer 1979, when left and liberal forces - seeking to defend press freedom, the rights of women and of ethnic minorities - were confronted by gangs of hizbullahi thugs, mass pro-Khomeini demonstrations, and the newly established pasdaran forces, all determined to subdue the yearnings for such freedom and rights.

I recall, in particular, an educative encounter in August 1979 with a Revolutionary Guard who had come with his colleagues to close down the offices of the independent newspaper Ayandegan. When I asked this pasdar what he was doing, he replied: "We are defending the revolution!". "Why are you therefore closing the paper?", I asked. "This newspaper is shit", he declared. When I suggested that 2 million people read the paper, he replied, without reservation: "All right, then these 2 million people are shit too!" Thus was my induction into the political culture of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

But if such incidents from the early period of the Islamic Republic cast some light on the recent popular explosion in Iran, other analogies - above all with challenges to communist rule in east-central Europe after 1945 - also suggest themselves. This is true in a deeper, sociological sense as well as in the texture of the protests themselves.

For their main rallying-cry was (and is) at once contemporary and full of historical resonances that derives from Iran's formative constitutional revolution of 1906. What they demand, and what the opposition presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi has reiterated in his statements since the demonstrations, is a broad range of freedoms: of expression, of social behaviour, of media.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He was formerly professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. He is a widely known and authoritative analyst of middle-eastern affairs who appears regularly on the BBC, ABC, al-Jazeera television, CBC and Irish radio. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

"The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

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

"Iraq in the balance" (26 March 2009)

"The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

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

"Yemen: travails of unity" (3 July 2009)

For in a sense the Islamic Republic has, like communism, lost its original ideological credibility and has prepared the way for its own demise: above all by educating people. The demonstrators in Iran in June 2009 did not, after all, carry posters of Shi'a imams (Ali or Reza), or chant religious slogans; far less brandish pictures of Lenin, Mao Zedong or Che Guevara. They were, like the mass movements that challenged communism, part of what Jürgen Habermas called (à propos 1989) a "revolution of catching up" - one that wanted to be part of the modern world and for their country to take its rightful and collaborative place in it. 

Yet just as by the 1980s millions of citizens in east-central Europe were coming to express their dissatisfaction in terms beyond reformist communism, so the Iranian demonstrators of June 2009 were articulating a programme that was also larger and more international than that of their predecessors: one born of the increased awareness of the outside world produced by education, the internet and the very real pluralism of information and opinion that, for all its repression, the Islamic Republic has permitted.

The closing option

The analogies between the Iran of 1978-79 and the Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (for example) of 1989 also underline an important if as yet obscure contrast in this Iranian crisis. Here, it may be apposite to quote the entirety of an astute observation of Lenin about the need for successful revolutions to meet two conditions. The first, often invoked, is that the people cannot go on being ruled in the old way. The second, neglected but equally important is that the rulers cannot go on ruling in the old way.

Here indeed lies both the originality and the enigma of the - it can be seen now, ongoing - Iranian convulsion of 2009. The success of Mir-Hossein Moussavi in inspiring a mass movement in the weeks just prior and subsequent to the presidential election can be explained more or less straightforwardly as the confluence of three factors:

* a  long-term growth of dissatisfaction with the social, economic and political actions of the Islamic Republic

* a particular revulsion with the political direction and economic failures of Iran since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in June 2005

* a set of short-term events and processes in the days leading up to the election (including disgust at the vulgarity of Ahmadinejad in his TV debate with Moussavi, and the creative use by the opposition of SMS, Facebook and other communications).

By contrast, the nature of the divisions within the state is much less definable - though the existence of such divisions is a fact.  To observe Iran in these weeks is like watching a stage where only some of the actors are in the light: there is another, equally important, process underway which remains in the shadows. This is the conflict within the clerical and political elite: more broadly, the Islamic nomenklatura - the 5,000 or so clergy, politicians, and businesspeople with special access to the rents from oil, gas and trade who have coalesced into Iran's new ruling group.

The fissures within this elite are indicated by the open defiance of former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami; they run through the clerical city of Qom, and much of the official political networks. Whether they also split the armed forces, the pasdaran and the intelligence services is unclear: but a working initial premise is that until evidence emerges that these security bodies are indeed divided, the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad camp will retain the initiative. Reports from Qom indicate that the regime is doing all it can - including the use of money and intimidation - to keep the majority of the clergy on its side.

It would thus be mistaken, in this context at least, to assume that the post-election protests mark the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. They may turn out to do so, but the precedent of 1979-81 is sobering here. At a time when Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates faced much greater challenges than this one, and when to many it seemed that the regime would fall, it managed - by mobilising the support it undoubtedly had, and by brutal repression of its opponents - to survive. 

A different outcome in the period of revolution itself carries the same lesson. Few expected the regime of the Shah, which had international support and a modern army of 400,000, to crumble in the face of unarmed demonstrators within a matter of months. To evaluate regime resilience in Iran is no easy task.

The opening door

But if the character of the intra-regime tensions and the immediate fate of the Islamic Republic are hard to read, the post-election demonstrations have most certainly created a new framework for the understanding of Iran's political world.

The key point is that the protests have opened the history and legacy of the Islamic revolution itself to a range of different interpretations - and by extension to a questioning of established ones. For example, the Marxist left cleaved for many years after 1979 to the belief that it had  "made" the revolution, only for its achievement to be stolen by Ayatollah Khomeini and the clergy. This argument always obscured another and greater act of usurpation by the clerical elite, which involved suppressing the role of the much larger nationalist constituency of opposition to the Shah and his alliance with the United States that played a very significant role in the revolution.

The demonstrators of 1978-79 did not want the Shah, but nor did they want a dictatorship of ayatollahs either: they wanted, in the signal slogans of the revolution, "independence" and "freedom". Many prominent Iranian figures of the time were representatives of this trend: among them the liberal prime minister Shahpur Bakhtiar, who tried to manage a democratic transition after the Shah relinquished power, and was assassinated in Paris in August 1991; Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's chosen successor, who spent the years 1997-2003 under house-arrest in the city of Qom for criticising clerical control of the state; and followers of the ex-prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, overthrown in the coup of 1953,  who organised the 1979 anti-censorship demonstrations.

In the same way that Lenin and the Bolsheviks pushed aside not only their Czarist opponents, but also Russian liberals, social-revolutionaries and Mensheviks, so Khomeini and his associates set out to monopolise the post-revolutionary state and extinguish both their political rivals and the very memory of their contribution to a history that belongs to all Iranians.  It is the great contribution of the brave citizens of Iran who took to the streets in June 2009, and affirmed their rights in peaceful and dignified fashion, to have reclaimed this truth.

Their demonstrations thus have opened a door to Iran's past as well as the future.  Another slogan of the epic popular tide of 1978-79 - marg bar fascism, marg bar irtija (death to fascism, death to reaction) - may yet combine with the marg bar dictator of the marches of 2009 in a way that heralds the end of the demagogic clique that now rules Iran. The people of Iran, and their friends and admirers the world over, can only hope that this day comes sooner rather than later.

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

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

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)

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)

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

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