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Is Iran heading towards another revolution?

Iran's history contains three millennia of despotism, but also three revolutions in the past century alone. The current unrest may suggest that another is on its way. It poses formidable challenges to both the current regime and the moderate reformist leadership
Ahmad Alehossein
5 January 2010

Iran is known for over three thousand years of despotism. However, it is also known as the land of surprising political changes. Just during the last hundred years of its modern history, the country witnessed a revolution every 25-30 years: (1) the 1906-1911 constitutional revolution; (2) the chaotic 1941-1951 period which began with the fall of Reza Shah and ended with the rise of oil nationalization movement; and, finally, (3) the 1979 ‘Islamic’ revolution. Each revolution has emerged out of period of failed ‘reform from above’ and successive bifurcations in power. We may ask, then, if this is the right historical moment for a forth cycle of revolutionary change?

Since the last presidential elections, the Iranian political system has entered into a route of successive bifurcations again, in which less and less options will be remained for major players to choose in dealing with the political crisis. A series of new events during the holiest Shi’ite month of mourning for the sacred martyrs have created deeper cracks in the regime’s capacity to deal with the growing resistance. Iranians’ historical mythologies have come to back up their resistance in such a very difficult time. Imam Hussein’s mythological-tragic narrative which was politicized through Ali Sharitai’s revolutionary interpretations of history during the 1970s against the Shah’s corrupt secular dictatorship has once again been revitalized. Hussein is resurrected in the political history of Iranian Shi’a, but this time against a corrupt theocratic regime. The most recent political turmoil which was triggered by the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri has clearly shown that the protest movement is not demising at all but in fact transforming itself and the broader society together.

Once again, the Iranian grassroots took a step forward using these religious occasions to press for change but in a more radical and chaotic way. Participants have shown less concern about their stolen votes or the illegitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s government. They no longer see the possibility of reform through a less manipulated electoral politics. They clearly see the roots of problem in the structure of power, their contradictory constitution, the powerful anti-democratic institutions, and in the development of a militant-monetary mafia reinforced through the so-called privatization of public assets. However, the Iranian movement for democracy suffers from some significant shortages. Inconsistency in actions and the lack of effective leadership are among the underdeveloped aspects of the movement.

Just ten years ago, when the student protests in Tehran were violently oppressed by the regime, Khatami the then president and leader of the reformist movement refused to support the students fearing that the uprising would lead to an uncontrollable political turmoil. He even criticized the students for their radicalism and considered their actions as a conspiracy to derail his plans. He preferred to compromise with conservatives hoping his strategy would facilitate an incremental change from above with the lowest possible costs. He was, however, badly mistaken. What he was afraid of has now come true; an uncontrollable, unpredictable opposition and a very costly political chaos. The reformist strategy for change was once formulated in a short phrase by Said Hajjarian, the ideologue of reformist movement, as “putting pressure from bottom and pursuing negotiations at the top”. It seems that this mentality has not changed much despite the recent rapid transformations of the society.

Just a couple of hours after the end of June 2009 presidential election, Mousavi (Ahmadinejad’s major opponent) made a very strange public speech announcing himself as the “absolute winner” of the election. This was strange because no result was still announced. He justified his announcement based on what his delegates observed in polling stations across the country as well as the pre-election polls conducted by his supporting organizations. But this is neither feasible nor acceptable by any standard in any democracy. In fact, he made that claim because he knew the election was going to be nothing but a swindle. Rafsanjani, former president and a pragmatist figure, wrote an open letter to the supreme leader, a few days prior to the election warning him of the serious consequences of any fraud in favour of Ahmadinejad. This shows that the opposition leaders were almost certain about their slim chance of victory but preferred to take part with no clear plan about the aftermath of election.   

The election result, however, was shocking to many people who were convinced that they could neutralize fraud through their massive participation. In such a situation, what you would expect of an opposition leader is of course nothing but denouncing the result and asking people to protest their rights. Mousavi did so, but he and other reformist leaders preferred not to cross the red lines. Although they were certain that Ahmadinejad could not have more than 30 percent of votes, they were not, nonetheless, sure if they themselves had more than 30-40 percent. A second round of election was the most likely scenario if there was no fraud, according to the less biased per-election polls. Reformist leaders preferred to use people’s disappointment and anger as a means to exert pressure on the supreme leader and other authorities to withdraw and agree on a new election. Therefore, they did not ask people to stay in the public spaces, go on strike and defend their rights in a similar way that opposition leaders did in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine. Maintaining their inefficient strategy, they were once again missing the opportunity to actively direct the emerging movement. The authorities assumed that they could suppress the movement by the use of force as far as the movement expresses itself via street riots and therefore did not compromise with reformists. In contrast, many reformist figures were arrested. On the other hand, the masses were left with no effective direction or leadership. However, their demand for change as well as their rage grew significantly and became much more radical due to the savage responses by the regime during mostly peaceful occasions such as Montazeri’s funeral.

Today, almost six months after the election, the movement and the regime are both at the crossroads. On the one hand, isolated, violent street clashes are not going to change the regime even if they repeat over and over again. On the other hand, continuing the current extremely exclusionist policies towards the reformist opposition is becoming markedly unendurable. The post-election tensions have led to a chaotic and complex state where disloyalty, disunity, and disobedience are becoming norms. This will paralyse the state in implementing any effective economic policy to deal with growing economic challenges. While affecting foreign investment in Iran’s energy sectors (even by its close allies such as China and Russia), this will also make it dreadfully difficult for the government to execute effective economic reforms such as the removal of subsidies and raising taxes as these policies require significant public consent.      

Whereas the protest movement was initially limited to metropolitan middle class, it has now expanded into lower classes, thanks to the government’s failure in tackling backbreaking economic challenges such as high inflation, stagnation, and unemployment. The vertical links across social classes have also been reinforced through the growing participation of religious figures. The Iranian traditional market (bazaar) which used to be the major source of income for many religious institutions has experienced a tremendous decline due to the growing monopolies shaped around the importation of less expensive goods and commodities in massive scales, particularly from China.

Regarding the extension of social discontent, we may ask if Iran is heading towards another historical revolution. There is nothing deterministic about such a highly complex political system. The answer now depends, more than before, on the role that the leaders of opposition and the regime can and will play. Will the opposition leaders take the new opportunity that has emerged in the aftermath of Montazeri's death or will they miss it once again, ending up with greater levels of chaos and violence, i.e. what they have allegedly been afraid of for a long time. The recent extensive arrests of activists show that the regime is scared of the role these leaders can play and therefore aims to use these hostages as a means to discourage the leading figures from taking serious actions. Not many choices are left for the opposition leaders to take as the movement has started to transform into more antagonistic, more autonomous, and less organized urban riots.  In this situation the reformist opposition can retain its leading role if it either strongly pursues a win-win referendum solution through pragmatist fractions of the regime or calls for a national strike and gatherings in the public spaces once and for all. While the former option is more plausible and less feasible, the latter is less plausible and more feasible. Mousavi’s latest statement (No. 17) proves that he is not willing to pursue any of these options. Instead, he has stopped questioning the legitimacy of the government or election and demanded a higher level of responsibility as well as transparency in elections. His solutions to the crisis are once again very general in objective and vague in terms of strategy. His statement is understood by both the regime’s hardliners and the green movement activists as a retreat from his earlier position.  

Similarly, not many options are left for the regime. Perhaps the wisest and the only possible solution left for the authorities is to imitate Chavez’s strategy in dealing with political crises and divisions, i.e. conducting a national referendum. This does not mean that the referendum should be based on a simple rejection or acceptance of the regime in its totality. People can be asked to choose between a new presidential election or the reformation of the state through the inclusion of reformist figures and policies. This way the regime can turn the divisions to collaboration, reconcile the fractions, prevent further radicalization, and regain part of its public autonomy. This is, however, very unlikely to happen, unless the pragmatist and moderate conservatives close to the leader take a more active role. Political unrest usually appears in cycles. Greater levels of oppression may mute the protesting voices but will never be able to stop it from growing underground or turning into social disorder as it happened the 1980s Philippines and the 1990s Indonesia. The more complex the situation in Iran is becoming, the more unpredictable the consequences of any action or changing parameters will be.

The system has lost its equilibrium and has become fragile to external pressures. However, as the nonlinearity of changes have become more and more prominent, it is not only the case that small changes in key issues can create immense transformations, but also that greater changes (like tightening sanctions) may not end up with significant effects in favour of democracy. The wisest policy for the West is an ‘active non-intervention’, one that credibly conditions economic and diplomatic relationships (and even nuclear negotiations) on the regime’s human rights and democratic records.  

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