The archaeology of Iran’s regime

Mahmood Delkhasteh
2 July 2009

The uprising in Iran, which began as a protest against the rigged election of 12 June 2009, caught the world by surprise. No one can be certain where this uprising will lead. What is certain is that Iran will never be the same again.

The brutal, sustained crackdown after spontaneous peaceful protests; the killings, the injuries, the arrests and the Stalinist-style television confessions; the attempts to blame foreign powers for fomenting a revolt that in fact emerged from deep popular anger at injustice (and even for the death of the innocent bystander Neda Soltan) - all this has ripped the legitimacy from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.

Mahmood Delkhasteh is an independent researcher who specialises in the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which he was a participant
These pitiless responses indicate how determined this regime is to stay in power. But they have also put the future of the regime at risk. For the protest wave has exposed the deep rifts inside the regime itself, reflecting the sense of millions of Iranians that their country has been captured and is ruled by brute force.

The authorities‘ crushing repression may have been able to drive many protestors from the streets, but the sense that what happened in the election was a gigantic injustice that must be recognised as such has become rooted. Now, after the first post-election days of open protest, people are adjusting themselves. Amid the ongoing crackdown, Iran is seething. This crisis has a long way to go.

A revolution's twist

The many questions raised by these epic events include the most elemental: how did it happen? Why have the very people who have been lived under the Iranian regime for the three decades since the revolution of 1979 decided that enough is enough? What made this explosion possible? To try to answer these questions is also to offer some guidance about the possible future course of events.

The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville commented that "the most perilous moment for a bad government is when it seeks to mend itself". The point is well made in relation to despotic regimes which, when they try to loosen repression and open up small spaces for the expression of controlled discontent, can find that the situation runs out of their grasp. A long-repressed frustration and anger can come to the surface which uses this limited space to then create their own radical dynamic, whose logic leads to the demand for a total overthrow of the existing order.

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)

That is, after all, what happened to the Shah of Iran in 1978-79. In the years after the coup of 1953 against the popular and democratic prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the Shah lost all opportunities for reform. By 1975, he was removing the facade of a multi-party system and replacing it with a state party of compulsory membership, Rastakhiz (Resurrection). The changing tides of international politics, symbolised by the election of Jimmy Carter to the United States presidency, reinforced the Shah's increasing political isolation.

Carter rode to power in 1976 partly by emphasising a commitment to the defence of human rights in order to redeem America's image after the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal. This put the Shah of Iran, who was wholly dependent on American support, in a difficult position. In order to satisfy Carter, he had to demonstrate his willingness to open up a limited political space. This was the Shah's undoing. The opposition used the opportunity to tap into the massive public anger brewing against the regime. In this light, the revolution in Iran of 1979 can be seen as partly an unintended consequence of Carter's election.

The new Iranian regime sought to learn from this experience and avoid any hint of the Shah's mistake. In the early months and years of often chaotic state-building - amid the war with Iraq from September 1980 - its inner core chose to consolidate its power by building a strong security-political network that could in extremis guarantee the preservation of the regime by force. The removal of the country's first president, Abou-Hasan Bani-sadr, in a creeping coup was an early sign of the process. A key to the regime's plans was the establishment of a rough, limited, and controlled form of democracy that is supported by different factions in and supporters of the regime - the insiders, or khodi (one of us).

A blocked opening

It took a long time to begin to crack. A key event was the "Mykonos" trial of 1997, in which a German court accused the Iranian leadership of ordering the assassination of four Iranian Kurdish leaders in a Berlin restaurant of that name. The pressure to maintain an image of legitimacy led to the decision  to allow Mohammad Khatami to contest the presidential election of 1997.  Millions of Iranians took the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri (the favourite of Ayatollah Khamenei) by voting for Khatami. The regime was caught off-guard.

The result was a blocked opening. Khatami was a mild reformist who never tried to bring the people into politics. He was aware of the radical nature of the public mood, but a combination of belief in the system and indecision led him to miss chances to press the regime into real reform. The student uprising in 1999, when the president sided with conservatives and left student dissidents out in the cold, is a prime example. Khatami's tame attempts to reform the system ended up by strengthening the power of the supreme leader. In 2005 he departed from office to be replaced by the little-known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

An inside job

During the four years of Ahmadinejad's presidency, the conservatives all but eradicated the reformists from the regime. But something else was happening behind the scenes. An elite group that either had no role in the revolution or even opposed it were forcing those with true revolutionary credentials out of power, and gradually taking control of the levers of power.

The most prominent figure in this group is Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. He openly questions the republican principle within the Islamic Republic, which he sees as incompatible with Islam (in his interpretation of it). His approach to politics (which has traces of Thomas Hobbes) has led him to the conclusion that the people should have no say in running the state; but that they can be led by coercion (harekate ghasri) along the right path. Mesbah-Yazdi's alternative to the republican aspect of the Islamic system is a form of khilafat - rule by a hereditary, authoritarian despot.

This can be seen as the rationale for what some reformists call the latest coup d'état (which Khatami on 1 July 2009 called a "velvet coup d'état") - namely Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reappointment as president after the stolen election. The goal was to finish the job of changing the nature of the regime from the inside by removing its republican aspect and appointing Mojtaba Khamenei - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's son - as his successor.

The regime had a problem, however. In order to conduct such a major operation, it needed to demonstrate high levels of public support so the world could see it that it had a mandate from the Iranian people. The decision to allow Mir-Hossein Moussavi here played a similar role to the one over Khatami in 1997: to lure a majority of Iranians to the polling-stations, in the full expectation that the result could be managed.

Even before the election, the outcome was unexpected. The people reclaimed the streets; for the first time in two decades, they could express their opinions and enjoy a public-political presence without the fear of being arrested. The impact of the lively debates and street demonstrations that took place during the campaign was that many more people felt that there was a window of opportunity for real reform. They flocked to the polling stations on 12 June, believing - as they did in the case of Mohammad Khatami - that they could "use" even an establishment figure (albeit not a hardline regime insider) as a lever to press further for real change.

The result? A few hours after the polls closed, the supreme leader announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a "divine victory". The people's fury exploded.

A window opens

An interesting comparison arises here between the unintended consequences of Jimmy Carter's election for the overthrow of the Shah, Barack Obama's on the Iranian revolt of June 2009. Both events changed international conditions, though in different ways: Carter's election by mitigating the Shah's repressive policies, and Obama's election by reaching out to Iranian society and removing the fear of an attack by the United States (a threat kept alive by the George W Bush administration).

The lifting of this fear by the "Obama effect" has provided space and opportunity for the Iranian people to move against the oppressive policies of the regime. Only now is it clear just how destructive a role the Bush administration and its neo-conservative policies played in Iran (as elsewhere), by postponing the emergence of such a movement for years.

More immediately, the only serious miscalculation in the sophisticated plan for an inner-regime coup was its inattention to this change in international politics and how it had affected Iranians' public mood.  The interested factions within the regime believed that the people would either not dare to protest or that minor threats would force them to desist. They failed to realise the potential for another kind of "inner change" - that within the people themselves. The Iranian people who experienced two weeks of freedom before the election, and found and developed solidarity with one another in two weeks of protest after it, are not the same people they were only a month before. Their sense of themselves and their possibilities has irreversibly changed.

Alexis de Tocqueville was right, but this time in reverse. It wasn't just that the Iranian regime failed to reform itself, but that it tried through its further consolidation of power to make the people even more irrelevant. However, it continued to need a veneer of legitimacy for its plan, by arranging an election "as if" everything was normal. The window of opportunity opened a little, and people grasped it and pushed it wide.

The changes in public behaviour during this short time are well illustrated by the memoir of one young woman from an impoverished family, published just prior to the election. "These nights are the only nights we are not ridiculed because we are poor. These nights, no one asks which part of the city we are from. It is not important for anybody to see how expensive our shoes are. The only important thing for them is that we wear green... Why should I not wear a green band and join a green chain of people? In this chain I see a rich boy holding my hand and not caring about my father's job. Our hands are pulled but he does not stare at me, just gives me a humble smile... These nights are the last of these golden opportunities to be at one with everyone."

An unending struggle

A despotic politics and culture needs to separate people, atomise them, isolate them, make them suspicious of each other so they don't trust or care for or understand each other. It needs to instil an ethos of survival, so that everyone fends only for him/herself. But in these weeks before and after the election, Iranians began to meet again, to care for each other, to develop solidarity.

Those who remember the early days of the 1979 revolution are sharing with the young generation the way that these feelings are reminiscent of the time when Ayatollah Khomeini too had committed himself to democratic principles and argued that the people's will was paramount. They want their children to understand that at its heart the revolution of 1979 was - like today's movement - a humanist one; and that the gradual rise to power of despots like Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represent not its fulfilment, but its betrayal and forgetting.

The taste of freedom, the emergence of solidarity and the rebirth of hope within such a short time has provided the young people of Iran with ample sources of energy and courage to resist overweening and unaccountable power. This work of resistance - peaceful, noble, dignified, and networked, the act of free citizens using all the tools of mind and culture available to them - is reconnecting them with the true history of modern Iran and its pattern of revolution.

The unfinished moment of 2009 offers a precious space to build a new bridge between the Iranian past and the Iranian present, in which the models and means of resistance of previous generations that struggled against monarchy and dictatorship are reclaimed. In the process, Iranians young and old will at last build the proudly democratic society that they richly deserve.

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, "I ran'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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