Iran’s Revolution

The massive protest movement that erupted in the wake of Iran‘s presidential election on June 12 took many by surprise. The vivacity and vigor with which millions of people took to the street to oppose the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is unprecedented in the entire history of the Islamic regime.

Whether the charges of voter fraud as claimed by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the other presidential contenders, are true or false are immaterial. What is relevant is that the controversy surrounding the election has given vent to a deep-seated popular resentment which is unlikely to disappear any time soon. For one thing, the movement which has taken shape around Mousavi, the reformist and pragmatic candidate, shows the potential to take on a broader dimension. It is against this current that soon after the election a statement issued by Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards Corps warned: "‘the argument over the election and the number of votes and the winner, have only been a pretext for generating insecurity and riot." There is some truth in what the statement reveals in so far as the words ‘insecurity’ and’ riot’ are translated as manifestations of a popular will for a major transformation in the country’s political structure. This was echoed in one of the slogans chanted during the street demonstrations: "Mousavi bahaneh ast, hokomat neshaneh ast" (Mousavi is a pretext; the regime itself is the target).

To be sure, Mousavi’s promise of reform on the cultural front galvanized a large section of the population, especially women and the middle-class professionals, who have been chafing under thirty years of repressive clerical rule. But the initiative for so widespread a movement was undoubtedly theirs, with the added incentive that the worsening economic conditions in recent years have witnessed an unemployment rate of 20 per cent for male university graduates and 40 per cent for their female counterparts. By thus rallying behind Mousavi, the disenchanted middle-class led by its youth created an historic moment to press for change. It is this popular initiative that in the immediate aftermath of the election led to a national uproar, a situation which was beyond what Mousavi could envisage. As one protester told the Financial Times in a rather lighthearted manner: "Poor Mousavi, we took the easel away from his hands and gave him a gun".

Today’s Iran, with a nation in turmoil, is reminiscent of the revolutionary upheavals of the 1978-79 that brought down the Shah’s regime, a phenomenon that has led many observers to wonder if the country is at the threshold of yet another revolution. This specter of revolution gains currency in light of the fact that the slogans on the streets of Tehran and other major cities have been directly targeting Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, who in his Friday prayer on June 19 almost unequivocally endorsed Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Rahbar-i ma ghateleh velayatesh bateleh (our leader is a murderer and his leadership is void) is now one of the main slogans chanted on the rooftops and on the streets throughout Iran. If unabated, the ongoing popular unrest could expand into a formidable political movement capable of putting an end to the Islamic regime altogether.

Yet, others fear that with the intensification of government crackdown and the decline in revolutionary zeal the country may plunge into an abyss of political repression. The detention of hundreds of reformists, religious and political figures alike, and the closure of the dissident newspapers followed by the mass arrest of ordinary citizens in the days after the mass protest point to this direction. This is further indicated in a repeated call on the part of the political right for the arrest of Mousavi on charges of conspiracy. The most daunting of all came from Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the influential Kayhan newspaper and the supreme leader’s media representative. In his editorial on Saturday July 4 he relentlessly lambasted both Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami for acting as ‘America’s fifth column’ and ‘committing horrible crimes’, including ‘the killings of innocent people’ and ‘causing riots’. He then went on to call for their trial upon arrest "in an open court in front of the people’s eyes". Such threats may serve as a warning sign that preparations are well underway for a wave of Stalinist-style purge and the formation of a police state in which the ruling elite is none other than the supreme leader surrounded by a handful of top military commanders.

Whatever the outcome, it all depends on how the balance of power on the levels of popular and elite politics is played out in the days or months ahead. This is a crucial factor in any assessment of the current political crisis in Iran. For, beneath the crisis lies a class war which is fought on cultural and ideological fronts. On one side of it, there are the ruling clerics who by virtue of their leading role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution have been transformed into oligarchs, thanks to their monopoly over the state and economy. On the other side, there is the defiant middle-class with women and the youth in the forefront venting out their frustration against a system that has denied them their basic rights and yet failed to deliver what the revolution stood for.


The young men and women who have poured into the streets echo the voice of a new generation of middle-class which increasingly finds it difficult to reconcile theocracy with its social aspirations. They belong to the age of modern communication technology with secularly inspired demands that directly threaten to undermine the theological base of the current Iranian oligarchy upon which their claim to political legitimacy rests. This is precisely why the intransigent ruling clerics represented by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the ideological architect of ‘The Just Islamic Government’, have been highly reluctant to concede to such demands, simply because any concession of this sort would mark the beginning of their demise.

Yet, what we are witnessing in Iran is not a class war in its conventional sense. The power struggle between the competing factions of the clerical establishment over the nature of the Islamic government on the one hand, and the cultural divide between the Western-educated middle class and the religiously inclined lower-middle class and the poor on the other complicate the situation. While the middle class has the blessing of many moderate and disenchanted clerics outside the government, the power elite has the backing of many urban poor who make up the core of Ahmadinejad’s electoral support. Given the deployment of the social forces in the equation between the two warring camps, it is unlikely that one could easily oust the other.

Certainly, the state’s apparatus of repression, including the die-hard supporters of Ahmadinejad, may find it increasingly difficult to stop the rising tide of a movement set off by a deep-seated hatred for the totalitarian nature of the Islamic regime. There is a limit to what violence can achieve, for in the end it will prove counter-productive, as the revolutionary experience of 1978-79 has shown. There are already reports indicating that support for Ahmadinejad is diminishing as fresh news of government brutalities against the detainees are spread.

On the other hand, the cry for freedom by the middle-class has its own limitations to successfully lead a revolutionary movement. It has little to offer to the balk of the urban poor. As a Financial Times editorial noted on June 15, "Change for the poor means food and jobs, not a relaxed dress code or mixed recreation." Insensitivity to such concerns by the reform movement has given Ahmadinejad the upper hand to manipulate the working poor with his right-wing populist agenda. His self-projection as the protector of the poor and his concept of ‘moral economy’ versus free market were for the most part propagandist tools which only aim to undermine his political opponents. His ruthless suppression of organized worker unions and his pursuit of policies designed to privative important sectors of the economy for the sole benefit of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps and the security officials speak for themselves.

The artfulness of the reform leaders in combating this right-wing agenda will help neutralize if not completely win over a good section of the impoverished masses who are often incited to violence by the religious right against those who are seen as defiling the faith. This is of immense importance in the creation of a culture of resistance that brings people together for a common cause. Certainly, the poor and the underclass do not necessarily share a single political ideology. They too have an inherent desire for democratic rights, and are as such disposed to secular ideological influences which embrace social justice. Some raise doubt as to whether Mousavi is capable of playing such a unifying role. He may or may not. But the left-leaning intellectuals with a vision of social justice could extend their hands to their worse off compatriots by including their grievances in their program of action. After all, the Iranian middle-class has history on its side. Its demands, limited as they are, represent the will of a nation that looks forward to a society in which each and every section of its population will have an equal right. It is this dynamic aspect of the current movement that has led many unionized workers like the union of the autobus drivers in Tehran to join forces with the rest.

The political assertion of the middle-class has also had its impact on the nature of the elite politics. It is for the most part seen in the deepening rift in the clerical establishment, a rift that has undeniably confronted the Islamic state with a crisis of legitimacy. While the hard line clerics who wield the state power are on the path to lose their legitimacy by further allying themselves with the military and security forces, their reformist opponents seeks theirs in voicing the popular sentiment. To a lesser degree, this latter movement is also true of some pragmatic clerics from within the conservative order. Sensing that their wealth and power are at stake with the collapse of the regime, they are on an expedition to restore the legitimacy of the Islamic state by persistently trying to forge a compromise between the two factions. In their effort to preserve the status quo, the go-between pragmatists are equally prompted by a fear that they too might be the target of a systematic purge, once the hard liners take full control. Their self-motive notwithstanding, the course of action pursued by the conservative pragmatists has distinctly brought them closer to the reform camp. Rafsanjani’s campaign among the influential clerics of Qum soon after the election for the formation of a national reconciliation government, though unsuccessful, may serve as an indication that he cast in his lot with Mousavi. This would have meant a setback for the supreme leader, since the proposed government was to be entrusted with the task of overseeing a new election to be held within six months or a year. Likewise, in his recent visit to the families of those detained, while still urging for unity, Rafsanjani broke the silence by telling them of some sinister plots which have resulted in the current state of affairs.

The announcement on June 29 by the Guardian Council that dismissed the charges of vote riggings has not necessarily brought a closure to the crisis surrounding the election. Nor has it dissuaded Mousavi to advance his political campaign, despite mounting pressures from various centers of power to isolate him. In fact, in a 25-page document released on Saturday July 4, Mousavi reiterated his refusal to accept the election result as he detailed specific irregularities and abuses carried out both before and during the election. Its repercussion was serious enough to draw the attention of the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, the country’s most influential body of clergy who in a statement issued on the same day not only denounced the re-election of Ahmadinejad as illegitimate, but also went so far as to reprimand the supreme leader for failing to adequately investigate complaints of vote riggings. The statement also strongly condemned the government’s use of violence against peaceful protesters that resulted in the killings of 20 people and the arrest of countless others. Finally, it urged other clerics to speak out, and demanded the immediate release of all those detained in weeks past. Although, this body of independent clerics did not favor any one particular candidate, the message it delivered certainly placed it on the side of the reform movement.

In the meantime, the chorus of Allah-o Akbar (Good is Great) continues to be heard from the rooftops in the middle of nights throughout Tehran and several other cities. In retrospect, this was a powerful slogan that ushered in the downfall of the Shah’s regime. It now seems as if the chanting of Allah-o Akbar portends the demise of the very regime it once brought to power. It has a different sound and a different connotation; it is directed against Allah Himself.

This clearly is a moment of disenchantment in contemporary history of Iran which is far more significant than what happened in 1979. Then it was a revolution looking backward even as it rid the masses of a truly oppressive regime and gave them a sense of national dignity. In contrast, the one we are now experiencing is a forward looking movement with an altogether different sense of national dignity. Painful as it may seem it is the only path humanity has open to it if only it must do away with all forms of authoritarian ideologies that privilege one section of society over all the rest.

What seems very clear both then and now is the inability of the clergy to meaningfully engage with modernity in the specific context of Iran. The contradictions inherent in this engagement must surface sooner or later, and nowhere is this more vividly expressed than the kind of transformations that have occurred within the women population in Iranian society. The conditions of women throughout Islamic societies have often drawn severe criticism from feminist and women rights groups both in the West and the Islamic societies. One of the most spectacle changes that one witnesses in Iranian society over the past few decades is the increasing number of women who have availed of education. So much so that in today’s Iran there is in fact a female intelligentsia that has decided to stand up for its freedoms and rights. There is all likelihood that a right wing backlash would make such women its first targets. The killing of Neda Agha Soltan may well be seen as a symbolic manifestation of such a backlash, a trend that had actually begun with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. One could hope that there is enough courage and support from all quarters to help the women’s movement to resist the hidden patriarchal oppression of the conservatives often dressed up as religious diktats. After all, the next Iranian revolution belongs to women who alongside men will bring down the current authoritarian regime in Iran. It will be a color revolution no doubt, but one tainted with blood.

Finally, the crowd in the coming revolution will consist of the same social forces which were present during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909 and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Each one is drawn to the revolutionary movement for its own specific reason and each try to stamp its own brand on it. As usual, there will be opportunists, defectors, foreign collaborators mixed with the crown. But the crowd for the most part are millions men and women, old and young, who love the revolution, even if it does not love them back.

Toronto, July 2009

Mehrdad F. Samadzadeh

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