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Movement Shock and Regime Awe: A Post-Khamenei Iran?


If you are enraged by the weekend broadcasting of confessions by prominent Iranian protest leaders who have endured weeks in solitary confinement without access to lawyers or their families in what everyone that does not matter (to those in power) denounces as "show trials," then you must not have been paying close attention to the trial itself.

 
So relax and continue reading.
 
"We have had no problems. We had very polite, understanding, and conscientious interrogators. We discussed very serious subjects and dialogues. Our normal lives were made of good routines. We did not have any special concerns from a personal perspective inside the prison." These were the words uttered by arguably the highest ranking politician on "trial," namely Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president to the former president Mr. Khatami and a leading figure in the Karroubi campaign, who had told his family on Wednesday that they [the security agents] had put him on medication that “relieves him of all pressures and relaxes him.”
 
The next day more news of happy prisoners appeared.Asked about the Majlis inspection of Evin Prison, Nekounam, Deputy Head of the Majlis Article 90 Commission, said: “Prisoners told the committee that they were happy with their conditions in prison and that they had no complaints.” He also said he favors putting Mousavi on trial too.
 
But then came the shocker. Mr. Abtahi confessed the following: "We have grown to like the prison confines so much so that we now like to think of them as dormitories where we prefer to reside for the remainder of our lives. In fact many of us have indicated our wish to the prison authorities and wish to communicate this to our anxious family members and loved ones as well but have been so far prevented from contacting them for this reason by the prison authorities. That is our only complaint against the authorities." Abtahi further said: "We suggest the same pressure-relieving and relaxing medication, given to me by the kind security agents, be made available free of charge to all the protest leaders and green commanders who are still living outside the prison residential areas against their will." Then he concluded his confessions with these thoughts: "Just as our popular president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, recently likened his relationship to our esteemed Supreme Leader Khamenei as that of ‘a son to a father,’ we liken our relationship to our detention centers as that of students to institutions of higher learning where great wisdom is acquired when properly attended to."
 
Well, forgive me for misleading you, the reader: the last paragraph contains only fiction. The visibly broken Mr. Abtahi never uttered these words during the surreal confessions last Saturday. In my imagination I was waiting for a similar sober announcement at the end of the “court” proceedings indicating, well, the fictitiousness of the “real” confessions of Abtahi (and others). But nothing came as I stood feeling beside myself.
 
Collecting my thoughts, my mind remembered the dictum: “All that is solid melts into air.” It seemed to describe well the physically degenerated facial features of the former vice president of the Islamic Republic. But that is not all it described. Soon my thoughts drifted elsewhere.
 
I remembered the chants and the counter-chants of those gathered not so long ago to hear the historic Friday Prayer sermon delivered by Iran’s second most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, on July 17. “The blood in our veins is a gift to our Leader,” shouted the pro-Khamenei crowd. “The blood in our veins is a gift to the nation,” responded the pro-reform crowd also in attendance. The Leader versus the nation—important segments of it, at any rate: yes, that is the political form the struggle is beginning to assume.
 
The first thing that we must note, then, is how best not to approach the topic. The conventional polarities (and the usual suspect Orientalist categories) modern/traditional, secular/theocratic, anti-regime/pro-regime, rebellious/faithful, or even neoliberal/redistributive authoritarian, do not capture the emerging historical moment well. The Leader/People duality, on the other hand, standing for a new fissure in the political geography of Iran, does.
 
It is a shorthand for a critical drift between those pious and secular, young and old, rich and poor, man and woman, who have joined hands to insist on the sovereign role (and rights) of a people in search of a politics of conciliation, and those insisting on treading firmly on the path of politics as an art of imposition. The former consists of a massive social movement joined by the theorepublican insiders demanding state electoral accountability, the release of all political prisoners, prosecution of human rights violators, greater social and political freedoms, better management of the economy and a better relation with the world.
 
It is remarkable how rapidly the Leader has been transfigured from a semi-divine political subject, hovering above the petty squabbles below, to a target of protest and an obstacle standing in the way of the aspirations of significant sectors of the population. Only a short while back, he represented the most important political fundamental of the Islamic Republic. But now the unalterable fundamental has been altered. And with it the Iran of June 18 (the last day before the fateful sermon of the Leader to the nation), as a particular theopolitical phenomenon, has passed from view.
 
The beginning act, or, if you will, the first cause, speaking politically, of the effective disintegration of the Leader-nation dyad occurred on June 19 when the Leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivered his most fateful Friday Prayer sermon to the nation—exactly a week after the disputed presidential election. Prior to this date opposition to the Leader was unheard of as a political fact inside of Iran. The historic sermon changed everything. It is rather like the political 9/11 of Iran in that June 20 now marks the beginning of a new chapter in Iran’s history. There would be no return to the Iran of June 18, ever.
 
 
On June 19, Leader Khamenei made two critical errors. The first was one of political positionality. Instead of remaining above the fray of internal politics and factional disputes and acting as an arbiter, as the late revolutionary patriarch ayatollah Khomeini had often done, and as the office he occupies requires, he sided with the incumbent president Ahmadinejad in the dispute over the electoral process and its result. Consequently he is now seen as, and indeed is, positioning himself actively alongside other political players and alliances on the spectrum of Iranian politics; an unseemly condition that has surely diminished the stature of the Leader regardless of how events may unfold.
 
Khamenei’s second error was fateful. Tragically, he drew a line in the sand ordering public protests to cease. Any future protest, he claimed, would be viewed as instigated by foreign powers and rioters. And he warned of a swift and forceful crackdown. This was an astonishingly unwise decision since it predictably forced many to publicly challenge him for the first time in the streets and as it happened elsewhere, including from the pulpit of the historic 17 July Friday Prayer delivered by the second most powerful cleric Rafsanjani, indicating a deepening rift at the top.
 
The tortured confessions by the Green protest leaders constitute another error in judgment as they would predictably further the visible anger of the public, cause greater dissension within the ruling groups and individuals, and widen the gap between the state and society.
 
There are real concerns that still harsher treatments may be awaiting even more prominent reformists and certainly ordinary protesters too. To give but one illustration, the editors of a pro-government daily, Resalat, wrote on 4 August that the reformists who took office in 1997 had declared their intention to transform the enemies of the state into oppositionists first, critics next and allies after that. Today, however, it is THEY, the editors declared, that have changed from critics into “enemies of the state” or the “system.” The editorial went on to recommend that the state speak to THEM in the "language of law," the prime example of which, it suggested, was the treatment the prominent reformists-turned-prisoners have been receiving in the sureal Tehran trials this week. That is what speaking the “language of Law” means.
 
Whether the tortured confessions will turn out to be a prelude to as yet more hideous episodes to come— further adding to the annals of an already harrowing new century—we can remain reasonably certain of three propositions: (1) Khamenei’s political hegemony is over: this is the most salient consequence of Khamenei’s Friday Prayer sermon of June 19, the unprecedented and widespread public challenge to his authority, and the subsequent degeneration of the state-society dyad: No return is possible; (2) the civil protest Movement in Iran will not atrophy; the start of the academic year and the professional football League will supply it with plenty of public arenas to register its continuing presence; (3) a historical truth concerning the human experience is that the human spirit of dignity, justice and empathy is resilient and will prevail over the last of the retail horror shows wherever and whenever it may occur.

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