Another Iranian revolution? If only…
Will protesters in Tehran win real change - or be used as a stage army for conservative opposition leaders who only want another palace coup?
As huge protests rock Tehran and protesters are killed after the disputed presidential elections, many are drawing comparisons with the million-strong demonstrations that sparked the Iranian revolution, brought down the Shah of Iran and ushered in the Islamic Republic 30 years ago.
You can certainly argue that there are some similarities, notably in the old regime’s loss of authority, the rising anger of a sizeable section of Iranian society, and the unpredictability of the final outcome. However, the political weakness of the opposition movement, and the conservatism of opposition leaders who are themselves members of the Islamist elite, suggests that outcome will fall short of the political revolution required for far-reaching change in Iran.
As we try to grasp what is going on there, it is worth remembering that there are always two Irans. There is the actual one in the Middle East. And there is the Fantasy Iran that exists in the Western imagination. Thus it was that in 2002, while US officials were rebuilding diplomatic relations with the real Islamic Republic, President George W Bush imposed his Iranian fantasy by suddenly declaring in his State of the Union address that Iran was part of the ‘axis of evil’ threatening world peace, along with Iraq and North Korea. Bush’s intervention is widely seen as contributing to the election of the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
In recent weeks, Western media coverage has been dominated by other fantasy versions of Iran. There was an assumption in many quarters that the presidential elections would lead to a ‘Green revolution’ and the peaceful advent of a liberal democracy, an assumption apparently based largely on images of young Iranians dancing in the street while campaigning for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Many Western pundits seemed convinced that nobody could possibly vote for such an illiberal reactionary as Ahmadinejad, ignoring the fact that this election was taking place in Iran, not Islington in north London, and that even a poll published in the Washington Post three weeks before the election had predicted a big victory for the conservative president.
Then, once the official election results had been announced, many Western observers complained that Ahmadinejad had carried out his inevitable coup, that reformist leaders had been arrested, and that all opposition had ended. No sooner had the end of the contest been declared, however, than hundreds of thousands of Iranians caught us unawares by bursting on to the streets to protest against the results – the masses ahead of the political curve, as they so often are when revolution is afoot. As several protesters were shot dead, Western fatalists then decreed that the ‘fascist’ Islamic regime would ruthlessly crush its opponents. Almost immediately, the insecure authorities made a show of softening their stance by announcing an electoral review, then an actual recount.
These shifting versions of Fantasy Iran in the Western media and politics make it more difficult to assess the real events. With that in mind, what tentative conclusions might we suggest about how the comparisons with the 1979 revolution stand up?
It seems clear that the authority of the Islamic regime is unravelling, and the elite is turning in on itself. There are possible parallels here with the collapse of the old Iranian state 30 years ago, when the Shah’s American-backed regime disintegrated in the face of mass popular protests. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has been under pressure from those seeking a more liberal society almost from the moment it was established. Its authority has been badly corroded in more recent years with the continuing rise of the urban middle classes, whose frustrations at the lack of change led to street clashes in Tehran in 1999 and 2003.
The furore around the latest presidential elections has well-illustrated the regime’s growing insecurity and declining authority. It is impossible to know exactly what went on in the elections, but it seems clear that the authorities made heavy-handed, panicky attempts to hand Ahmadinejad an overwhelming victory, even claiming that he had won in the liberal urban areas and in his opponents’ home towns. The result was to create the widespread impression that the entire election was a fraud. The Islamic regime reacted by welcoming the president’s re-election – the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini hailed it as a ‘divine assessment’ – and threatening to put down all opposition. Within days it had dramatically backtracked as protests rose. Seasoned observers have suggested that this debacle has called into question the standing of the Supreme Leader – who is supposed to stand above politics as Iran’s spiritual guide – for the first time since the revolution.
It also seems clear that, as in 1979, many thousands of Iranians want change and are prepared to fight for it. The demonstrators shouting ‘Death to the Taliban in Kabul and Tehran!’ embody the gap between the Islamic regime and a generation of ‘Westernised’ urban Iranians. Yet the barriers to overthrowing the regime still appear considerable. Iran is a deeply polarised society – there remains a bulwark of support for the old order among the more conservative, older rural population, many of whom have been subsidised by Ahmadinejad and Co. And even among that large section of society demanding change, the question of what sort of change they want and who is to achieve it remains apparently unclear.
The problem of political leadership signals another, more unwelcome, comparison with 1979. Back then Iran had one of the most powerful and sophisticated working-class and left-wing movements in the developing world. There were impassioned and principled debates about what direction the revolution against the Shah should take. In the end, however, much of the left effectively handed the leadership of the mass movement over to Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic reactionaries. Their reward was to be wiped out by the Islamic Republic. There has been little sign of any independent political opposition within Iran since.
The result is that all of the nominal leaders of the opposition today are in fact insiders, internal dissidents from the Islamic regime. Presidential challenger Mousavi was prime minister under Khomeini’s leadership from 1981 to 1989, running the country through most of its bloody and destructive war with Iraq. One of his major backers, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a conservative pillar of the Islamist establishment who was twice president from 1989 to 1997. Meanwhile Mohsen Rezaie, another of the presidential candidates leading demands for an electoral re-run, was for 16 years the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, the regime’s stick to beat down opponents.
At most what these figures want is a conservative ‘coup’ of their own to replace Ahmadinejad at the top of the Islamic state. So limited are their ambitions that most of them seemed initially resigned to accepting the disputed election results. Yet since the mass protests broke out from below, Mousavi and his timid allies have effectively been invited to assume the leadership of the opposition movement. Their response has been to call for calm and to urge protesters to stay home and shout ‘Allah Akbar’ from their roofs, rather than take to the streets en masse.
As the weakening regime vacillates between lashing out and giving ground, the outcome is unpredictable. But the obvious danger is that the masses in Tehran – so far ahead of their supposed leaders in their demands for greater freedom – are reduced to a stage army, while the power struggle is contained within the corrupt and collapsing elite.
What of the West’s possible role in all this? The extent to which the old Western powers have been reduced to spectators illustrates the limits of their power in the Middle East today. Long gone are the days when US imperialism could control the region with the Shah’s Iran at its left hand and Israel at its right. Indeed, it is the decline of the West’s authority in the Middle East, accelerated by the disastrous invasion of Iraq, that has created the regional power vacuum which Iran has sought to fill through its sponsorship of movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Britain, the former local colonial power, is now irrelevant to what happens in Iran. But even President Obama has had to accept that the US cannot impose its will on Tehran.
In any case, those of us who support democratisation and political-social change in the Middle East should recognise that Western intervention has always been counterproductive. Of course we should express our solidarity with the demonstrators. But those who encourage the notion, for example, that international Twitter messaging can speed change in Iran are as deluded as those who claimed that Western-oriented bloggers in Burma could bring down the military regime a couple of years ago.
One thing for sure is that the people of Iran will have to decide their own destiny, and if they want real change, make their own revolution. An old Marxist like me can still recall the classic formulation of a potential revolutionary situation: one in which the ruling classes are no longer able to go on in the old way, and the ruled classes are no longer prepared to go on in the old way. There are signs that such a situation might be possible in Iran. But without political leadership that wants far-reaching change, the moment will pass all too soon.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.
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