TitleThe loss of an election and the Iranian public sphere

The Republican Moment in Iran

9 Apr 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo

Thirty-one years after the revolts that did away with the Shah and his regime, there is an absence of an organizational factor to unite the diverse inspirations of Iranians. Whether the Islamic Republic evolves into more of a democracy or will crumble in revolution is anyone’s guess. For the vast majority of Iranians living inside the country, a people who are already disenchanted with one revolution and have suffered from a brutal eight years war with Iraq, peaceful evolution is a more favorable option. For the younger generation, the 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, the change has to come sooner or later, because the youngsters are looking for jobs, social freedom and opportunity.

So the practical problem Islamic Republic is facing, is that it has two poles: on the one hand, subjecting practical problems to so much religious dispute that solving the practical problem becomes secondary, and on the other hand, the danger of secularization of the Iranian society. Secularization is less apparent in domestic politics, however, where a strict Islamic system is still enforced, and no political parties, factions or candidates other than those supporting the system are allowed into the political arena. So, as long as the constitution remains in force the tension between the ‘republican’ and the ‘Islamic’ will continue. The crisis, therefore in Iran is basically over how political agency and political sphere are defined in the country. The republican gesture in Iran pays attention almost exclusively to the legitimacy of the public space in opposition to the political theology that is represented and expressed by the absolute sovereignty of the ‘faqih’.

It is true that the presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of legitimacy have always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of the political power struggle among contending forces, but the present crisis is over a deep-seated legal and political legitimacy and a moral capital that Ayatollah Khomeini had created with his charismatic authority at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and when circumstances permitted, he would mobilize it with remarkable effectiveness. Even at critical times, like the war against Iraq, this moral capital tipped the balance between hope and belief, or at least gave Ayatollah Khomeini the foothold he needed to build a stability and security for the Iranian regime.

The presidential election of 2009 was the only remaining political sphere where the Iranian nation could express its disillusionment

Today, the equation between charismatic moral capital and institutional moral capital is widely absent in the Iranian political system. The second life of the Islamic Republic from the 1990s onwards opened up a credibility gap in the political life of the Islamic regime and initiated a long-term mistrust of the political institutions and the principle of theocratic sovereignty. The crisis of legitimacy that is often said to have afflicted the Iranian political system since the 1990s was a crisis of which Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad have been, in important ways, as much symptoms as causes. Also implicated in this crisis were the entire government and its various agencies, and beyond them Iranian society and the Iranian citizens themselves, and the founding myth of the Iranian Revolution, as the popular sovereignty, to which they had held for so long. The crisis was, to put it rather grandly, a crisis of the Iranian Revolution and a sharp divide between popular sovereignty and authoritarian rule at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s political framework. Iran had emerged from its revolution in 1979 with its faith in its own goodness reaffirmed by the defeat of the Shah and the war against Saddam. But the heroic stamp and the revolutionary fervor steadily gave way to disillusionment and cynicism. Three spheres of dissent discourse have thrived in post-revolutionary Iran. They include women, youth and intellectuals. These three spheres of dissent have embodied each deliberate and conscious forms of resistance of the public sphere against absolute sovereignty of the Iranian political system. Iranian women have been struggling for more freedoms in both the public and private spheres. As for the Iranian intellectuals, they have been highlighting in the past 20 years democratic accountability and value-pluralism as foundations for empowering and enlarging Iranian civil society.

One needs to add the Iranian youth to the list of dissenting sociological actors. They belong to a new generation that did not experience the revolution of 1979 and wants another Iran. Most of them were not around or are too young to remember the revolution, but they made up one-third of eligible voters in the presidential election. Due to the hegemonic political discourse and forced islamization an alternative and rebellious youth culture saw the day which has been increasingly a part of larger global cultural movement. It goes without saying that the Iranian civil society has been quite vibrant and path-making despite the theocratic sovereignty in Iran. Therefore, there has been simultaneously a popular quest for the democratization of the state and society, and a violent conservative reaction and opposition to it.

As such, the presidential election of 2009 was the only remaining political sphere where the Iranian nation could express its disillusionment and dissatisfaction and test its republican virtue. At stake was the moral capital of the Iranian nation itself insofar as participation in the public sphere informed the nation’s sense of its own rightness and founded its morale. Moreover, it was a way for the Iranian citizens to reconfirm their status as natural actors in the Iranian public sphere and to ask politicians to hold up a truthful mirror to the nation. Iranian civil society lost an election. It also lost the public sphere, but Iranian citizens certainly learned that if they were going to build the house of Iran’s future, strong and secure, but also honest and beautiful, they would need to dig deep for the ethical foundations.

Tehran Review
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    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.