Re-assessing the crisis in Iran
Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will
22 Apr 2010
■ Peyman Jafari
The current political crisis in Iran has inspired an outpour of opinions. Many of them have provided valuable analyses and new perspectives on the recent developments. However, others have produced what I believe are misconceptions.
These misconceptions have several causes. Most obvious are the barriers that the Iranian government has created for accessing the facts on the ground, for instance through increasing censorship and enforcing a climate of fear. The sheer complexity of the situation, with all its contradictions, has also muddied the waters. A cause of a totally different kind is the interference of political and moral judgments, in a way that has substituted analytical thinking for wishful thinking.
This is not an argument against partisanship. I am in full agreement with Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary Marxist who died in Mussolini’s prison, when he wrote: ‘Living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.’ It is a celebration of life that a great number of people across the globe have sided with the pro-democracy protests in Iran. However, taking sides should not make us blind for the reality; even if it is less rosy then we would like it to be. Once again, Gramsci had useful advice for us when he called for ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’
Whatever their causes, we should be on guard for misconceptions and try to deconstruct them. A recent and welcome attempt in this direction was undertaken by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of the Lund University in Sweden, which has resulted in a well-informed report. One of the misconceptions singled out by the authors is ‘the artificial separation of state and society,’ because ‘most studies draw far too stark of a distinction between state and society or “the regime and the people.”’ The authors draw our attention to the fact that the current crisis does not represent a straightforward clash between the state as a monolith and the society tout court. If it were the case, life would be much easier for those of us who want to see the overthrow of the Islamic Republic by a pro-democracy movement from below. Alas, reality is more complicated, as the report suggests, because of the plurality in both the state and the society and the various channels through which they constantly interact. For instance, the report argues that ‘the divisions and political conflict we see in Iran, run through both the state and society (the clergy, women’s groups, business community, etc…) and opposition to the regime or individual politicians run the spectrum from those who are deeply opposed to the core principles of the regime to those that are opposed to particular currents in the regime with various “shades of green” in between.’
A simplistic view about the separation of state and society is at the root of another misconception, one which the report does not make explicit – the idea that a revolutionary situation emerged after the presidential election. A milder version of this misconception was the idea that it would be relatively easy to topple the autocratic power structures of the Islamic Republic. Some will of course argue, correctly to the a certain point, that those in power managed to survive by unleashing repression on the millions that flooded the streets of Tehran and some other major cities. The amount of repression that a regime can mobilize against its opposition is of course very important, but it cannot explain why it can manage to do so at a certain time and not at another time.
Take for instance the trajectory of the regime of the Shah and that of the Islamic Republic when they were confronted by mass movements in respectively 1978 and 2009. The former crumbled in the face of protests that rapidly spread to all sections of society, while the Islamic Republic, though shaken to its fundaments, has managed to hold on to power. Intimidation, arrests and repression are one part of the story, but it is also true that the state under the Pahlavi’s became increasingly uprooted from the rest of society until it was hovering above it.
It is a misconception that a revolutionary situation emerged after the presidential election
In contrast, the Islamic Republic initially developed much stronger roots in society after the 1979 revolution. Populist economic policies, the Islamist ideology, the charisma of Khomeini and the popular mobilization during the Iran-Iraq war created a strong social base for the state. That social base has eroded since the late 1980’s, yet not totally disappeared (see here for a detailed analysis). Hence the Islamic Republic’s ability to mobilize coercive forces more effectively than the Pahlavi state and to contain the protest movement, at least for the moment.
There are still religious and ideological affinities and socio-economic interests that connect sections of the population to the Islamic Republic. These include those who have rallied around Ahmadinejad and Khamenei or showed passive support for them, and some of those who have supported or participated in the protests against the government without aiming to overthrow the Islamic Republic. It would be a mistake to reduce the latter group to opposition figures as Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami and Rafsanjani, and their staunch supporters. There seems to be a significant part of the protest movement that may not share the ideology and political program of those figures, but ascribes to the logic of reform rather than revolution – for the time being at least.
Two challenges follow from this observation for those who aspire change beyond the Islamic Republic, one analytical and the other strategic. First, it is imperative to seriously analyze the nature and extent of its remaining social base and the mechanisms of its reproduction. Second, to develop a strategy that further erodes the social base of the state, that is aimed at winning wider support for the pro-democracy movement, and that creates unity of action with those who want mere reforms. To bring back Gramsci one final time, the pro-democracy movement needs to combine the ‘war of maneuver’ characterized by rapid attacks with ‘the war of position’, in which the movement digs itself deeper into society, fortifies its positions and strengthens its counter-power.
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