TitleAn interview with Arang Keshavarzian

The Green Movement, Challenges and Necessities

19 Apr 2011

■ Ehsan Abedi
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Through this interview, Arang Keshavarzian discusses the challenges in front of Iran’s Green Movement and the necessities for making it succeed. He believes that there will be other opportunities for those struggling to make Iran more politically and socially democratic; the opportunities that can be used only through self-criticism and looking back at the past.

Keshavarzian is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University and former editor of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). He is the author of Bazaar and State in Iran: the Politics of the Tehran Marketplace (2007) in which he compared the economics and politics of the marketplace under the Pahlavis and under the Islamic Republic regime. Keshavarzian has also published articles on clergy-state relations and authoritarian survival in Iran.

Which step has the Green Movement reached? What difficulties can the fact – that Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi have been arrested or under house arrest – cause for the opposition and even the government?

The imprisonment of Mousavi and Karoubi is obviously of symbolic importance and illustrates the confidence of the Ahmadinejad government and regime at this moment. It would be interesting to know what exact calculations and tactical discussions have been taking place among the decision makers since the 2009 elections. Why did they not arrest them earlier? Why did they arrest them now? Yet, I don’t believe that the Green Movement can be ended by arresting these people, who themselves have shied away from being “leaders.” By the Green Movement, I mean both those who self-identify as its members and those who are sympathetic to aspects of its demand for transforming the regime in ways that make it more transparent and accountable.

However, from my vantage point, the Green Movement faced profound challenges and shortcomings for many months before these recent events. The rallies and protests in the summer of 2009 were important events that demonstrated a new political language or “discourse” around individual rights, procedural transparency, equality before the law, and responsibilities of rulers to ensure accountability and participation of citizens. These conceptions of politics and relations between the governed and the governors obviously emerged out of a longer tradition that goes back to the Mashruteh, but it really was a crystallization of the agenda of the reformist movement of the 1990s (1370s) and larger socioeconomic changes of the last three decades.

While the large rallies exhibited enormous bravery, they also had limits

Yet, while the large rallies and other forms of civil disobedience exhibited enormous bravery and a will to express unity despite diversity, it also had limits. By the autumn of 2009, the street, university campus, and blogosphere were no longer safe and effective places for mobilizing against the state. This had at least two implications. First, in order to generate new spheres for political action, the Green Movement, which has been restricted to university activists, organizations tied to reformist parties and civil society organizations, and women’s groups, needed to establish alliances with pre-existing movements and social groups. The obvious one is the labor movement, but even some factions among the rural population, merchants, and state employees could have been identified. Of course the interaction between the Greens and these other groups would have required negotiation and compromise and would have transformed the nature of the movement and its demands. Second, the increasingly harsh clampdown was a clear indication that the regime was willing and able to unify around Ahmadinejad and would not tolerate public dissent even by former regime elites.

In the beginning days of last year, Iranian people hoped and believed that some changes would happen in 1389. Now, 89 has passed and no changes have happened yet. What do you think the reason is?

As I mentioned above, I feel there was a lot of wishful thinking that colored analysis of the severe limits of the movement. The Green Movement was both repressed by an institutionally robust state and held back by an opposition that spoke on behalf of a broad spectrum but was unable or unwilling to actually engage with more diverse constituencies. 1389 was a time when many analysts and pundits could have taken time for reflection, self-criticism, and re-formulation of the movement. This is true for those inside of Iran; but I hesitate to emphasize this because these people are living and working in highly restricted conditions. Thus, I think the onus for self-criticism is mostly for those outside of the country who spent much of the fall and winter of 1388 (especially around Ashura) presenting a triumphalist message that the Greens were going to out-maneuver the state. Not only did these pundits over-estimate the organizational breadth and coherence of the Green Movement, but they downplayed the agency of the regime. Many analysts outside of Iran seemed to underestimate the ability of the rulers in the Islamic Republic to use various political, economic, and social welfare intuitions to mobilize resources and support, distribute patronage, and offer avenues to reproduce regime elites. For instance, there seemed to be an implicit assumption that the Islamic Republic needed Hashemi-Rafsanjani more than he needed his levers of powers. Also, almost all of the analysis of the subsidy reforms predicted that this economic restructuring would result in economic crisis and political upheaval. I have to admit that I too thought the subsidy reforms that began last year were politically very risky and could bring a wider spectrum of Iranians involved in the protests. It is unclear what will happen in the coming months, but it is noteworthy that the subsidy reforms have proceeded extremely smoothly—there have been almost no riots or major immediate economic crises. However, Ahmadinjead’s administration has demonstrated that it is able to marshal the banking system as well as the radio and TV to implement these reforms that may have negative consequences for domestic productivity and equality in the long-run, but in the short term have been presented as a national necessity and empowering for “the consumer.” This reality should call on people and strategists to acknowledge the weakness of their predictions and begin to understand the institutional capacities of the regime. It is only after self-critique that new and more effective strategies can be formulated.

The Arab Spring will probably have consequences for politics in Iran, but it is too soon and difficult to know what the consequences will be

An analysis to forecast the fate of Iran democratic movement has been created considering the revolutions and uprisings that have covered all the Middle East nowadays. Can the fate of dictator governments of the region affect an isolated government such as Islamic Republic of Iran?

The Arab Spring will probably have consequences for politics in Iran, but it is too soon and difficult to know what the consequences will be. The protests in the region are evolving and highly unpredictable. On the one hand, those who would like to reform and change the Islamic Republic may learn from their counterparts in the region. For instance, it is clear that the cooperation and coordination between labor activists and youth groups in Tunisia and Egypt were critical in challenging the leadership of the regimes. The international alignments in the Iran case are quite different and work against rather than in favor of a peaceful transformation. On the other hand, the regime has been wary that these uprisings may prove inspirational to Iranians, but also threaten allies such as Syria and open the door to US intervention as in the case of Libya. Having said that, I suspect that the Islamic Republic’s position in the regional order will not be hurt by a change in the leadership in Egypt or the added pressure on Saudi Arabia by events in Bahrain and Yemen. In fact, it is Israel and the US who will have more difficulty adjusting to the emerging regional order.

Some consider Iran’s economy to be the Achilles’ heel of its state and believe that the state or even the government would finally fall through the economical problems; the same thing that happened to the Soviet Union. Do you consider economy to be a proper motive for change in Iran?

The economy has been the Achilles’ heel of this regime for over three decades, no? When we look at the rebellions in the Arab World in the last few months, it is striking that two of the economies that had the steadiest growth rates and allegedly most dynamic economies in the region were Tunisia and Egypt. What this tells me is that what is important is how economic grievances, about unemployment or inflation or inequality, are translated into political demands against the political establishment. There is enormous potential for this in the Iranian case, but I have not seen this take place. For instance, the plight of industrial workers is intimately tied to the political decision to privatize firms and change the legal status of workers to contract workers with little access to job protection or social welfare. These demands should resonate with the larger concerns of the Green Movement because they are based on notions of equality and social as well as civil rights. Simultaneously, we have seen merchants and shopkeepers protesting Ahmadinejad’s taxation policies and attempts to open up the accounting books of the commercial sector. The merchants’ concerns stemmed from their lack of trust of state tax collectors and can be framed around the issue of the absence of transparency in state’s own budget and accounting. Iran’s rich history of dissent has many examples of economic grievances being interpreted and presented as political challenges to the state; just think of the Mashruteh, the oil nationalization movement, or the numerous workers actions and bazaar closures in 1357.

About two years have passed since the Green Movement was born. Now, what do you think its achievements are?

I think the Green Movement has had a number of achievements and I hope my critical tone does not imply that I think that the struggles in Iran are in vain and that it was doomed from the outset. The movement has deepened the language of rights, notions of diversity in unity, the centrality of the plight of women and how it has ramifications for all of society, and the belief that political agency belongs to all and power must not be exercised by only a few. Meanwhile, while the regime has been able to present a unified block against the Greens, it is clear that even among the so-called conservatives, there are rivalries and ideological disputes that need to be processed sooner rather than later. The parliamentary elections thus will reveal conflicts that the regime has tried to keep under wraps. Finally, key groups in producing the state’s hegemony – politicians, journalists, filmmakers, and professors have defected since 2009. The regime will have to invest in reproducing new agents that it will never be able to fully control. Thus, there will be other opportunities for those struggling to make Iran more politically and socially democratic. When these opportunities arise, the inspirational, foolhardy, and tragic experiences of the Green movement should not be forgotten.

Tehran Review
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  1. Dr. Malek Towghi (Baluch says:

    The Green Movement led by Mousavi and Karroubi is the last hope for keeping Iran intact, for a meaningful intra-national and international reconciliation, and for leading Iran to enlightenment and prosperity.x

    Malek Towghi, Ph.D., Liaison Baluch Human Rights International

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