TitleAn interview with Kaveh Ehsani

Iran: Towards the end of politics

15 Jun 2011

■ Ehsan Abedi
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Dr. Kaveh Ehsani’s words can be considered as a warning about the future of Iran: neither hopeful nor bright in the absence of politics. The expression Dr. Ehsani (a professor of international studies at DePaul University) uses in this regard is “the political glue”; the element that holds parts of society together. If it loses its property, the society will fall apart, as it did in 1990s Algeria. He considers the government’s “obstinacy”, “inflexibility”, and “brute violence” as the elements that may signal the end of politics and of the possibility of negotiation; the facts that smooth the road for radical forces. Instead, Ehsani invites people who are seeking democracy to follow moderation in their acts.

This interview tries to offer an analysis on after-election events in Iran.

Let’s review the events from the first step. Two years ago, almost on the same date, Iran witnessed the largest street protests since the revolution. How could Mousavi, Karroubi and totally the reformists lead people to come to the streets?

Two years ago people came out, first to vote and then to protest, because they wanted change through the choices offered by the political system during the elections. It was not only the vote itself that mattered, but the whole electoral process that preceded the actual vote and started a lot of debate throughout society, in the media and even on television, about what kind of politics, freedoms, justice and political representatives that people want. Also, the sense of common solidarity energized especially the young and inexperienced people, who experienced a sense of collective power and dignity they had not experienced before.
In Iran since the revolution we have had a lot of accumulated experience about electoral politics. The Islamic Republic has never been a democracy, but it has always been, more or less, a republican system: on the one hand we have a small political elite who monopolize power, and rarely allow anyone else to join in. The political elite of Iran all know each other through the complicated networks of madressehs, Khomeinist political affiliations, military backgrounds, and even a lot of convoluted and semi hidden intermarriages. Many prominent political personalities are married to somebody else’s daughter or son, even if they come from very different political camps! But this elite has always been ideologically divided. To keep its hold on power it relies on unity. Khomeini’s constant slogan was ‘unity!’ (vahdat-e kalameh). This divided political elite distribute power among them, and maintain public support and political legitimacy by going to the population for votes. In that sense the Islamic Republic has always been a republican system, where the popular vote distributes political power among competing factions of the ruling elite. But it is not a democratic system, because the process is not open to all citizens, but only to those handpicked by the regime. Khatami tried to change that, at least at the local level, by the local council elections in 1999, when literally everyone could stand for elections, and win!
The rule of this game was, at least until two years ago, that if a faction lost in the elections, they would stand aside and wait for the next round. In that sense, by cheating in the elections, Khamenei & Ahmadinejad violated the rules of the system’s own game, which had been in place since 1979. This explains the unprecedented outrage which brought millions out in the streets and on the rooftops.

By cheating in the elections, Khamenei & Ahmadinejad violated the rules of the system’s own game

So, the Iranian population has had a long accumulated experience of the limits as well as the possibilities of electoral politics. I don’t think most Iranians have any illusions that elections by themselves will magically improve their lives. At the same time, they have learned that elections always do make a difference, at least in registering their voices. We have to remember, in modern complex societies, loyalty to the system comes through voice. In 2003 disgusted Tehranis boycotted local elections for the city council. The 11% of Tehranis who voted elected Abadgaran to the council, who in turn chose Ahamdinejad as the mayor. This prepared his path to the presidency in 2005, when a lot of people either abstained from voting or voted against Rafsanjani. Elections have consequences. We have learned that. In a complex society, with a closed system, no candidate is ideal. But the consequences of different choices are real. That is why people who boycotted elections two years ago, or many of the 30% of the electorate who had never voted since the revolution, came out to vote this time. I think the process was also very different this time. Mousavi had to interact with his public, and to adapt to the demands of a politically maturing civil society. For example, he had to listen to a coalition of 70 feminist and women’s groups, from across the ideological spectrum of religious/secular activists, who wanted to know what he was willing to do for women’s legal equality if they voted for him. In that sense, Mousavi and Karoubi had to become political representatives of their supporters, instead of appointed leaders. This give and take, which is the starting point of democratic politics, was the reason why the population was outraged at the electoral fraud of 2 years ago and came out in protest against the stolen elections.

Do you suppose that it was possible for the Green Movement to win during those days or not? How could it win on that time essentially?

It does not seem likely! The conservatives had a plan to steal the elections and use force if necessary. They were organized and had plans. The Greens did not. I think if there had been more planning and organizing, especially to spread the protests out of the streets and into workplaces – factories, offices, bazaars, – there would have been a good chance to make the reactionaries accept the result of people’s vote, or at least to allow an open recount of the vote. But the Green Movement is NOT a ‘movement’ in the strict sense of the term. Mousavi correctly called it a ‘wave’, and that’s what it really is. Social movements have a center, they have organizations, they strive to become institutionalized, even if they are clandestine and illegal. Trade unions, political parties, anti war movements, civil rights and feminist movements are good examples. The Greens never became ‘a movement’ in that sense, so it is difficult to imagine how they could have won in a sustained state of repression. This is a lesson we need to learn. Without organized and unified coalitions, leadership, and a clearly articulated common cause it is impossible to win against repressive forces.
I think autocrats can be overthrown by popular explosions of anger, but there is no guarantee that the aftermath will be better! The moment blind anger and violence become the means for political change anything can, and will happen. For the Greens to have created political coalitions to resist repression by taking the fight out of the streets and into workplaces they needed to have included workers and working people into their agenda. But the neoliberal policies since the end of Iran-Iraq war had targeted the working population. In that sense the working people – factory workers, teachers, farmers, nurses, office workers, etc. may have felt sympathy for the Greens, but only as individuals. However they had neither the ability, nor a reason to risk their own survival by organizing collectively in their workplace. This was the failure of the Greens, and I would say the reformers, not to have included the demands of the working people for social justice, into their agenda. What we saw was that street protests will not succeed by themselves in the absence of organized resistance, which can shift the place of resistance, out of the streets and into the workplaces.

This was the failure of the Greens, and I would say the reformers, not to have included the demands of the working people for social justice

The noticeable point is how the government has insisted obstinately on its word and decision that caused it not to take a step backward during two years. Until when can the government continue to do this? What consequences has the obstinacy caused for them?

None of us can predict how far things can go. The capacity for violence by the regime is immense, and it has not even started to tap into it! Look at Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, even Egypt; more people have been massacred in these Arab countries than Iran. By comparison the scale of repression in Iran has been more limited! Why is that? My feeling is that in Iran if violent repression, especially in large cities, goes beyond a certain point the main body of security forces may not hold together. But that is not necessarily better for the future of democracy. You can end up with smaller independent pockets of truly fascistic forces that will no longer be restrained by anything like loyalty to Vali-ye Faqih. Iran can very easily become a nightmare of violence and explosive anger, like Algeria in the 1990’s or Afghanistan. These are different societies, but the fearful violence there came because the political glue that was holding these societies together fell apart.
It is ironic that institutions like the Vali-ye Faqih, the Sepah, and Basij may be the main obstacles to democratic popular will, but at the same time they are like a glue that hold together a true nest of stinging bees. The fact that these ruling institutions no longer rely on negotiation or compromise with public opinion but only on brute force is a very dangerous sign. Obstinacy, inflexibility, and resorting to brute violence may signal the end of politics and of the possibility of negotiation. Democracy can only proceed through a gradual mobilization of society and the recognition and acknowledgment by all political players of the limits of their power. On the other hand, when brute violence rules anything can happen. We may think Russia, Algeria, Afghanistan in the 1990’s as very different from today’s Iran, but what is common to these disastrous cases is that their states failed to maintain a minimal degree of legitimacy by acting as a glue that holds society together. The moment you have a failed state only those who are able and willing to resort to violence will remain in the political arena: primarily young and angry men, willing to use the gun against anyone who disagrees with them, and people who see victory as the elimination of their rivals. In this kind of atmosphere women, older people, artists, intellectuals, ordinary people, i.e. the vast majority of the population, have no role to play in shaping the future, except as cannon fodder.

Studying the statements and words issued by the two Green Movement leaders, Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi, one can find that they have never decided to pass the system and change the structures fundamentally; it had been so at least before they were arrested. What possibilities does this reformist act cause them to gain and also to lose?

I think I partly answered this question. There are plenty of people who call for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, as if somehow, magically, this system will be replaced by a better alternative. This is what most of us Iranians believed in 1978 when we overthrew the monarchy! Experience showed that the revolutionary overthrow of a bad system does not necessarily mean you get something better. You can get war, chaos, ethnic violence and separatism, economic chaos and impoverishment of masses, etc. Democracy is build by organizing society from bottom up, so that even if you have an authoritarian state it feels powerless against an empowered society. This takes hard work and organizing, but the alternatives are not better.

You seem to be interested in class analysis of the Green Movement and after election events. Is such an analysis that powerful that it can explain such a movement comprised of different classes such as university students, employees, merchants, intellectuals, etc.?

To think otherwise would be naïve! Of course millions voted and then protested as individuals against the elections, but the deeper political discontent of this society are not the problems of individuals only, they are collective problems: those of ethnic and religious minorities, of women treated as second class citizens, of citizens wanting political liberties in a rigid ideological system, but also and especially of poverty, economic insecurity, and social justice. Class issues are not the only factor of discontent in Iran, but to not recognize that they are a vitally important element motivating political participation would be a mistake.

And the last question; how is the Green Movement going on in the absence of its two main leaders?

The strength of the Green movement comes from its limited common denominators: that the elections were stolen, that all political prisoners should be freed, that all those who broke the existing laws should be punished. These are the demands that hold us together and give coherence to the movement, whether its leaders are free or imprisoned. The moment we move beyond these common demands, and start claiming larger demands that have not been debated democratically, that most of us disagree over or are unclear about, this unified but limited movement can fall apart. We must not think the Green movement is the solution to Iran’s problems, it is just one step in a long process. We must first accept to hold together with a common platform we can all agree upon, whether leaders like Mousavi and Karroubi are there or not. Let us win this first victory, and then we can debate and propose all sorts of more radical solutions for the future of Iran.

Tehran Review
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  1. sohrab says:

    این یکی از مصاحبه‌های چشم‌گشا و ارزشمند تهران‌ریویو است. چند نکته در آن به خصوص تازه و قابل توجه است.

    اشاره آقای احسانی به «جمهوریت» نظام ِ پس از انقلاب، که حتی در نبود «مردم‌سالاری» توانست در خودش میزانی از تنوع و تکثر را متبلور کند. این تنوع در نظرات نخبگان، فرمانروایان و دست‌اندرکاران تا دو سال پیش باعث شد که جمهوری اسلامی از قدرت بالایی در سطح اجتماعی برخوردار باشد.

    در پایان نیز آقای احسانی انسجام جنبش (یا به زعم ایشان «موج») سبز را مدیون خواسته‌های حداقلی، که بر سر آن به نوعی توافق دموکراتیک وجود دارد (آزادی زندانیان سیاسی، گشایش مطبوعات دگراندیش، احترام به قانون موجود)، دانست. به عبارت دیگر، او گروه‌های مختلف سیاسی را از پیگیری خواسته‌های فزون‌تر در این مرجله باز می‌دارد.

    برای من هنوز چند سئوال در ارتباط با این نوشته وجود دارد. در جایی مصاحبه‌شونده ناتوانی موج سبز را در درگیر کردن گروه‌های کارگری و صنفی حیاتی می‌داند و آن را به سیاست‌ها و جهان‌بینی نولیبرالی یا اقتصادآزاد نخبگان (از هر طیف) مربوط می‌داند. او معتقد است که عدم برنامه‌ریزی و سازمان‌دهی گروه‌های مخالف در جریان تظاهرات پس از انتخابات باعث شد که اعتراض‌ها از سطح خیابان به محیط‌های کاری نرود و بدین ترتیب در انزوا به سر برد.

    با توجه به روند جهانی که به نوعی اقتصاد آزاد و نولیبرال را در سی‌سال گذشته به الگوی ایده‌آل حکمرانی تبدیل کرده است، و با توجه به اینکه همه حکومت‌ها در این سه دهه تلاش کرده‌اند اتحادیه‌های رسمی و یا هر گونه همگرایی جهت‌دار را منحل کنند، چگونه از یک جنبش و رهبران‌اش، که حتی امکان تشکیل حزب هم برای خودشان نداشتند (به جز اعتماد ملی، که آن هم صوری بود و زمان نیاز داشت که برای خودش چهارچوب حزبی راه بیاندازد)، می‌توان انتظار داشت که جور دیگری فکر کنند و آن را به عمل‌شان نزدیک کنند.

    می‌توان گفت که در سرتاسر جهان در حال حاضر حکومت‌ها از اینکه توانسته‌اند همگرایی‌ها و خواسته‌های جمعی را در نطفه خفه کنند راضی هستند. این روش حکمرانی بدون مخالف قدر است.

    این نکته که اتحادیه‌ها و تشکل‌های رسمی برای پیشبرد خواسته‌های جمعی ضروری است را آقای مالجو هم در مصاحبه خود عنوان کردند و برای من روشن نیست که روش‌های رسیدن به این همگرایی‌ها در محیط سیاسی‌اجتماعی‌ای که در آن به سر می‌بریم چگونه خواهد بود.

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