Political power is never good or bad, never really just or unjust; political power is arbitrary, discriminatory, and most of the time violent. In Iran, the ongoing demonstrations sparked by the election results in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicate that such power can never really be monopolized by the state. Iran’s civil society is fighting; it is giving blood for a just cause. It is displaying its power, the power of the people. Today, Iran must be considered one of the most vibrant democracies in the world because it is the people who are speaking. The role of the supporters of the status quo has been reduced to reaction, which is why they are lashing out violently at those who question their legitimacy.
In all of this, the current civil unrest in Iran is historic, not only because it has already elicited compromises by the state, but also because it provides yet more evidence of the way societies can empower themselves against all odds. These brave men and women on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and other cities are moved by the same utopia that inspired their fathers and mothers three decades ago: the utopia of justice. They believe that change is possible, that protest is not futile. Confronting the arrogance of the establishment has been one of the main ideological planks of the Islamic revolution in 1979. It is now coming back to haunt those who have invented such slogans without necessarily adhering to them in the first place.
And yet the current situation in Iran is profoundly different from the situation in 1978 and 1979. First, the Islamic Republic has proven to be rather responsive to societal demands and rather flexible ideologically. I don’t mean to argue that the Iranian state is entirely reflective of the will of the people. I am saying that is it is not a totalitarian monolith that is pitted against a politically unified society. The fissures of Iranian politics run through all levers of power in the country, which is why the whole situation appears scattered to us. Whereas in 1979 the bad guy (the Shah) was easily identifiable to all revolutionaries, in today’s Iran such immediate identification is not entirely possible. Who is the villain in the unfolding drama?
Ahmadinejad? Those who demonstrated in support of him would beg to differ. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? I would argue that he commands even stronger loyalties within the country and beyond. The Revolutionary Guard or the Basij? Mohsen Rezai, one of the presidential candidates and an opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is contesting the election results, used to be the head of the former institution.
The picture becomes even more complicated when we take into consideration that some institutions of the state such as the parliament — via its speaker, Ali Larijani — have called for a thorough investigation of the violence perpetrated by members of the Basij and the police forces in a raid of student dormitories of Tehran University earlier this week. “What does it mean that in the middle of the night students are attacked in their dormitory?” Larijani asked. The fact that he said that “the interior ministry . . . should answer for it” and that he stated that the “parliament is seriously following the issue” indicate that the good-vs-bad verdict in today’s Iran is more blurred than in 1979.
There is a second major difference to 1979. Today, the opposition to Ahmadinejad is fighting the establishment with the establishment. Mir Hossein Mousavi himself was the prime minister of Iran during the first decade of the revolution, during a period when the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was president. Mohammad Khatami, one of the main supporters of Mousavi, was president between 1997 and 2005. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, another political ally, is the head of the Assembly of Experts and another former president. They are the engineers of the Islamic revolution and would never devour their project. When some commentators say that what we are witnessing is a revolution they are at best naive and at worst following their own destructive agenda. The dispute is about the future path of the Islamic Republic and the meaning of the revolution — not about overthrowing the whole system. It is a game of politics and the people who are putting their lives at risk seem to be aware of that. They are aware, in other words, that they are the most important force in the hands of those who want to gain or retain power.
Thus far the Iranian establishment has shown itself to be cunningly adaptable to crisis situations. Those who have staged a revolution know how to sustain themselves. And this is exactly what is happening in Iran. The state is rescuing its political power through a mixture of incentives and pressure, compromise and detention, due process and systematic violence. Moreover, when push comes to shove, the oppositional leaders around Mousavi would never question the system they have built up. As Mousavi himself said in his fifth and most recent letter to the Iranian people: “We are not against our sacred regime and its legal structures; this structure guards our independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic.”
Born in Istanbul and educated at the University of Hamburg, American Universtiy (Washington DC), and Cambridge, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam lectures on politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Hurst/ Columbia University Press, 2007/2008) and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Routledge, 2006), he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. He was also elected Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge European Trust Society at the University of Cambridge. His latest publication Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic is now available for worldwide distribution from Hurst & Co., Amazon.com, and Columbia University Press.