Iran: Six Months Later

It has been a hell of a year for Iran. Just last winter the nation’s elites were basking in 30 years of revolutionary triumph, launching satellites, enriching uranium, and holding neocon hawks at bay. Then, weeks of fervent presidential campaigning drew out the best and worst of Iranian society’s antagonisms, culminating in a poll exactly six months ago. Overnight the revolution’s orphans and cosmopolitan have-nots demanded their say. As a divided nation literally filled Tehran’s streets, cheerful jeering and honking horns turned into vigilantes with batons and street gangs with bonfires.

Most in the West took the moment as the last breath of the Islamic Republic. They saw in the “green wave” another step towards “the end of history.” Of course they were wrong, but six months later demonstrations still abound, journalists are still jailed, and a fractured polity stumbles on. So how might we make sense of the past six months in order to think about the many more ahead?

First, the narrative of a regime death match between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei on one side versus Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, and the entire Iranian nation on the other doesn’t help at all. Instead, one should read the political fallout over the last six months in the terms set by Khamenei and Rafsanjani‘s two major Friday sermons that took place within a month after the elections. Between the speeches, the extremes of both ends of political spectrum were curbed and governing elites began to circle their wagons to preserve the system.

Khamenei drew a line under the claim of election fraud, arguing that questioning the integrity of the election equated to indicting the system. Since then we have heard little of Mousavi’s claim to victory — not from Mousavi himself, Mehdi Karroubi, or any major leader of the so called green movement.

Even Ahmadinejad’s conservative opponents such as Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf or speaker of parliament Ali Larijani praise the election as a national triumph but criticize the way in which the fallout was handled. And it is on that note — abuses by the security forces — that former president Rafsanjani set the boundaries for legitimate political opposition. He demanded that prisoners be released and that the constitutional rights of citizens be protected. But he did all of this within the context of Islamic unity, Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary vision, and the prophet Muhammad’s divinely inspired precedent. Political opposition has since operated within Rafsanjani’s boundaries.

Rafsanjani’s tempered post-election statements, which broke the back of the green movement, were a calculated payback. Before the election, the former president’s name had been publicly maligned by Ahmadinejad and his supporters, so when Khamenei cleared his name against allegations of corruption, Rafsanjani was ready to play ball.

The losers in the trade were the northern Tehranis who supplied the bulk of the street presence after the election. But this wasn’t the first time in Iranian history that a group of clerics extended a hand to populist causes, reneged, and pursued their own political ambitions. There was no reason to expect otherwise this time around. Today what is left of the green movement depends upon Ayatollahs Montazeri and Sane’i — both personae non gratae for years — for its religious legitimacy. Meanwhile calls for demonstrations that coincide with religious holidays and Shia mourning rites have fallen considerably behind expectations (and I don’t expect any different for Ashura in two weeks).

But at the social level the green movement was also doomed. The disaffected religious bazaar classes that backed Mousavi immediately broke rank and haven’t returned. Their disdain for Ahmadinejad wasn’t enough to heed the calls for national strikes. And even if they detest the entire system, the prudence and tradition that accompanies their craft is more than enough to keep them from being seen in the streets with gelled-hair teenagers wearing green face masks.

On that note, the morality police have left the posh streets of northern Tehran and abandoned the idea of a cultural revolution, following a Chinese model of lax controls on social freedoms and high risks for political opposition. It is unlikely that the masses we saw on 15, 16, and 17 June will come out again anytime soon.

Green protesters chant “Putin, Chavez, Nasrallah, Enemies of Our Nation!’ on Ruz-e Quds (Jerusalem Day), 18 September 2009

The government’s multilayered crackdown on the summer events has withered the green movement down to a dispersed core of intellectual and political elites with no clear agenda or ability to mobilize, aside from subverting the rhetoric of state rallies. Mousavi never flowered into the charismatic leader that so many made of him and his ally Karroubi is appeased with parliamentary investigative committees. Those who have come out with some of the most pronounced oppositional statements, such as acclaimed film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and religious intellectual Mohsen Kadivar, will most likely never return to Iran, and their associates inside do not dare defend them. Even Rafsanjani is scrambling for political relevancy.

The political capital released in the past six months is now being captured by mainstream conservative elites such as the Larijani brothers and Ghalibaf as well as symbolic figures such as MP Ali Motahhari and Ayatollah Shirazi who aim to minimize the damage done to the system by the current president. Parliament and the mosque then, not the presidential palace or Tehran University, are the places to read Iran’s affairs and the supreme leader’s political pulse.

What is being fought for today in Iran is the preservation a small space for political dissent and the prevention of the emergence of a militarized one-party system. This is a far cry from the “regime in its last throes” image we get in the mainstream press. But that this fight even has to take place means only melancholy for the entire nation. Today, even strident Ahmadinejad supporters are embarrassed to talk about their vote and Tehran’s northerners are as apathetic as they were before Mohammad Khatami was in office. Ironic indeed it is then that at the end of this milestone year for the Islamic Republic, a lesson in humility, rather than victory, is the order of the day.

Abbas Barzegar is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.  This article was first published by the Guardian on 12 December 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.