Edition 3 Volume 8 - January 28, 2010
Iran a year from now
The future of Islam and democracy in Iran -
Iran is in a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary one.
A military coup and an aggressive foreign policy
This is a fundamental dispute over the ownership of the revolution and the means to safeguard Iranian Shi'ite Islam.
Crunch time for Khamenei -
Both deterioration of the regime's domestic stability and sanctions could cause Khamenei to adopt a more aggressive line toward the West.
Only compromise can prevent deterioration -
It is very unlikely the opposition will diminish during the next 12 months.
The future of Islam and democracy in Iran
Despite the systematic efforts of many commentators and media outlets to represent what is happening in Iran as a wholesale revolt against everything the Islamic Republic stands for, a sober analysis reveals that we are witnessing the renegotiation of political power in the country. The protagonists represent different wings within the system; the contours of their politics are drawn upon the expanding canvas of the Islamic Republic. In short: Iran is in a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary one.
At the height of the demonstrations after the contested election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad during last summer, I argued, in an article that was disputed and challenged by many skeptics, that we were not witnessing another revolution. But simply because there is a consensus amongst many people with vested interests that the Islamic Republic must be subdued and vilified by any means, one should not be bullied into overlooking the nuances of the changing political landscape in Iran. Simply because the legitimate yearnings for democracy and justice by Iranians are misinterpreted as a rebellion against Iran's bias toward the Palestinian cause or indeed Islam itself, one should not be fooled into underestimating the capabilities of the state-sanctioned proponents of the political order in the country. What supporters of "regime change" can hope for, and what every Iranian, Arab, Muslim and any other person who empathizes with the plight of the people in the region must fear, is an entrenched civil war that would rip the country apart.
But I don't think it will come to that. We are already witnessing signs of accommodation. Mir-Hossein Mousavi has written a conciliatory letter, which was followed up by Mohsen Rezai in his own communication with the Supreme Jurisprudent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Behind the curtains the political factions are negotiating in order to rescue the political system in Iran from further destabilization. The opposition figures, Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami and most notably Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, emerged out of the revolution and would never devour the project they have been busy building up. They are disciples of the Islamic Republic, and they are revealing themselves as such at this very moment.
There is a second reason why it is likely that the Iranian state and its vast underbelly will navigate through this crisis. The state has its destiny in its own hands, it was not placed where it is as the Shah was after the MI6/CIA-engineered coup d'etat in 1953 that deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled the oppressive monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. So the Islamic Republic displays a totally different self-understanding. It perceives itself entirely capable and legitimized to assert its power and to dig in and defend itself by all means if necessary. It remains, despite the massive protests, rather self-confident.
A similar "indigenous" self-confidence animates the protesters. The movement in Iran is writing its own script. It is steeped in the symbols of Iran's political culture and the very language, adjusted to a different political reality, that permeated the constitutional revolt in the country in 1906/1907, the movement of the aforementioned Mohammad Mossadegh and the Islamicized revolution itself. What we are witnessing today, in other words, is a part of a long struggle in Iran for government accountability and a system that is based on popular legitimacy rather than transcendental entitlement.
The Islamic Republic itself came into existence through a popular mass movement, a plebiscite and a rhetoric that was amenable to the demands of the populace. It reintroduced electoral competition, however confined, supervised elections, and instituted checks and balances within the system. It created a set of strategic preferences that were independent of external dictates. And yet thus far it has failed to place itself beyond the residues of authoritarianism in Iran. It has also contributed to the demographics of the current protests: the brave youngsters demonstrating on the streets and campuses of Iran are a part of the "baby boom generation" born during the Iran-Iraq war that benefitted from the vast expansion of the higher education sector in the 1990s. The Islamic Republic, in other words, has created the very political reality it is currently challenged by.
Iranians have managed to fulfill two of the promises of the Islamic revolution: independence (esteghlal) and Islamic Republic (jomhur-ye eslami). The "Green Movement" demands nothing but the logical conclusion of the revolutionary process. What they demand is its third central promise: the great utopia of freedom (azadi) from government oppression. This is by far the most difficult to attain, but the most valuable for a nation to strive for. Hence the ongoing protests and hence the willingness of Iranians to die for their just cause. This momentum will keep Iranian society going and it will decide whether or not Islam and democracy are finally reconcilable, in Iran and beyond.- Published 28/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is author of "A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations" (Hurst & Columbia U. Press).
A military coup and an aggressive foreign policy
A year from now, Iran will continue to be highly newsworthy and will remain for many "an enigmatic riddle". The "billion dollar question", however, is clear: it concerns the stability and sustainability of the Islamic regime.
Four more specific questions in particular can be identified in relation to the future of Iran in a year. Will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remain in power as the leader of the revolution? Will there be a takeover by the Revolutionary Guards? Will the frustration of Iranian civil society turn into disenchantment with the reformists and become more radicalized and violent? Finally, will the country suffocate from total economic turmoil and total bankruptcy of the Iranian banks?
The staying power of the supreme leader--both that of the individual currently holding the position, Ali Khamenei, and that of the office--will be a key driver of the immediate future of Iran. It goes without saying that a total loss of legitimacy and a disputed succession of the leader in the event of his death could bring on a power struggle among different factions of the Iranian regime, leading to a military coup d'etat organized by the joint forces of the Pasdaran and the Basij.
The aspirations of Iranian civil society a year from now could range from low to high. At the low end of the spectrum, one could expect to find a high wave of emigration among educated youth, whereas at the higher end one could find a more radical stance and greater support for violence.
As for the Iranian economy, it will certainly be on its death bed after a prolonged spell of low oil revenues, low foreign investment, high inflation and unemployment, and corruption. This could be aggravated by political, cultural and economic sanctions from the West. And there could be a visible increase in unrest among ethnic minorities in Iran.
On the basis of these critical indicators, one can expect in a year a harsher crackdown and tougher response to opposition groups by paramilitary and security forces. For one, high ranking clerics in Iran will become even more critical toward a regime that has lost its grip over Iranian reality once and for all and embarks on shooting its opponents to survive. The fate of Iranian politics will be partly decided by grand ayatollahs in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom who never supported the religious and political ideas of Ali Khamenei and the hardliners within his inner circle.
Ultimately, in other words, this is a fundamental dispute over the ownership of the revolution and the means to safeguard Iranian Shi'ite Islam. Clearly speaking, the clerical establishment in Qom will continue to be aligned with those who plan to redefine the Islamic Republic of Iran and will therefore find itself in open confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards. When this confrontation unfolds violently, there will no doubt be both casualties and beneficiaries.
The likely beneficiaries of this struggle will be the Pasdaran. With leading reformers and opponents in jail and the street tamed by a military coup d'etat, the voices for radical change will fall totally silent. This in turn would lead to a renewal of plans to launch military action against Iran that would certainly inflame the entire region and have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, while enriching and empowering the dangerous and violent components of the security and military apparatus in Iran.
Because all signals point toward a gradual transformation of Iran within a year into a heavily militarized status quo power, this more ideological style will surely affect both civic reforms in Iran and its integration within the international community. The immediate and significant foreign policy implication of a Pasdaran takeover would witness the IRGC playing the nuclear card in order to again assert Iran's anti-imperialistic mission abroad and boost nationalistic pride at home.
This in turn would draw an equally aggressive answer from the regional powers, who would seek to increase their involvement and foment tensions within Iran by supporting Sunni minority groups. But these issues will also put tremendous pressure on the Iranian military and paramilitary forces, who will continue to crush internal dissent while projecting a more aggressive tone of defiance and intimidation toward world powers regarding the country's political ambitions.- Published 28/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ramin Jahanbegloo is professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of "Talking Politics" (with Bhikhu Parekh , Oxford University Press, India, 2010).
Crunch time for Khamenei
Unless Iran's supreme leader changes course in his internal policies, the domestic stability of his regime in 2010 is going to be more fragile than in 2009.
"Tishe be reeshe zadan" is a famous expression in Persian. It literally means hitting the roots with an ax. It is used to describe situations where someone deals a major blow to the foundation of something. Should Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continue with the current subsidies reform bill, he would be dealing a heavy blow to the foundation of his regime. In fact, this could eventually lead to its downfall. As the reform bill is expected to reduce subsidies for basic services and products while pushing up levels of inflation, its main victim is going to be the working class, whose support is an important pillar upholding the regime's foundation. The ensuing economic difficulties will cause people from the lower income brackets of society, especially from rural areas, to join the ranks of the opposition. More importantly, it could empower the unions to launch strikes.
Therefore, in 2010 we are likely to see demonstrations reaching rural areas as well as the spread of strikes, something the Green movement could not achieve on its own. This should worry the supreme leader. It was the combination of the poor and the unions joining the opposition that broke the back of the Shah's regime. In the long run, the same could apply to this regime.
This assessment also holds true for the upcoming municipal elections in December 2010. Held every four years, these elections are not as important as the presidential or parliamentary elections. Their relative lack of importance gives Khamenei a golden opportunity to show some kind of flexibility in order to silence the opposition, without looking weak in the eyes of his conservative allies. Allowing reformists to participate would certainly dissuade more of them from joining the ranks of those who want regime change. In contrast, giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's ultra-conservative allies free reign to participate while disqualifying reformists would have the opposite effect. It would also lead to a major boycott of elections by the public. For now, this is the likeliest scenario.
There is one other important underlying factor working against Khamenei's interests that could lead to the further deterioration of his position internally: the quality of advice he receives. This is crucial. The 70-year-old cleric is not suicidal. Had he received realistic advice instead of ideological counsel from Ahmadinezhad and his ilk, it's very unlikely he would have allowed the situation to deteriorate to this level. This is especially true when it comes to assessing the risk of allowing cheating in Ahmadinezhad's favor in the recent elections. Should ideology rather than realpolitik continue to be the basis of the counsel provided to the supreme leader, deterioration of the internal situation in 2010 is a foregone conclusion.
But how Iran acts in 2010 toward the outside world will depend on not one but two factors. One is the deterioration of the regime's domestic stability; the other is sanctions in any form. Either or both will cause Khamenei to adopt a more aggressive line toward the West. For now this seems the likeliest case.
The supreme leader's refusal to accept US President Barack Obama's offer has left the White House with no other choice regarding sanctions. With Senate elections looming in November 2010, it would be detrimental for Obama (and much to the benefit of the Republicans) not to impose sanctions. Once this happens, as Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor at Tehran University said in a recent debate on al-Jazeera English, "the Iranian government will be forced to withdraw its cooperation from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan." In other words, Iran is going to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan by aiding anti-US forces, thus creating major problems for the Obama administration.
It is very likely that threats against Israel are also going to continue in order to boost the Islamic Republic's position on the Arab street. Meanwhile, the expected deterioration of stability at home is likely to harden Khamenei's negotiating position. The concern here would be that flexibility shown to the West may boost the position of the reformists.
The Islamic Republic's ship of state is heading into turbulent waters. However difficult the task, the ship's captain--the supreme leader--needs to change course, and the sooner the better. The longer he waits, the weaker his regime will become, especially at home. This is one problem that even a nuclear bomb will not be able to solve.- Published 28/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and the coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran".
Only compromise can prevent deterioration
How will Islamic Iran look a year from now? This ostensibly is not a very complicated question. Although we are swimming in the troubled waters of the Middle East, we can still make reasonable predictions about the future of many of the region's countries in a year. Yet such an exercise is difficult if not impossible regarding Iran.
The reason is the much-disputed presidential elections that took place last June. Before then it was still possible to make predictions about the future of Islamic Iran. But the elections changed many things; it would be no exaggeration to say they shook the Iranian political landscape in much the way earthquakes shake the physical landscape of cities.
When the first wave of street protests erupted after the announcement of the election results, followed by a crackdown by the Islamic government, many Iranians felt that life would soon go back to normal; but it didn't. Then came a wave of arrests; more than 100 aides of Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates opposing President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, were detained along with political activists and journalists. Again the government, along with many Iranians, felt that the crisis was over and life would gradually go back to normal; again it didn't. Each time the government thought the crisis was ending or at least appearing to subside, a new wave of unrest dashed its expectations.
Thus the current political crisis in Iran appears to be following a certain pattern. The opposition, which has no other alternative for presenting its protest, takes advantage of official occasions to demonstrate against the regime. A lull, during which many Iranians begin to wonder if life is going back to normal, is followed by a sudden abrupt wave of political unrest. Last time this cycle shook the country was a month ago during the Shi'ite holy occasion of Ashura. Even though the government had severely warned the opposition it would not tolerate rallies or protests, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets defying the government ban. More than 30 people, including Mousavi's nephew, were shot dead by the security forces in Tehran alone. Once again the Islamic regime resorted to the only solution it has known since the crisis erupted: more arrests.
A lull has prevailed since Ashura while the authorities have detained yet another hundred political activists, journalists and aides and supporters of Mousavi. We now approach the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. To commemorate the revolution, each year Iran's leaders celebrate a ten-day festival that culminates on February 9, wherein rallies are held in every town and city. The revolutionary anniversary rallies will provide yet another opportunity for the opposition to come out and demonstrate against the regime.
The most accurate description one can apply to the present Iranian crisis is an "unfolding" process. Neither the government nor the opposition could have possibly imagined last June that well into 2010 the election crisis would still continue. During the past seven months the opposition has demonstrated a remarkable degree of resiliency despite the government's heavy handedness. We can only conclude that it is very unlikely the opposition will diminish during the next 12 months.
By the same token, the Islamic regime too has demonstrated that it has no intention to back down. That being the case, the Iranian crisis will continue into the coming year. Here, judging by the events of the past seven months, one can essay a few more specific projections.
First, there is the state of the country's economy, which has been one of the principal victims of the current crisis. While the government has been busy confronting the crisis, the economy has more or less been left to its own devices. Foreign investment has declined enormously and since the crisis is continuing, we can only conclude that the decline will continue during the next year. Unemployment, which even before the crisis was one of the country's acute problems, has been exacerbated during the past seven months; here too, we can only conclude that it will not improve during the next 12 months.
Economic sanctions are another problem facing Iranians. The current crisis has actually intensified western pressure on the Islamic regime. Although both European Union and American leaders have condemned the Islamic leaders for suppressing the Iranian people, they seem inclined to invoke heavy sanctions against Iran that will only worsen the country's economy--regardless of whatever feelings and sympathy western leaders may have for the Iranian people.
Amid all the gloom, both political and economic, that confronts Islamic Iran during the coming 12 months, there is one ray of hope. If the Islamic leaders and the opposition can reach some sort of compromise or understanding, the crisis could decline and the country's overall situation start to improve. But the hardliners in Tehran have so far refused to take that route.- Published 28/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.