The Iranian Disbelief

Jun 18, 2009 by

It is almost impossible to predict what will happen in Iran next. Most learned commentators have been rightly cautious, waiting to see. Philosophers are too slow to keep up with current events; it takes us longer to digest. I do not wish to add to the flood of articles and posts on this matter by repeating more of the same. It seems to me that a particular angle has been neglected, worth emphasizing: The current protests signal the fundamental ideological bankruptcy of the Iranian regime.

Before elaborating on this bankruptcy, let me add two important caveats.  First, it is not a given fact – yet – that the election was stolen. The jury is still out but of course we know that the jury itself is barely credible. But it is not entirely inconceivable that Ahmadinejad won the race. Imagine a populist president, who thrives on fear, who is overall under-educated, despised worldwide, supported by the religious right of his country, with policies that make little common sense, connected to the oil and military-industrial complex, one who openly defies and distrusts international institutions, such as the United Nations; a guy who likes to pass as an ordinary, non-elitist type of fellow. Could that kind of president be re-elected? Recent history sadly shows that it is possible.  In my view, if it turns out that Ahmadinejad did win – and cheated only a little – then the protests are even more admirable. Iranians are (and would be) standing up for what is right. Nothing like 2004, no “what can you do about it, the guy was reelected after all.” Admittedly, all evidence does point to a stolen election, and I too believe it was. But let us not reduce the outrage to a procedural issue.

Second, the Western liberal discourse – and here I use liberal to include most conservatives – is extremely careful around Islam. Afraid of being labeled orientalist or neo-colonialist, many commentators tiptoe around Islam. Only the hate-driven conservatives attack Islam, but for a different reason.  In this election, it would be a terrible mistake to think through this election in terms of Iranians’ attachment to an Islamic identity. Iran had a proud, secular democracy, before it was taken away in 1953 by the C.I.A. Iran’s political roots are far more complicated than they may appear and Islam is not the sole political symbol governing the nation’s mind. I would caution against the “over there” approach, as in people “over there” can’t get democracy or elections right. With leaders like Berlusconi, the Bush clan, the Thatchers and Reagans of the Western world, a touch of self-reflection and humility would not be unnecessary.

Above all, however, the current crisis in Iran signals the bankruptcy of the Iranian regime’s model, its version of radical political Islam. In its News Analysis, the New York Times immediately argued that the election “demonstrated that Mr. Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.” On the contrary, the election signals genuine crisis for the regime and highlights deep fragmentations in the ruling class since the Revolution; it is less unified than ever before. And the lack of unity is not evident only because of the people in the streets. This regime has survived many waves of protests. By rigging the vote, at the eleventh hour, the ruling class revealed its own fragilities.

Max Weber argued that that there are many elements to an ideological system, one of which is a charismatic leader. Few have embodied that model better than Khomeini did. But there was more to this regime than Khomeini’s own personality. After his death, the system maintained itself; it survived. Thanks initially to its bloody war with Iraq, its vilification of the West and the utter lack of alternatives, the clerics stayed in power. But what it offered – and has miserably failed to deliver – has haunted its own roots. The Iranian Revolution seemed initially to give an identity to Iran – and to the region and Muslims across the world. It seemed on its path to finally be a “third” way for the so-called “third-world.” It fooled many, because there was a gap, a hole waiting to be filled with hope. It came at the end of the wave of decolonization, at the height of the Cold War; its vision of political Islam was new, never really tested. Great many were already rightly skeptical but at least the clerics could make promises.

The regime still tries to embody the spirit of the Revolution, thirty years later, as though the world had not changed, as though it was still promise-making time. Frozen in old binaries of radical good vs. evil, it has stagnated, politically and economically, in a fast changing world. A good deal of emphasis is placed on the Twittering in Iran and the facebooking and the flickring. No doubt this is important but Khomeini himself used to tape his sermons from exile in France and have them broadcast all over Iran. Most Mullahs have websites of their own. Of course technology has changed the political maneuverings but this is not the Taliban’s regime. At least it has not been. It has always used technology in its favor and giving too much credit to Twitter is yet again robbing the Iranians of their own political commitments, abilities and even sacrifices.

A far more revealing fact is to its near-West, Iraq. The Iranian model suffered a significant blow with the political strategies of Sistani, another great Shiite Ayatollah. Sistani was born in Iran; yet the powerful leader shunned the Iranian way. He refused to model Iraq after Iran. He deserves no more credit than that of course. He is no freedom-fighter, but he had seen that the permanent institutionalization of Shiite Islam in Iran has backfired. When we say that religion and politics should remain separate, we have in mind the welfare of politics. But politics has at least a pretense of accountability. In cases when religion directly and officially sanctions politics – and therefore its policies – it too becomes accountable for political failures. Sistani opted to stay outside of politics, knowing full well that he already controls the majority.

The corruption, the impoverishment, the decline of Iran under the clerics, especially Ahmadinejad is undeniable. With dwindling and poor management of resources, this regime is facing a very young, fairly educated population that wants more. Distractions – like picking fights with Israel and even the Iranian nuclear program in the name of pride and sovereignty – only go so far.  At this point, Iran needs to develop its infrastructure; it must provide for its people, it must meet the demands of its young population, including its need for greater freedom. Regardless of its posturing, it has little credibility left.

As much as listening to Ahmadinejad make a fool of himself is a distraction, believing that either Moussavi is a reformer or that people genuinely believe in him is also a mistake. Most likely had Moussavi won, we would have reverted to something like Khatami, with some minor changes. He is a “reform” candidate within this extremely narrow field of extremists; at best he is a moderate extremist.  His rigged loss demonstrates how desperate and fragmented this regime is. Moussavi is no outsider, facing a united front. Not only he is and has been part of the establishment, he was after all sanctioned as a candidate. No actual reformer can ever pass the litmus test of the Guardian Council. The Council only tolerates candidates that tolerate it back. This regime has become so weak that it does not trust its own agents anymore; it is longer credible to itself.

When Obama was elected, apparently the NRA membership went through the roof; some people bought (more) guns. But essentially, no real reasonable person was either too worried or too hopeful. We knew that the President of Change would only make small, at best incremental reforms. He is already disappointing his voters on gay rights, on health care, on Pakistan and more is to come. This is no surprise and no particular failure of his. He may be at the edge of the system, but he is part of the American ideological framework. Iran no longer has a viable system clearly. The slightest of change could shift power away from some clerics to others, or worse to the people. Had this regime had any actual pull, it would have left Moussavi come to power and be an utter disappointment, while allowing some softening of the international discourse toward Iran.   No longer believing in itself, it resorts to amateurish rigging and violence. Once a government starts shooting at its own people, it is signaling its own eventual end. The clerics should know that; that is how they came to power when the Shah brought his army to quash the protests in 79.

As I said before, it is hard to predict what will actually happen. If there is a recount, then Ahamdinejad would likely win with a more Western-friendly respectable margin, a 54-46 split. In the less likely scenario that power would be handed to Moussavi, he would not know what to make it. He would become the agent of change malgré lui. He already is getting much more than he ever bargained for. Ultimately, within the narrow field the voters needed to express their frustration and dissatisfaction. This does not mean that Moussavi is capable of either representing a clear message for change, let alone embody an entire movement. The best thing to do is to press Iran on its contradictions and failures in human rights. This part Moussavi has gotten right as he asked his followers to mourn the tragic death of fellow protesters. But if the violence continues, it is certainly possible that the country would sink to the level of some its neighbors in the region, a Hosni Mubarak type of decades-long state of emergency and oppression. It is hard to tell.

At least, this particular outcome so far has exposed the fragility of the regime and its ideological bankruptcy. Not only Iranians no longer believe in it, it does not believe in itself anymore to even feign an election.

UPDATE (June 21): Further proof of fragmentation. These arrests are very telling

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  • Daimon

    Very good, and well thought out points. I wholeheartedly agree. My grandparents happen to be in Tehran at the moment, they are well into their 80s, and have a duel citizenship as Canadians as well. Things are tense over there as you can imagine. All we can do at this point is wait and see. It’s a very unpredictable situation.

  • J. Edward Hackett

    A nicely crafted analysis.

  • Chip

    Thanks for this, Farhang.

  • Ian Maley

    I have no response to do justice to this other than the greatest thanks. Like everyone, just waiting in solidarity. Americans have much to admire (and to be humbled by) in those protesting. Thank you!

  • arya sabetian

    Ahmadinejad did NOT have enough votes by himself. many polls before the election quite clearly showed that mousavi is ahead of Ahmadinejad by a very considerable margin. Why in the world has it become a commonplace idea that maybe he had actually won? are you not even slightly informed about all the candidate representatives that were removed from the election sites? of all the warnings (some issued by the officials themselves) about the possibility of a fraud BEFORE the election? don’t you know about so many workers who were arrested and beaten just weeks before the election? about the farmers who were devastated by the policies of Ahmadinejad? the majority of lower classes are those who suffered the most during these 4 years, and not to forget that Mousavi himself was best known for his time as a prime minister when he focused his attention on the poor during the war.

    other than that, a good article.

  • Patrick S. O’Donnell


    Perhaps some of your readers would be interested in several posts up at the Ratio Juris blog that attempt to put current events in Iran in various historical and socio-political contexts (the proverbial big picture): and


  • Farhang Erfani

    Arya: as I mentioned in my post, I agree the election was rigged. All I meant is that until it is proven (even though it seems obvious) we should not just focus on the sheer fact of the cheating. There are deeper issues than this. I don’t think we’re disagreeing.

  • Paul

    I agree entirely with the article, but am not so optimistic as to the outcome. Sadly, historical facts don’t bear out the general proposition that “Once a government starts shooting at its own people, it is signaling its own eventual end” – except possibly if one thinks in terms of decades, rather than months or even years.

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