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In the shadow of the Green Movement in Iran

The wealth of a nation is wasted on sustaining a state in power.

Last updated: 28 Jan 2014 12:28
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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Presence of peace does not justify the absence of justice, writes Hamid Dabashi [Getty]

By the end of January 2014, Iran seemed to be poised for a major shift in its global and regional standing. Halting the most sensitive uranium enrichment work in its nuclear programme, following the Geneva Accord, Iran was also set to play a major public role in the most horrid scene of the region when the UN chief Ban Ki-moon invited it to take part in Syrian peace talks in Switzerland - an offer Tehran accepted, before it was rescinded. 

The election of President Hassan Rouhani and the subsequent Geneva Accord - in which Iran and six others reached an interim agreement - have given legitimate hope that a period of domestic sanity and perhaps even regional detente might ensue. One must welcome such positive developments, especially after eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's catastrophic administration, projecting a negative image of the country that Israel and its US allies have exploited for their own purposes.

President Rouhani has even published the preliminary draft of a "Citizens' Rights" that gives additional hope that his administration might in fact succeed in rescuing the Islamic Republic from both its structural crisis of legitimacy and its penchant for creating or taking advantage of crises in order to keep itself afloat. 

While welcoming these positive developments - especially now that the sanctions against the Iranian people have been somewhat eased, the threat of yet another war in the region has been lifted, and the roadmap for a more permanent resolution of the conflict between Iran and the US is in the offing - we need to keep the larger picture of the fundamental absence of democracy in Iran squarely in mind and never allow the politics of the moment to camouflage the clear road ahead towards a full democratic condition that millions of Iranian people richly deserve.

We need to keep the larger picture of the fundamental absence of democracy in Iran squarely in mind and never allow the politics of the moment to camouflage the clear road ahead towards a full democratic condition...

Pro-Israeli warmongers in Washington DC and elsewhere have abused the absence of democracy in Iran for their own belligerent purposes. But antiwar activists should not lose sight of the equally critical domestic scene. The diplomatic position of Iran when negotiating with the US and its allies would be infinitely more powerful if they could speak from a position of popular legitimacy. 

But in want of that legitimacy, the Islamic Republic remains a constitutionally flawed republic, ruled by a vast and deeply integrated mafia of wealth and power. Precisely for that reason, the history of the Islamic Republic is replete with social uprisings, from the Reformist Movement of the 1990s to the Green Movement of 2009, to the presidential election of 2013. 

Presence of peace does not justify the absence of justice. From Afghanistan to Morocco and from Turkey to Yemen, the Arab and Muslim world is going through world-historic changes, and we need to have clear conceptions of what it is that these uprisings are all about. 

The mafia state and its kleptocracy

"He drove a black Mercedes 500 SL and wore a $30,000 watch, as befits a man who put his self-worth at $13.5 bn."

The obscene wealth of Babak Zanjani finally became so ostentatious as to deserve a whole article at the New York Times. But Zanjani's case is only the tip of the iceberg. Nobody can become that wealthy in the Islamic Republic without the official organs of the state having noted, condoned, or used it for their own purposes.

"His rise and now possible fall," New York Times reports, "have opened a window into the secretive, shadowy world of Iranian tycoons who have made their fortunes, at least in part, by helping Iran evade the sanctions intended to thwart its nuclear program."

Stealing the wealth of a nation like this requires a much wider spectrum of corruption. The Sepah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], itself is the single most important economic power in the country.

"Founded shortly after the February 1979 revolution," Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative journalist reports, "the IRGC's initial mission was to protect the revolution against 'counter-revolutionaries'. Today it is considered the most powerful economic actor in the republic."  

If Babak Zanjani is a typical businessman taking advantage of a clandestine economy, the Sepah engages in business for both political and ideological reasons. The result is the same: The wealth of a nation is wasted on sustaining a state in power that must- by necessity- bank on secrecy and corruption. 

If the Geneva Accord and the prospect of US detente with Iran will mean pushing these facts below the radar, the shimmering peace will not last. This combination of kleptocracy and mafia state has in effect inoculated the Islamic Republic from any institutional mechanism of accountability to the public.

This combination of kleptocracy and mafia state has in effect inoculated the Islamic Republic from any institutional mechanism of accountability to the public.

There is endemic infighting among the elite, who have divided themselves between the so-called Principalist (Osulgara) and Reformists (Eslah-talab) and their real or fake skirmishes keep certain segments of the public busy, and does occasionally procure a simulacrum of democratic appearances, while the enduring absence of any meaningful institution of democracy is habitually attributed to the absence of a "democratic culture". Quite the contrary: Iranian political culture is more than ready for democratic change, but the depth of this corrupt collusion of kleptocracy and mafia state sustains itself in power. 

A movement and its shadow

It is a peculiar disposition of these kinds of regimes that they are always in want of legitimacy, and this is why they feel compelled to stage shows of popular support. If Mohammed Reza Shah was wont of ludicrous shows around the Persepolis to link himself to Cyrus the Great and other ancient Persian monarchs, the Islamic Republic is pathologically addicted to staging massive rallies to show its popularity, or else use the occasion of its periodic parliamentary or presidential elections to make such claims.  

In all such cases, the ruling regime simply protests too much for it knows full well that the source of such legitimacy is deeply rooted in Iranian political culture. One might argue that the entire history of Iran during the 20th and now well into the 21st century is still very much under the shadow of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. The nationalisation of Iranian oil in the 1950s under Mohammad Mosaddeq had a similarly overshadowing impact on Iranian history. The Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, before it was hijacked by militant Islamists, was in the same set of extended shadows. 

But more than 30 years into its history, the Islamic Republic has lost any credible link with that set of revolutionary shadows. It is why the Green Movement became the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic by extending those shadows into the 21st century.

Today the Islamic Republic operates entirely under the shadow of the Green Movement, and it's precisely here that the Islamic Republic has failed to sustain its legitimacy. 

The state has just published a nine-volume diatribe in the form of an "Encyclopedia of the Sedition of 88" as it calls the Green Movement on its Iranian calendar. This is the clearest indication yet that the Green Movement has been the most serious threat to the legitimacy of the state. Years ago when the Green Movement started, I called it the return of the repressed. With all his early involvements in the early history of the Islamic Republic, Mir Hossein Mousavi is today the clearest sign of that cosmopolitan culture the Islamic republic tried to deny. 

Though we have a long and troubled history with a variety of political thoughts, contemporary history has a manner of generating its own mode and modalities of legitimacy. The history that the ruling regime wants quickly forgotten is the most singularly compelling frame of legitimacy for any claimant to power. As it joins symbolic forces with other transformative events in modern Iranian history, the Green Movement has now become integral to that formative framing - for the Islamic Republic and its entire history are delegitimised under its expansive shadow. 

It is good that the threat of war is lifted from Iran, and the easing of the sanctions promises a more comfortable life for ordinary Iranians. But the ruling regime should never delude itself that it can feign power and authority in Geneva when it lacks it - and even fakes it - in Tehran.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York.  He is the author of The Fox and the Paradox:  Iran, The Green Movement and the USA (Zed, 2010).  

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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