The predicament of the Islamic Republic

Green Movement’s focus on civil rights voids it of the appeal needed to spark an Arab Spring-like revolution.

The Islamic Republic will not go down as easily as Ben Ali’s Tunisia, or Mubarak’s Egypt [GALLO/GETTY]

The most recent salvo in the cantankerous infighting habitual among the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic is now waged between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the beleaguered president, and the Speaker of the House Ali Larijani – concerning the integration of the two ministries of Mines and Metals and Heavy Industries.  The verbal punches are public, for the whole world to behold. The Speaker of the House is one of three Larijani brothers: One runs the judiciary, one the legislative branch, and the other might be dreaming to become the next president. The Larijani brothers come from a prominent clerical family. The theocracy is corrupted even further by an obscene plutocracy.

The wealthy elite (old money from the landed gentry), rooted in the clerical arrogance of their heritage, dislike the ruffians who are, at times, elected into the highest office of the republic they treat as their personal property and tribal fiefdom. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, represents a second and third generation of neo-revolutionaries who wish to collect their share of the national booty. Not all fights are ideological in the Islamic Republic. Much of it is a hidden class warfare between old, new, and even newer money. The children of the old and ageing clerical elite have an insatiable penchant for power that is best evident in the Larijani brothers – designing to rule the three branches of a theocracy that feigns democracy. 

The collision between Ahmadinejad and Larijani comes right after a number of very public encounters between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regarding the sacking of his Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi – which the theocratic leader overruled, a privilege that article 110 of the Constitution, his diehard supporters are quick to point out, grants him. Ahmadinejad evidently did not like being upstaged so publicly and in protest refused to attend cabinet meetings for almost two weeks. Public preachers hired by the Sultanate regime went instantly on a rampage denouncing the president and warning him to remain absolutely loyal to the ageing lord, or else. 

Or else what? What do these endemic crises of the Islamic Republic mean, and how is the current feud related to the post-presidential crisis that gave rise to the Green Movement in Iran – especially now that the entire region is awoken to a massive, transnational, democratic uprising? 

Green Movement’s second phase

The Islamic Republic is no stranger to crisis. Structural crises are definitive to its very paradoxical disposition: A deeply entrenched clerical theocracy, what many Iranian dissidents consider a “Sultanate”, predicated entirely on the arbitrary mandates of a Supreme Jurist, pretending to be a democracy. The current crisis is coming right after the brutal crackdown of the Green Movement and the effective house arrest of its two leading figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. After that crackdown – arbitrary arrest, incarceration, torture, reports of rape, and coldblooded murder of young protesters in streets – the Green Movement has entered a new, even more grassroots and enduring phase, and many are reading the current feud between the winning factions as a ruse, a decoy, to detract attention from the enduring uprising. Be that as it may, this does not mean that the infighting is for naught, or that it is inconsequential; nor does it mean, one must be quick to add, that the Islamic Republic is nearing its end. 

Either manufacturing them or else taking advantage of those that come its way, creating or managing one crisis after another is written into the very DNA of the Islamic Republic. It thrives on them. Crises that in fact challenge its very raison d’etre – and thus forces its inner logic of measured violence into the open – are embedded in a theocratic militancy that is evident in the alliance between the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard – an alliance that keeps the belligerent theocracy always on its toes. 

It is not surprising at all that having barely survived one crisis – which it fought tooth and nail – once again, it seems the Islamic Republic is facing yet another critical moment. This time however, it has not been sparked by an electoral crisis – such as that which brought masses of millions of demonstrators into the streets in Summer 2009 and forced the hand of the beleaguered theocracy, exposing its naked brutality for the whole world to see.

This time around, it seems, the crisis is within the inner circles of the ruling regime, the very faction that closed ranks brutally to repress the uprising. If the Green Movement mobilised millions of Iranians and created two national heroes from two ageing revolutionaries – Mousavi and Karroubi – the infighting and backbiting among the two camps of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei – the very man who in fact installed Ahmadinejad’s vastly contested presidency – is yet another crisis that exposes the even more fractious disposition of the very skeletal vertebra of the Islamic theocracy. 

These crises are definitive, sustained, and even beyond the structurally dysfunctional state apparatus rooted in the demographic facts of a young and restless population ruled by an outdated and obsolete theocratic ideology. The Green Movement of 2009 was predicated on the deeply contentious presidential election of 2005, and before that on the massive student uprisings of 1999 – and before that on the reformist movement of the 1990s – all effectively taking shape soon after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and the end of his terrorising charisma that held the nation together through the revolution (1977-1979) and the subsequent war (1980-1988), and included successive university purges, cultural revolutions, and brutal repression of any dissenting voice – including the mass execution of political prisoners. The mass graves at Khavaran cemetery near Tehran is the gushing memorial wound of the murderous facts that Islamic Republic tried, in vain, to keep silent. 

Fractured yet together

Precisely because of this history, we ought to be very careful as to how to read this new crisis and even more crises that will undoubtedly unfold as we get closer to the next parliamentary (2012) and presidential (2013) elections. We would be wrong to read this or any other crisis as the final demise of the Islamic Republic. For over thirty years this belligerent theocracy has been fighting for its life; and it can go on fighting for its very existence for yet another thirty years – for that which does not kill it makes it stronger. The Islamic Republic will not go down alone so easily – the way Ben Ali’s regime went down in Tunisia, or Mubarak’s in Egypt. For the ruling clergy, for one thing, does not kill indiscriminately the way Gaddafi or Assad are doing in Libya and Syria. The custodians of the Islamic Republic maim, murder, torture, and even rape judiciously, measurably, purposefully – just enough to frighten the population to submission. Their rule is infinitely more pernicious.  When and if the Islamic Republic goes down, it will take the rest of the geopolitics of the region with it.

It is now perfectly evident that the leading elite of the Islamic republic, from its clerical to civilian to military apparatus, is deeply fractured, confused, and above all troubled by its own internal dissent and the regional uprising alike. As much as one should not exaggerate the threat that Islamic Republic faces for its very survival, one should not underestimate the historic nature of the threats that it faces today. Yes it has historically managed to keep itself afloat and overcome its endemic crisis. But this time around it faces not just simply unmanageable economic difficulties, but the normative transmutation of a moral dissent into a material force, perfectly evident in the youthful composure of simple disgust. A politically significant component of the society – young, impatient, hopeless, and widely connected to the world at large – harbour this resentment toward an outdated theocracy. 

All of these internal developments are now, since the commencement of the Jasmine Revolutions and Arab Spring early in January 2011, working themselves out within a larger frame of revolutionary uprisings. The propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic is deeply invested in trying to read the current uprisings in the Arab world to their own benefits. But that is a political impossibility and a hermeneutic challenge beyond the competence or reach of any ideological manufacturing of consent. To be sure, the systematic mendacity of the US and Israel and their regional and European allies in trying to find a military – or at least diplomatic – foothold in the dramatic unfolding of the events gives much cause for the Islamic Republic to interpret the events to its own advantage and as manifestations of an “Islamic Revolution”. The presence of the occupying Saudi forces in Bahrain in particular has exposed the US hypocrisy in leading a military campaign against Libya, – calling it “humanitarian intervention” – while at the same time the NATO forces let scores of Libyan refugees fleeing from the warzone perish in the Mediterranean sea from thirst and hunger. These sorts of atrocities add fuel to the fire that Islamic Republic has tried to keep aflame. 

But this is the season of exposing hypocrisies, overcoming public secrets, opening the democratic veins of young and robust societies, exposing the clogged arteries of decrepit rulers bereft by their own moral senility. 
It is not just the US and its allies that are scrambling, by hook or by crook, to counter the revolutionary uprisings that have caught them all by surprise. The Islamic Republic and its sub-national allies in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq are equally troubled by these urgings. The US, Israel and their greedy European and corrupt regional allies – at odds as they may appear to be – have a common interest in distracting attention from the democratic uprisings and retrieve the status quo ante in which they were all benefiting from (in diametrically opposed but essentially identical ways), rooted in the politics of despair that, until recently, ruled the region supreme.

Quelling an uprising and denouncing others

Both the US and the Islamic Republic, and the respective allies of each, are deeply troubled by the Arab Spring. If the US tries to distract attention from these open-ended revolution by killing Osama bin Laden, the Islamic Republic does exactly the same by thriving on its endemic crises, which puts it in a warring posture designed to frighten its own citizenry into submission. They both – the US and the Islamic Republic – wish the region back to its status quo ante, where and when they much benefited from the state of war they had manufactured, and under which they both shared the control and domination of the democratic aspirations of the people in the region. 

The current democratic uprising embarrasses both sides of this divide, exposes their duplicities and hypocrisies. The US must laser-beam on the atrocities of the Islamic Republic and Syria – but downplay equally corrupt and abusive rulers of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain (where it has crucial strategic interests). Now that they have lost Tunisia and Egypt to the open-ended possibilities of the people’s democratic uprisings, they are trying to control the rest of the region. By the very same token, the Islamic Republic must falsely identify the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as “Islamic”, but dismiss the identical revolutionary uprising in Syria as a plot by Saudi Arabia and Israel – while at the same time bank on the military adventurism of US and NATO in Libya to accentuate the imperial project underway.

But the fact is that both the US and the Islamic Republic are deeply and identically in trouble. If the Green Movement, which the Arab and Euro-American “left” terribly misread, brought national politics to bear on the regional geopolitical scene, the Jasmine Revolutions and the Arab Spring have brought the regional geopolitics to bear on the national scene. The dialectic that has resulted is open-ended, inconclusive, and unfolding.  Winners in the long run are the people and their uprisings, losers are not just the US and its allies and nemesis alike – but the very political DNA of the geopolitics of the region. We are, this generation, the bewildered discoverers of a brand new world. 

With that vision in mind, the emerging crises from Libya to Syria, and from Iran to Yemen, reveal a much clearer picture. The current feuds in the Islamic Republic are both genuine and a ruse. They are genuine because the new and emerging revolutionaries want to bypass the aging elite – but they are also a ruse because the Islamic Republic has always thrived on crises that it has either created or else come its way. This time around the whole world – the region in particular – is witnessing the return of what the Islamic Republic has spent over thirty years trying to repress – namely the cosmopolitan worldliness of the regional cultures that absolutist ideologies of one brand or another have tried to disfigure and confiscate. The thirty years of tyranny is unraveling in the Islamic Republic because people in the region, from one end to another, are actually experiencing what Iranians did three decades ago – before one militant faction stole their show and distorted their moment with vicious brutality. This foundation crisis, this return of its repressed, the Islamic Republic has neither created, nor can it control – because, above all, it is outside its territory and beyond its imagination.   

Iranism vs Islamism vs Green Movement

Consider a major sideshow of the last year associated with Ahmadinejad, which had to do with his principle ally and aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei who has tried to posit himself as a new champion of Iranian nationalism, thinking and hoping that people who are fed up with Islamism may turn to his amateurish and crude Iranism. His is a flawed perception. People only turn to Iranism as a mode of strategic essentialism against the dominant and militant Islamism; as they turned to ideological Islamism more than thirty years ago against the Pahlavi regime’s bogus Iranism. It is the corrupt power that people oppose, not the flag they wave. Against these banalities, the youthful uprising is a game changer. The stage is clear now, neither for tired and old infightings nor indeed for the business as usual of a politics of despair – we have a new game whose rules the ruling elite do not know and thus cannot control. 

With Ayatollah Khamenei in power for the foreseeable future, the gridlock standstill will only shift in one way or another within the existing power structure. There is a balance of power that any way that keeps the belligerent theocracy floating regardless of which way the system tilts. Be that as it may, the system is not indestructible.

Two simultaneous developments are not to the advantage of the Islamic Republic: (1) Now that they have brutally frightened people from the streets, the Green Movement has in fact become more radical, deep rooted, and will be entrenched in three simultaneous labour, women’s rights, and student movements; (2) The sweeping democratic uprisings in the region are robbing the Islamic Republic of its ability to manipulate the geopolitics of its neighbourhood for its own short-term advantages. Syria here is of crucial significance – for if Syria falls to the democratic will of its people, the Islamic Republic will lose a vital link to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is not a beneficiary of such an eventuality. Israel will not benefit from any of these democratic uprisings. Its own belligerent occupation of Palestine is becoming ever more blatantly obvious the more these democratic movements push to topple Israel’s favouritism Arab potentates. Israel is the final and absolute loser of these revolutionary movements – and thus it does, just like the Islamic Republic, everything it can to stop or alter their direction. 

The Iranian civil rights movement, code-named the Green Movement, is and will remain non-violent. It has neither a military wing, nor a militant ideology. Its radicalisation is not tantamount to its turning violent the way similar uprisings have in Libya, Syria, Bahrain – or even Yemen. The Green Movement has now reached deeply into its forceful constituent components: the labour, women’s rights, and student movement. The ruling elite of the Islamic Republic does not have the moral or the imaginative wherewithal of withstanding the democratic challenges coming from the Arab world to face up to these far more deeply rooted discontents at one and the same time.

By indulging in sideshows, such as the one between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, it may try to divert attention both from the enduring resonances of the Green Movement and the consequences of the Arab Spring. But it will not succeed. It is too late. It may go down differently. But it will go down. 

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

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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