Persian Summer vs Arab Spring?

Popular movements in the Middle East encouraged Khamenei to adopt a more flexible approach.

Iran presidential elections
The imbalance between the rights of the individual vs the state lies at the heart of the problems facing Iran [EPA]

In Iran, reactions to the Arab Spring very much reflected the political divisions within the country. Interestingly, both sides in the debate – the government and the opposition – sought ownership over the popular uprisings that have shaken the Arab world since 2011, though the early enthusiasm has been dented by the various failures that have prevented the Arab Spring from realising its initial promise. Moreover, each side has learned distinct and different lessons from the unfolding political drama, not all of which are immediately apparent.

In the aftermath of the Green Movement that rocked the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the summer of 2009, many among the opposition saw themselves as the precursors of the Arab Spring. For them, in a very real sense, Persian Summer preceded Arab Spring. This could be seen in the similar aspirations and demands that the movements articulated in regard to democratic governance and the rule of law. There was indeed some indignation among Iranian opposition circles that this intellectual genealogy had not been recognised, as well as some internal frustration that their Arab brethren had appeared to succeed where they had not.

The lesson they drew from this was that they needed a strategy that was consistent and persistent. For the government, the interpretation and lessons were twofold and not necessarily complementary. During the first flush of success when Western-backed authoritarian regimes were apparently crumbling, the authorities in Tehran were quick to claim the Arab Spring as belated Islamic revolutions finally taking hold. Iranian hardliners were not only taking credit for the Arab uprisings, but all popular movements – including the Occupy movement – which they all credited to the wise leadership of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It has been argued that the conflict in Syria represents a broader Western strategy to unseat unfriendly regimes and that Syria is now the frontline in the war between America and its allies and Iran and its allies.

Changing narratives

That this view did not last had much to do with the debacle in Syria and Iran’s determined support for beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The uprising in Syria never fit the Iranian template. Instead, it has been argued that the conflict in Syria represents a broader Western strategy to unseat unfriendly regimes and that Syria is now the frontline in the war between the US and its allies, and Iran and its allies.

More problematically of course, was the fact that many of the new “Islamist” governments that had emerged in the Middle East – most obviously Egypt – took the opposite side in the Syrian conflict from Iran. The narrative of belated Islamic revolutions was, therefore, quietly dropped and instead replaced by the narrative of resistance.

It was this narrative that explained and justified the intervention of Hezbollah in Syria, a move that further widened the gap between Iran and the new regimes of the Arab Spring. Added to this is the manifest antagonism between Iran and traditional Arab governments, most obviously Saudi Arabia. As a result, the struggle was being defined in both sectarian and ethnic grounds. That the promise of the Arab Spring appeared to stall also encouraged many in the Iranian opposition to disassociate themselves from the movement.

Spring is coming

Yet, in a broader sense, the popular movements that have shaken governments from the Middle East to Asia and the former Soviet Union have undoubtedly had an effect on the way in which the authorities in Tehran have navigated their politics. While the Persian Summer was crushed, the regime felt increasingly vulnerable in the face of growing economic weakness – made more acute by sanctions – and the possibility of copy cat demonstrations which might have followed. All these factors and, most obviously, the anxiety of the political elite to avoid at all costs a rerun of 2009, encouraged Khamenei to take a more flexible approach to this year’s elections.

What is most remarkable, however, is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ran on a platform that both reflected and sought to capitalise on the popular mood gripping the streets not only in Iran, but also in the Middle East. This had been anticipated by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sought to announce the arrival of his protege, Esfandiar Mashai, with the slogan “spring is coming”.

Given Ahmadinejad’s complicity in crushing the uprising in 2009, few took him seriously. Rouhani was nonetheless the one who ran with it, using such popular slogans about governance and the rule of the law that might have made the most committed reformist blush. In a dynamic electoral campaign, Rouhani swept to victory and many who had decided to vote assumed that Iran had achieved its own spring through the ballot box.

Unfortunate parallels

But here, regrettably, the parallels with the Arab Spring continue. As in the broader Middle East, a diverse coalition had gathered in support of change, but just what sort of change was, and continues to be, a matter of some dispute. Like their Arab counterparts, Iranians came away from the experience of “change” – whether through the ballot box or the street – with a surfeit of hope and expectation, and crucially, often with a sense that the major work had been done. In the Iranian case, this was again the triumph of hope over experience.

The lessons of the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami should have taught Iranians that winning elections and changing administrations is but a single step towards the work of institutionalising democratic change. And here, it must be recognised that the understanding of “democracy” is often shallow.

In some cases, this is deliberately so. Many within the establishment, be they the targets of a movement, or the erstwhile leaders, arguably entertain a narrow interpretation that a successful election or street protest that results in the replacement of one government and administration by another, is sufficient. What people effectively experience is the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another, though this time dangerously empowered by the view that he has been elected by the people.

But it must also be added that in many of these cases the people are also complicit when thinking that the act of change means their work is done, and they may all go home now. Democracy, of course, is not simply a question of a change in personnel, it requires both institutional and attitudinal change; a belief in accountability, transparency and the rule of law; and the rights of citizens as well as the rights of the state.

Democracy, of course, is not simply a question of a change in personnel, it requires both institutional and attitudinal change; a belief in accountability, transparency and the rule of law; and the rights of citizens as well as the rights of the state.

Rouhani’s challenges

We can see that Rouhani has sought to make the right noises, to address this dangerous and prolonged deficiency in Iranian political culture by proposing a citizens’ charter and arguing that the security state that has emerged over the last decade must end. There is undoubtedly a palpable sense of relief among the populace that the suffocating blanket of security during the Ahmadinejad years is finally being removed. Yet anxieties persist, not least because experience has taught Iranians to be wary of the promises of politicians.

Rouhani, to be fair, needs to operate in a complex and contradictory political environment. Not all of those who supported him are interested in political change, and many within the establishment are indeed vehemently opposed to it. Rouhani himself has fuelled that anxiety by arguing that his victory in the elections itself was sufficient proof of change. Others have argued that economic recovery is paramount and that political change must wait, which will inevitably flow from the economic reforms that must be put in place. There is undoubtedly a logic to this if structural reform to the economy is pursued. There is, however, little indication of this at present.

But perhaps the greatest cause for concern is that the rhetoric of rights – which at least recognises the social demand that exists – is not matched by a clear understanding of how those rights should be articulated. The Iranian state regularly argues for Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium, but there is little equivalent language with respect to the rights of its citizens, which, if the recent draft charter is to be believed, is much predicated on qualifiers such as Islamic norms, and the rights of the state.

State vs individual rights

The imbalance, between the rights of the state and the rights of the individual, lies at the heart of the problem facing not only Iran but also the wider Middle East. It is indeed a question that remains alive among the more established democracies as technology far outpaces the law in further blurring the boundaries between the citizen and the state.

In the Middle East the problems remain more fundamental but the task is much the same. Democratisation is a process that needs constant negotiation and regular review. It is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; a social contract and a political settlement between citizens and the state that enhances stability. It is, of course, a two-way process. Changes of this nature cannot take place overnight, nor can it be solved through a change of administration, be it through the ballot box or the street. But a good start can be made if governments recognise that people, as well as states, have rights. 

Ali M Ansari is Professor of Iranian History and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute; Vice President of the British Institute for Persian Studies.