Analysis: Is Iran pre-revolutionary?

As the country marks the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, where is the protest movement going?

Iran riots 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iran riots 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Exactly 31 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after years in exile and Iran witnessed a revolution.
Several million Iranians came to greet him, supporters of the US-backed monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled or were executed and the nation was soon asked a simple question in a national referendum: “Islamic Republic? Choose Yes or No.”
Three decades after they chose “Yes,” in the midst of ten days of anniversary celebrations, the country’s administration continues to fight a street-based reform movement that has persisted for over seven months.
In that short period, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, thousands have been beaten, hundreds arrested and dozens killed. The Green movement has made it clear that the Islamic revolution is facing the most potent challenge to its authority yet.
But after over half a year of protests, political trials and diplomatic wars, what remains unclear to Iranian pundits and analysts throughout the world is where that challenge is going. Is Iran witnessing the beginning of a revolution, or the end of a failed revolt?
Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor of Global Voices, a non-profit aggregator of online opinion from across the political spectrum, argued that the decentralized leadership of the ‘Green’ street protest movement makes predicting the reformists’ trajectory tricky.
“It’s a very difficult question,” he told The Media Line. “In the short term it’s very difficult to predict what will happen.”
“People are in the streets but the movement is very decentralized,” Tehrani said. “So on the one hand the regime can’t just repress a few people and get rid of the movement but on the other hand there is no clear political leadership of the street movement. Some of them call for a separation of religion from the state, which means revolution, while others want reforms but want the Islamic republic’s constitution to be respected.”
“In the long term there is a lot of rage,” he stressed. “People are mobilizing in creative ways and the protest movement has lasted over seven months.”
“The country is also facing serious economic problems,” Tehrani said. “The price of electricity has been multiplied by four and now you hear people talking about liberal ideas – democracy, elections, social justice issues – so you can never say what will happen.”
“Nobody predicted the Islamic revolution but within a few months it happened,” he added. “So one thing that is clear is that the Islamic republic has lost a lot of its legitimacy and the Islamic revolution will never be the same.” Dr Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Teheran, argued that the Green movement had fizzled out after a series of riots and tactical mistakes.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the Green movement has run out of steam,” he told The Media Line. “After the unprecedented pro-Islamic Republic rallies throughout the country and especially in Teheran three days after Ashura, it seems clear that the Mousavi camp has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iranians, including many who had voted for Mousavi in the presidential elections.”
“The Ashura riots were a major miscalculation by the greens,” said Dr. Marandi, making reference to anti-government protests in late December, which coincided with ceremonies marking the Shia holiday of Ashura.
Opposition protesters were accused by the government of damaging public property, setting fire to public facilities and intentionally clashing with security forces.
“The fact that Mr. Mousavi gave out a new statement literally hours after the enormous anti-Mousavi demonstrations clearly reveals that he was rattled,” he continued. “In the coming weeks and months there may be a few incidents here and there, but we’ve already seen that most mainstream reformists such as reformist MPs have distanced themselves from both Mousavi and especially the greens.”
But Kianoosh Sanjari, an Iranian blogger and advocate with the Iranian Political Prisoners’ Association, argued that while the Green movement lacked leadership, a revolution was inevitable.
“Even though we still have no revolution and no political party leads or administers the [opposition] movement, the only cure for this political deadlock is revolution,” he told The Media Line. “The regime will not compromise, people are angry and political sloganism nowadays is radical and targets the core identity of the regime.”
“When people chant ‘Down with the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists’ it means that they want the regime to go and for another system to replace it,” Sanjari said, making reference to the theological basis of the Islamic Republic’s constitution in which an Islamic jurist (faqih) is given guardianship over Iran as Supreme Leader. “We are at the beginning of the revolution and there is a very long way is front of us.”
Pujan Ziaie, a strategist for Mehdi Karroubi, former chairman of Iran’s parliament and a prominent reformist candidate in last year’s presidential campaign, agreed that the lack of leadership in the Green movement rendered the future difficult to predict.
“A revolution usually needs a charismatic leader, which is missing in Iran at the moment,” he told The Media Line. “The majority of people are against the regime, no doubt in that, however, I believe that this movement cannot be successful without the full support of some cleric or military authorities.”
“What we see now is more of a revolt of the middle class who has been harshly humiliated by the government,” Ziaie said. “Another thing that can reinforce the movement and lead to the collapse of the system is the joining of poor people (known in Iran as “bread revolt”) which will definitely jeopardize the existence of the current system, however will not result in a democratic, peaceful society.”
Hardly predicting revolution from within, Ziaie argued that the onlyhope for Iran avoiding civil war lies in international intervention.
“Thecurrent system is unbelievably corrupt at all levels, including thejudicial system, the academic environments, the governmentalorganizations and last but not least, the people themselves,” he said.“In order to set fourth some tangible reforms, the opposition needssome extraordinary power from outside the system and not merely fromwithin the people. Otherwise, the whole nation will be destined tocivil war and chaos.”
- The Media Line