Iran: Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

Events in Iran since election day on June 12 have been truly breathtaking. The Islamist status quo faces a crisis of legitimacy, very reminiscent of that which raged through Eastern Europe twenty years ago, and the upsurge of popular rage further calls to mind the popular wrath that drove Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi from the Peacock Throne thirty years ago.

In an insightful blog post on Saturday, Laura Secor of The New Yorker asks the question though: Will this end with Wenceslaus Square, or Tienanmen Square? Can Iran have a Velvet Revolution, akin to that in Prague, or bloody repression, as in Beijing in 1989?

Michael Hirsch in Newsweek also addresses the issue, today. He points out the inherent vulnerabilities of the Islamic Republic, and that there might not be a right answer for the clerics. The could hold onto power for now, but the regime's shortcomings of legitimacy bode ill for its future.

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Comment by Gerald-Markus Zabos on June 22, 2009 at 7:27am
Seems like you know the wrong people, Smitty. I know one: my dad. He tells the story from time to time, how things were in the 1980s living in communist Romania. One day, he and my mother went to postal office, at that time the only place to have international phone calls. The rumour was, phones were tapped.

He called my grandmother, who didn't return from a trip Germany - she simply stayed there. I don't know what made him angry and very loud at the phone, but what he did was to start swearing loud at the state and political leaders while on the phone. Of course this draw the attention of people standing and working at the postal office. They didn't react, they were shocked. Nothing happened.

We left Romania in 1983, a few months later after a visit of the "Securitate", questioning my father and searching for a few thousand Deutsche Mark, he used to bribe state officials to get a emigration permit.

To make this short: desparation can be stronger than fear.
Comment by Smitty on June 18, 2009 at 6:39pm
Too much western world nonsense. Folks always strive for some sort of freedom, often in the economic sphere, and Iran is waiting its time. The youth timebomb is one that much of the Islamic world faces and Iranians haven't chosen the path of say Saudi Arabia and projecting its problems onto outside instiutions. I would never trust a poll in WPO plus their same polls showed in the Sandaista's were going to be elected in a landslide. Would you trust giving your opinion to an outsider in a police state? No one I know would....
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on June 18, 2009 at 11:00am
When the game comes out, I'm buying it.

I too see immediate, total collapse as the most likely event, but an outside possibility that grows more credible as the protests continue and grow, apparently now spreading outside of Teheran.

The late Richard Cottam, the Iranist at the University of Pittsburgh, had a different view of the role of the upper class in the fall of the Shah. He argued that the deciding element wasn't the outrage of the workers, but that the upper class and upper middle class Suq merchants transferred their support from the Shah to Khomeini. In effect, it was the businesspeople who cast the deciding vote in the last revolution.
Comment by Gerald-Markus Zabos on June 18, 2009 at 3:22am
That point, how it can only take about two hours to tabulate the votes is a good one. I can't tell if that is realistic, but if i follow elections coverage here, it always takes half a day to two days for a serious result.

The other scenario, that the Islamic Republic could experience a total collapse is in my eyes more than unrealistic. I don't have a glass ball to see into future, but there is two rational arguments against a total collapse:

(1) History of the country
Islamic religion has always been a big player in this part of Persia. That for decades/centuries. None of the other candidates running for president ever questioned the Islamic Republic, nor do the demonstrators. What they want is to add western structures, associated with a growth of personal wealth not the total change of peoples religion. That speaks for a slow transition, not a turnaround. Slow transition as i see it would mean, that the role of the Guardian Council breaks down very little. Change would come that way not the other one.

Talking of the reformist leaders, no one of them is what i would call a real hardliner. They are all people of the system:
Mousavi, former foreign minister, former prime minister - calling himself a reformist, but also a conservative. Chatami, former president of Iran.
Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, islamic cleric.
All three are said to be reformists, not revolutionary leaders. Reformation defines small steps now with (maybe) huge effects into the future. The opposite is a revolution.

(2) Ressources
Iran is still a rich country for the elite because of its oil reserves. Real collapses as we saw them in Russia (former USSR), Romania, Yugoslavia happened because of a prior economical downfall. This may sound brutal, but as long as people don't really starve, the majority has no real interest in a revolution. And don't forget, the 1979 revolution did not happen with the support of the upper classes, it was possible because of broad support from the lower classes at that time and today still the majority of the population.

So, we see the Islamic law cage doomed, but i guess they don't care. Is there a good game on Iran yet ? :-)
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on June 17, 2009 at 5:52pm
Regardless of the poll numbers in the Washington Post article that you linked, I have a hard time believing that there was a legitimate election result with which to concur. It's physically impossible to count as many paper ballots as were used in the June 12 election, and then certify it as the will of God. Besides being a political science instructor, I also spent several years working at my own local polls. It takes more than two hours to tabulate the vote for a county, using automated voting machines. It begs belief that they reached the results in the time that they claimed, without having the results as fixed as pro wrestling.

I can see the argument to "arrange with their religious law." But negotiating with a dictatorship, except from a position of strength, is seldom a pleasant experience.

I think that the "Islamic law cage" is doomed. If this revolution succeeds, the theocracy will lose so much power that its power will degenerate, and the capacity of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council to influence, let alone dictate, policy will go into decline. Think of 1991, and Mikhail Gorbachev with a turban.

If it fails, its prestige will be severely damaged. That won't be just with the protesters, but conceivably with hardliners as well, likely to be angry that the religious establishment wasn't more forceful. Look for even greater polarization in Iranian society.

Best case scenario, from my perspective, is a complete collapse of the Islamic Republic, similar to the fall of the Shah. It wouldn't be a total commitment to democracy and a cakewalk down Liberty Avenue. But it would be a major leap toward a more representative republic.
Comment by Gerald-Markus Zabos on June 17, 2009 at 3:16pm
I second that - "Sometimes laws have to be changed, or even overthrown". But i think it's not their time right now as election results have showed. Until then iranians have to arrange with their religious law and fight their struggle for real change.

The better question would be, how does change happen ? Will it be quick and dropping off islamic law or will it be step by step allowing more and more liberal rights, while staying in the islamic law cage. I go for the second one. With religion in-game this seems plausible to me it will take more than this generation of demonstrators/protesters.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on June 17, 2009 at 2:54pm
It's not a matter of living within the laws, or accepting Western meddling. This is an Iranian v. Iranian affair, and the people there have the same natural rights to throw off a dictatorship that they did in 1979. Sometimes it's only right to stand against a "lawful" authority, as many Americans did on July 4, 1776 and some Germans did on July 20, 1944. People have the right to select their own destiny, and the law is not the most powerful force. Sometimes laws have to be changed, or even overthrown.

By the way, I believe it was the BBC that reported that demonstrations have been breaking out in other cities.
Comment by Gerald-Markus Zabos on June 17, 2009 at 2:46pm
As said, i understand their right to live their own laws without interfering from the western world. Iranians vote for themselves, not for us. Each people gets the leaders they deserve. You can't call Iran an evil dictatorship because they didn't vote the leaders we would like to see running that country.

Have you ever seen any media coverage on Iran from outside Tehran ? Tehran only represents ~ 8 million people out of ~ 73 million. Have you ever seen any media coverage showing other iranians other than intellectuals, students, upper class people ? We don't get to see such things in german media. Maybe the media teams should hike the country to not only show this blurry picture with the Tehran upper class intellectual. It's more than that.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on June 17, 2009 at 2:16pm
I never believed that just because something was legal meant that it was automatically right, nor in such a case, be really within the spirit of said law. That is a very slippery slope, and the twentieth century is rife with examples of dictatorships using the rationale of pure legality to do exactly what they want.
Comment by Gerald-Markus Zabos on June 17, 2009 at 1:41pm
Well, the Guardian Council is part of the iranian political system. If they bear the right to refuse reformists (and woman) by law it is legitimate - even if it doesn't fit, let's say my understanding of how a political system should work.

The ongoing events made me start over with "Hidden Iran - Paradox and Power in Islamic Republic" (by Ray Takeyh). Great book on the matter though.

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