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Failures of Imagination
The Iranian regime is fighting a protest movement it does not understand and cannot seem to control
The recent decision of the Iranian courts to sentence a protestor to death, alongside at least 326 believed to have been killed in violent crackdowns against the protests, is a stark reminder of the ruthlessness and moral bankruptcy of the Islamic Republic. It is also indicative of a regime bereft of ideas and increasingly distant from the aspirations of its population.
Modern Iran has experienced a series of revolutions, social, economic and political. It is often characterised as being both prone to revolutions, and politically inert; assumptions that can lead to some awkward analyses. These are not entirely contradictory positions. The absence of change can often catalyse revolutionary upheaval as pressures mount against a reactionary state. But it is true that long periods of stupor - reinforcing a sense of the ‘unchanging east’ - can lead to both political and analytical complacency as regimes become over-confident and analysts become bored. It is precisely in such situations that we should become wary.
The Revolutions of 1906 and 1979
The two revolutions to shake Iran in the 20th Century provide excellent, if distinct, examples of this. In 1906, Iran was transformed by the Constitutional Revolution, which as the name suggests established a constitution, limits on the power of the monarchy, a parliament, the principle of the rule of law and the separation of powers. British officials, reviewing the events of 1906 were astounded, and not a little pleased, with the changes that had taken hold.
Yet in the review of 1905, the then outgoing British Minister could barely muster any enthusiasm for the modest protests that had emerged in December of that year. Instead, his report dwelt on relations with Russia, loans and how political change might be encouraged, though he held out little hope for this. Since little had happened over the previous decade, his prognosis was not without justification but his failure to see the impending storm reflected analytical prejudice as much as an inability to see what was going on. The British presence in Iran – diplomatic and commercial – was unprecedented. Sources of information were diverse, yet here was little sense of what might happen weeks after the report was sent to London. This was as much a consequence of not wanting to see, as not being able to see.
A similar process can be seen for the revolution in 1979, which the history books now tell us ‘started’ on the 8th January 1978, with an anonymous article attacking Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Iraq. The offence caused initiated a series of protest which eventually led to the unravelling and collapse of the monarchy, though few seemed to notice at the time, to the extent that the British Ambassador Sir Antony Parsons departed on a three month vacation over the summer seemingly unperturbed by the political developments. (It is worth remembering that the vast crowds associated with the revolution in 1979 did not emerge until very late in the process). The narrative we are presented with is tidy and inevitable and much ink has subsequently been spilt, not least in the United States, on how it was not all foreseen, and how ‘America lost Iran’. The focus on this occasion was on the failure of intelligence, wilful inaccessibility to sources (largely not to offend the Shah) and in Sir Antony Parson’s acute assessment, that ‘our failure was not so much one of information but one of imagination’, .
Ironically in 1906 the potential power of the clergy as a force for change was fully appreciated but the intellectual underpinnings of the movement ignored, while in 1979 the reverse was arguably the case with greater focus on the threat posed by the Left. None of this is to suggest that the assessments made at the time lacked validity. The important point to appreciate as we look back with hindsight is that legitimate and well thought out assessments can in time be proved wrong. Analysing any process from ‘within’ is fraught with difficulty born of incomplete information, reinforced by prejudice constructed over time. The trick, to paraphrase Sir Antony Parsons, is to ameliorate and compensate for this through the considered application of ‘imagination’.
Fighting the Last Revolution
We are in danger this time around of making similar mistakes. Indeed, we are at serious risk of fighting the last revolution, transplanting the processes of the past to the present with little effort to factor in the tremendous changes which have taken place over the last 43 years. In a curious way the ‘unchanging East’ is as much a feature of the Western imagination as it is a realistic reflection of developments on the ground (the intellectual detritus one might say of ‘Orientalism’). But this prejudice affects all parties, to a greater or lesser extent, in the current protests. The regime, anxious to emphasise the uniqueness of Revolution of 1979, stress the role of the clergy and leadership, arguing that without the presence of Ayatollah Khomeini, nothing would have happened. This narrative has often been adopted uncritically by Western observers, as they frantically search for an equivalent figure.
But this is a political statement which lacks intellectual substance as the regime itself knows only too well. It has chosen to emphasise the role of Khomeini because the cult of Khomeini suits its ideological agenda and fits a Shia and Muslim frame of reference in which leadership and prophethood are paramount. But even members of the clergy, fascinated as they have become with the idea of revolution and the intellectual lineage of the Islamic Revolution – which they (with no hints of irony) situate as the heir to the French and Russian Revolutions, recognise that leadership has not always been so clearly defined. Even in the Iranian case, Khomeini’s dominance came long after the initial triumph of the revolution and the departure of the Shah, who for the majority remained the focal point of the revolution. Unity of purpose came in hatred of the Shah, and the regime he represented, with little idea of what might follow. Indeed, the general assessment of Iranians themselves was that Khomeini would retire gracefully to Qom to teach, adhering to a tradition of Shia Quietism, which any student of Khomeini would have realised was anathema to him.
The current regime sees the success of the revolution as consequent on the weakness of the Shah and the central lesson they draw is that one must always show ‘strength’ – here interpreted crudely as force – in the face of protests. To do otherwise is to invite ridicule and collapse for in the absence of affection, fear must hold sway. In one sense they are quite right, political revolutions are at heart psychological moments, the absence of fear and the willingness of the people to think the unthinkable. In another however, the lessons drawn are vulgar and deeply flawed. As some commentators in Iran have noted the reason the Shah fell was not because he conceded too much but because he conceded too late. By the time he decided to reform no one trusted him.
A key element in the success of the political revolution is government weakness. Revolutions are rarely ‘won’: it is governments which lose power. But weakness can be defined in a variety of ways. It can relate to indecision, fractures within the elite, but also a stubborn determination not to change one’s ways – on the pretext that this reflects strength. To keep repeating the ways of the past in the belief that brute force will compensate for corrupt governance. If the recent protests have shown anything it is that this is not a recipe for long term success, still less stability. It may buy the regime some time but in the absence of structural reforms, it is a policy of depreciating returns, as the growing frequency – and intensity – of protests suggests.
The Sources of Rebellion
The current round follows on from two serious outbreaks of discontent in 2017 and 2019, both of which were triggered by economic grievances but soon took on a political hue. In 2019 the protests were suppressed at a high cost with at least 300 documented fatalities though some have assessed the figure to be nearer 1500. As serious as these were – and the Minister of Interior justified the slaughter on the basis that the threat to the regime was existential – framed against the backdrop of the Western determination to keep the nuclear agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) alive – they were seen in the West as largely contingent on the failure of the agreement to realise its potential.
There was little attempt to understand the protests on their own terms and as part of a wider Iranian political dynamic. As such, in a somewhat bizarre exercise in analytical acrobatics, some commentators in the West blamed the protests on the United States (and Trump in particular) rather than the Iranian regime. Those in 2019, coming after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, were understood almost exclusively through the prism of sanctions, rather than internal mismanagement and corruption. There can be little doubt that sanctions have made economic matters worse, but sanctions are salt rubbed into a massive self-inflicted wound forged by corruption and mismanagement. Not least the growing crisis with the country’s depleting water resources which has resulted in many households in southern Iran not having access to clean running water. This crisis has been brought on by decades of poor water management and non-existent investment in the pipeline infrastructure. It is a stark if somewhat emblematic reminder of the fundamental problem of poor governance which has afflicted the Islamic Republic since its inception.
The mullahs have effectively wasted away the inheritance they received from decades of growth and investment under the Pahlavis with little thought about how to take things forward other than a disastrous ambition to reverse earlier population controls and instead seek a doubling of the population to over 150m. Given the paucity of resources, one can only imagine what catastrophes will follow from such a growth. To these economic woes however we must add political mismanagement. If the state has failed to invest in the country’s infrastructure, its neglect of the political infrastructure is in many ways equally stark.
The genealogy of the current protests can be traced to the Green Movement in 2009, the extensive series of protests against what were widely considered the fraudulent Presidential elections of that year. Their violent suppression effectively extinguished any hope of internal reform, not least because the authorities decided to define their opponents as ‘heretics’, a characterisation repeated today, which leaves very little room for compromise. The embers of hope were nonetheless kept alight by the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Rouhani’s prose however did not match the flamboyant lyricism of his campaign and few people in Iran were convinced that a resolution of the nuclear programme would yield significant political change; a view held by many in the West who (erroneously) believed the nuclear crisis to be the cause rather than a symptom of the wider political malaise in Iran. (Obama has since expressed regret about not being more forceful in his support of the protests).
As in 2009, the current protests are explicitly political in nature, they also share much in organisation and structure: geographically disparate, ostensibly leaderless with street organisers taking the lead at local levels with individual cells coordinated through mobile telecommunications and social media. This latter element has of course now become much more sophisticated, with a greater level of social cohesion, a broader base of support and a greater intensity of protests. A captivating anthem – baraye (For) - drawn from social media posts detailing the demands of the young has gone viral (contrast this with the reaction to the official ‘anthem’ Salam Farmandeh – Hello Commander - which most people regard as a clumsy paean to Khamenei). The level of political awareness and sophistication among the young should not be under-estimated, absorbing ideas and tactics in equal measure and inured to an environment that has taught them to be politically nimble. There is no shortage of potential leaders to draw on. In this they are worthy heirs of the protestors of the past. The crowd in Iranian politics has rarely acted as a mob.
The protests in 2009 were at times larger, but less frequent and less immediately violent. This time round, the anger is palpable and the demands much more fundamental. Few people are seeking reform. Their demand for civil, political and human rights, echo the revolution of 1906 not 1979, (many indeed explicitly refer to Constitutional Revolution as their intellectual point of origin), and the fact that these demands are being reiterated by a new generation over a decade after the crushing of the Green Movement, is a testament to the enduring power of ideas. They are also explicitly secular and replete with pre-Islamic nationalist motifs drawn in part from the country’s highly popular historical mythology. In a revealing admission, interrogators have admitted they have no idea what young people are demanding, so alien are these to their own Islamic world view.
The Regime’s Dilemmas
The protestors have to date shown remarkable resilience and courage in the face of the all too familiar response from the regime, which can be described as the generation of terror and instability through arbitrary assaults and wilful damage to property. In so doing the regime is attempting to generate support for a clampdown – a restoration of order. Added to this is the allegation of foreign interference – in this case largely Saudi (though the West will not be far behind) and the argument (in echoes ironically of the Shah) that the aim is not to bring democracy to Iran but to weaken and fragment it. The difficulty they are facing this time around however is not only the relative absence of fear among the populace but also credulity. Few people believe the regime anymore and while the numbers protesting may be small in relation to the wider population, like a highly effective guerrilla operation, the protestors clearly enjoy the support of wider society.
Some have argued that the absence of a more systematic crackdown – on the same scale as 2009 or even 2019 – suggests that the regime feels relatively secure. Yet an equally valid conclusion might be that the regime feels uncertain what to do and that divisions of opinion are being felt within the elite. Not least in the security forces themselves, where for all but the most zealous, the prospect of confronting young protestors including schoolgirls is problematic. The authorities will be acutely aware that the vast majority of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic are conscripted, and if the senior leadership have been co-opted, it will be the mid-level officers they will need to watch. The recent spate of assassinations of individuals hitherto thought untouchable suggests that the security establishment is not as uniformly loyal as the regime likes to present.
At a more public level they have certainly struggled to bring out their supporters in counter demonstrations – a regular feature of past encounters. The protestors are young and in many cases female, and the economy is in far worse shape. In contrast and highly unusually, the sporting and cultural community have come out forcefully in support of the protestors, condemning the attack on women, and visibly refusing to celebrate sporting victories. Strikingly, for a football mad country, the impending World Cup (in which Iran is drawn against England, the United States and Wales), is being greeted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Moreover, for reasons of ideological solidarity, the regime has decided to double down on an unpopular alliance with Russia. That if nothing else suggests no progress on the nuclear negotiations and sanctions, but this alliance creates even more acute problems. It identifies the situation in Iran with a far wider struggle. If Russia falters or fails in its war against Ukraine the consequences for the regime in Iran are likely to be profound, empowering the protestors who (as in 1906) see Russia as the main supporter of the regime. (In 1905 Russia lost a war against Japan which reverberated around the world). At the same time the conflation of the two crises has reinforced a different image of Iran in the international community which now makes it more difficult for the authorities to dismiss the protests as a local difficulty of no relevance to others.
The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been remarkably absent and despite repeated assurances about his health there is widespread acknowledgement that we are entering that acutely vulnerable period in any autocracy: succession. Khamenei, has been carefully preparing the ground for his second son Mojtaba to succeed him, an attempt to establish a hereditary succession which is highly controversial and is likely to face opposition from members of the wider elite. Baluchistan and Kurdistan meanwhile, are effectively in open insurrection, with strikes being launched into Iraqi Kurdistan in an effort to interdict the flow of weapons.
The Islamic Republic is facing a perfect storm. It could show strength by conceding errors and promising to reform. Some have suggested that it may just choose to relax or indeed reform the mandatory veiling laws. But history and ideology will work against that – the regime has chosen to see the relaxing of the veil as an existential challenge to its core Islamic doctrine. Moreover the veil is emblematic of a much wider problem with women’s rights and rights in general. The sort of changes now being sought would undermine and effectively overthrow the wider Islamist project being pursued by the Islamic Republic. While an assured Supreme Leader might have an ‘epiphany’ and force through systematic change, an ailing one is in no position to try.
So, the regime will attempt to double down on repression, trusting in its security forces and Islamic militias to keep faith in the system. If these begin to fracture with the fatigue of fighting an enemy it does not understand and cannot seem to control, then the regime will be in serious trouble. There are already attempts to call on the regular armed forces to back the people and to split from the ideological guardians of the revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Vacillating between the deep anxiety and arrogance that characterises paranoid regimes, it will continue to blame foreigners, and denounce their opponents as heretics and traitors, while reassured by a conviction that the protestors lack stamina and will sooner or later fade away. Like their ally Putin, they have assumed that their opposition will prove incompetent, and the West will lose interest. But like Putin, they may find their opponents are more competent and determined than they appreciate and that, with little left to lose, they too can count on reserves of strategic patience. These protests are deeply rooted, the anger is well grounded. The authorities of the Islamic Republic have been anxiously fighting bushfires for well over a decade keen to avoid them spreading. It is too early to predict what the outcome of this round of protests will be. What we do know is they are broader and deeper than before, encompassing a much broader swathe of the public. They represent a culmination of decades of political corruption and economic neglect.
If momentum is maintained and state violence increases (which few doubt), there will come a time when the cracks in the beleaguered state edifice begin to grow wider with sympathy strikes and fatigue in the security forces leading to defections. At this stage the supportive hinterland will come to life, leaders will emerge, and manifestos defined. Few doubt that fatigue has set in, but neither do people believe that the endgame for the Islamic Republic will be quick or tidy. Even if the current round of protests subside it will not be long before another begins, such is the lack of imagination possessed by the authorities. For Iranians who are beginning to think the unthinkable and imagining a future beyond the Islamic Revolution, the fundamental rights they are fighting for are not simply an idea whose time has come, they are long overdue.
The title picture is taken from a protest march in Paris in late October (Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images)
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