Friday, June 19, 2009

If Iranians Defy Khamenei on Saturday, We Might Have a Real Diagnosis

Ignore all the Iran experts, says Charles Kurzman at Foreign Policy magazine. For everything that's difficult to discern about what's really going on in Iran after the June 12 election, the only thing we can be sure of is that it's virtually impossible to predict what will happen next.

Add to this Friday's speech by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Tehran University, unequivocally declaring his support for the results of the election, and vowing "chaos and bloodshed" for any further unrest, the responsibility for which he would squarely place upon the opposition leaders.

From here onwards, continued protests will mean much more than what they have so far.

Apart from the increased risk of a potentially violent crackdown on the protesters, those in opposition to the election results will now also find themselves in opposition to the will of the Supreme Leader, which has resulted in imprisonment and even death for many in the past.

Watching how it all unfolds from here will be diagnostic. There has been confusion over what it is exactly that is being protested. What started out as supporters of Mousavi protesting the election results has now evolved into what many perceive as a rebellion against Iran's political process and structure of power. For some, it's still about Mousavi. For others, it's about the injustice of being lied to and not having their vote counted. Finally, many of the protesters are intent on bringing about another revolution like in 1979, and challenging the fundamental idea of velayat-e-fakih, the system that gives ultimate power to the clerics.

Which one of these constitutes the primary spirit of the protest movement?

If most people still believe this is only about Mousavi, we're likely to see a significant decrease in turnout on Saturday. Mousavi is one of the founding fathers of the revolution, and despite his credentials as a reformer -- and many believe his views have changed significantly over time due to the influence of his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former adviser to reformist president Mohammad Khatami -- he is unlikely to be able to bring any kind of significant change, because his power as president will be greatly stunted by Khamenei, as Khatami's was. Would the "chaos and bloodshed" be worth coming out in support for him when it might not even matter in the end?

If, however, the turnout is high, and we see similar numbers of people lining the streets as we have in the last few days, it's reasonable to assume that this isn't just about Mousavi; the protest movement will then officially be in manifest defiance of Khamenei -- not just of his views, and not just of his will -- but of his threat of bloodshed and chaos.

If that happens, Iran may be either on the path to another revolution, or another Tiananmen Square-like situation. One of the key determinants of which way it might go will be the extent to which Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and paramilitary forces like the Basij are loyal to the Supreme Leader. In 1979, there was a militaristic component to the revolution that successfully overwhelmed the armed forces loyal to the Shah. Without that component, another revolution is very unlikely.

But then, on Thursday night's Rachel Maddow Show, Reza Aslan spoke of reports that some of the Iranian army's high-ranking generals had been detained by the Revolutionary Guard for refusing to open fire on the protesters if ordered to do so. The report, unconfirmed of course, is not entirely implausible. Aslan said:

"The difference now is that, A, these are not just kids. These are not just college students. They‘re not just reformists. Some of them -- the Rafsanjanis, the Khatamis -— these are the pillars of the Islamic republic. They are the people who actually brought the Islamic republic to fruition 30 years ago. So, you can‘t just open up fire on these people.

And secondly... in the 21st century, there is no such thing as a media blackout. Everything that happens in Iran, we will know about -- in real time sometimes. So, they can't hide behind sort of a blackout of the media. They know that whatever they do, the entire world is going to see."
One symbol of the 1979 revolution being re-enacted is the chants of Allah-o-Akbar ("God is Great") being yelled out from rooftops in the middle of the night. This is confusing to many of us watching it all from afar -- is this going to be another religious revolution, or are the chants just a symbolic glimpse into the intent of the protesters?

Again, it's hard to tell. Just as there were many different groups -- pro-secular and pro-theocratic alike -- that rose up against the Shah in 1979, this group of protesters is not monolithic. A protester on the ground in Tehran wrote the following to Nico Pitney at his live update blog at HuffPost after Khamenei's speech:
"...despite the 'leaders' words today I and I'm sure many others will be going out tomorrow... I never took much heed in what he had to say in the past and still don't. there are many in my family who fear for my safety when I go out as I'm only here for 9 more days. My answer for them is that it is my responsibility to march against an unjust regime... hell as a staunch atheist I find myself shouting Allah Akbar in the streets."
The goal of the protesters may be as confusing to themselves as it seems to us. Is Mousavi really at the helm of it all or is he just a symbol? Will the Khatamis and Rafsanjanis, as Reza Aslan implied, continue to support the protesters Saturday onwards in overt defiance of Khamenei? If Mousavi orders a halt to further demonstrations, will they still continue? Is it even about them anymore? An anonymous Iranian photo-journalist on the ground provided perhaps the most telling answer in an interview with blogger and filmmaker Parvez Sharma this morning, when asked if Mousavi was the only hope:
"I don't think he is the only hope and the best option but I do think that's what these people want and need right now. They can't aim for a huge change and [start] marching against the Islamic republic of Iran, but they can get [where they want to be by demanding changes to the existing system of government]. Plus I think right now the issue is more how they've been treated and lied to and... So they want [their rights] back more than anything and in this process Mousavi has suddenly become the face and the leader. They voted for him and now they want their vote to be realized. I also think he is a bit different now, not that his way of thinking or ideas has totally changed [such that he is now a] super open minded person but he has changed, and I strongly believe his wife is the power behind all that.
If she sounds unsure, it's because she probably is. Sharma points out that the interview was conducted just prior to Khamenei's speech.

Those in Iran who don't know yet if this is just about the election or something bigger will probably be struggling for an answer tonight, before Saturday afternoon's scheduled demonstration -- the first after Khamenei's defiant and threatening speech. This will be their real test.

The rest of us will only know where this is going once they do.

No comments: