This article originally appeared in The Sydney Globalist’s “Shifting Seats” edition in 2012. It assesses my previous work on Iran’s post 2009 election crisis in light of the region’s historic leadership changes.
In 2009, at the height of the controversial Iranian elections that saw the most widespread protests in the Islamic Republic’s 30 year history, I wrote the lead article for the ‘New Face of Power’ edition of The Sydney Globalist: ‘The Technological Revolution: Freedom, Change and Democracy in Iran’. Expressing deep admiration for the courage, perseverance and creativity of the protestors in challenging the allegedly fraudulent electoral results, I explored the emergence of a new kind of political dissent inspired by the phenomena of social media.
Technologically armed with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the efforts of the Iranian protestors have largely been heralded as the precursor to the wave of leadership challenges and depositions of dictators in the Middle East in 2011.
Almost three years since the uprisings, Iran’s leadership crisis, unlike those in Egypt and Tunisia, has failed to garner regime or leadership change. By contrast, in a continued and meticulous campaign aimed at crushing dissent, the regime prima facie appears to have a stranglehold on power stronger now than ever in its 33-year history.
However, an analysis of Iran’s movement as having reached a considerable and meaningless plateau is far from accurate. A closer and more qualified inspection indicates that Iran’s progression into the depths of theocracy and totalitarianism has been coupled with the development of an even larger movement for broader social change.
In a time of leadership changes and crises, Iran represents an anomaly of sorts, one that cannot be said to conform to the current wave of overt democratic movements throughout the Middle East. And yet the movement, whilst no longer necessarily “Green” in colour, remains a pertinent force and a significant thorn in the Islamic Republic that may eventually lead to its demise.
Since his Election in 2009, Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a leader much criticised in Western media for his apparently provocative rhetoric, has become increasingly isolated. Ironically, his distance has not been prompted by so-called ‘reformist’ figures, many of which have been gaoled, tortured or subjected to house arrest.
Rather, political infighting has emerged between the more theocratic members of the Iranian regime loyal to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad supporters, the former accusing Ahmadinejad of deviating from conservative Islam. As such, deep divisions have appeared amongst the ruling religious aristocracy.
In 2009, it may have been difficult to foresee the strange turn of events where those once loyal to Ahmadinejad abandoned his rhetoric in favour of a more extreme theocracy. The man lambasted in international media is also viewed by the religious elite within the country as dangerous, but for vastly different reasons.
To the clerics, Ahmadinejad represents a threat to theocratic Islam. To everyday Iranians, Ahmadinejad reflects a barrier to achieving change and reform. To the Western world, Ahmadinejad is seen as a dangerous madman. It is hard to categorise where the Iranian Movement stands in a world of divided discourse and rhetoric surrounding an increasingly powerless man.
In a blow to Ahmadinejad’s credibility, recent parliamentary elections saw the Iranian President fail to garner the support of the voting populace, giving way to the election of hard line individuals loyal to the Supreme Leader.
Increasingly, Iranian conservatives have suggested that Ahmadinejad’s misgivings demonstrate the need to displace the position of President entirely. This would leave the Supreme Leader to rule every aspect of Iranian society. In the context of a movement towards greater theocracy, such a move would not be surprising. It would be a truer reflection of the facade of democracy the Iranian Constitution purports to promote and the reality of the subordination of the rule of law.
What does this political infighting amongst the ruling elite mean for the rest of Iranian society? The movement towards closer loyalty to the Supreme Leader has resulted in deeper efforts to clamp down on any political dissent.
Arrests have increased. The threat of violence has suppressed any glimmer of public protest. Human rights activists, lawyers and so-called reformist politicians have been prevented from functioning within everyday society, and the security mechanisms of the country remain on high alert.
Despite their deep divisions, the ruling conservatives remain united in their opposition to the movement and to the democratic rhetoric of 2009, where millions throughout Iran alleged widespread electoral fraud, and perhaps even the need for systemic change.
But it is difficult to see the Iranian regime’s increased security response as representing some form of stability within Iranian society, as the ruling elites would have observer believe. The suggestion that an increase in arrests and suppression of dissent represents a unified modern Iran is logically incongruent.
Rather, the regime is experiencing what scholar Ray Takeyh calls a “deep crisis of legitimacy”: a perpetual state of fear that the wounds of 2009 may reappear. And if Iran’s history in 1953 and 1979 is anything to go by, regimes are prone to eventual unravelling and collapse.
Ultimately, it is still difficult to predict where Iran’s movement is headed. Gone are the days where dissent is articulated through flagrant colours of opposition. Such protests have been suppressed through mass intimidation, show trials and torture. However, as long as the Iranian security apparatus continues to respond in such a ferocious manner, the movement of 2009 remains a relevant and active force.
As the regime experiences increased political infighting and responds through greater suppression of the rule of law, the ideals of the ‘Green movement’ lie beneath the surface of Iranian society. The seeds of social dissent have certainly been planted, but it is possible that in years to come the ‘Arab Spring’ may have a distinctly ‘Persian Winter’. In a historic period of leadership transitions, serious trouble could be brewing for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Jahan Navidi recently completed his final year of a combined Bachelor of Laws / Bachelor of International & Global Studies at the University of Sydney.
The article may be accessed on pages 32-33 of the “Shifting Seats” edition of The Sydney Globalist, or below: http://thesydneyglobalist.org/2012/09/irans-2009-green-movement-revisited-2012-and-beyond/