The recent reports coming from Iran about the domestic situation do not paint a positive picture. The BBC reports that the spike in chicken prices has led to angry protests in the sleepy city of Nishapour. The government’s usually bombastic and nationalistic rhetoric declaring Iran’s immunity from the 1st July sanctions is starting to recognise the role of the sanctions in a recent spike of prices. Even IRNA, the government-owned broadcasting company, is televising images of the long queues to buy chicken. The domestic pressure is mounting against the Islamic Republic, and unless there is a breakthrough in nuclear talks, it is uncertain how this pressure will release. For the US, the secret hope is that the government will mismanage itself into regime change under the intense pressure, producing a friendlier (or at least less antagonistic) Tehran.
We actually know very little of what is happening in Iran. The US and UK no longer have embassies in Tehran, and with them their primary intelligence-gathering apparatus, it has become harder for Westerners to travel to Iran and the government is as transparent as a black hole.
The stability of the Islamic Republic is not as straightforward as most would hope. The 2009 protests and the show of strength by the Green Movement, accompanied by a wealth of literature denouncing the undemocratic theocracy, have given the impression that the country is straddling a political fault line. Political exiles fiercely affirm that the Islamic regime does not represent the people. The Iranian blogosphere’s highly critical posture towards their rulers makes it seem as if the whole country is denouncing the Islamic Republic. Those westerners lucky enough to acquire the ever-elusive entry visa report back a general feeling of disenchantment, frustration and anger amongst those they have met. The Islamic Republic weathered the storms of the 1980s when it was at its most vulnerable, but are the sanctions enough to break the country’s back and catalyse a second Iranian revolution?
The first point of reference to understand the tensions within Iran is the split in national identity between ‘Islamicness’ and ‘Iranianness’. Ever since the Arab invasions of Sassanian Iran in 634 AD there has been a struggle to reconcile Iran’s rich pre-Islamic past with the absolutism of Islam. It has led to one of the many contradictions in the country, where ordinary citizens take pride in their historical legacy and yet must simultaneously denounce it as the ‘age of jahiliyya’, or the ‘ignorance’ before the arrival of Islam.
Despite Iranians’ widespread influence in the Islamic Empire, ranging from pinnacle administrators of state to philosophers such as al-Farabi to theologians such as al-Ghazali, there is little love lost between the Persians and Arabs. The Arabs refer to the Iraniains as ‘al-‘ajm’, or ‘those who mumble’ while Iranians constantly call Arabs barbaric and uncivilised. Islam is considered as an extension of this barbarism, imposed on Iranians who had no choice but accept it. This partially explains why Iran is the only Shi‘a state in the Muslim world – it is anti-establishment rebellion within the system at its finest.
The expression of this anti-establishment protest within the country itself takes a different form. Parents now give their children distinctly pre-Islamic Persian names, writers de-Arabise their texts from Arabic’s grammatical influence and young people tattoo themselves with iconographic Zoroastrian imagery. But does this anti-establishment-within-the-establishment protest actually amount to anything?
The trouble is that it is hard to ascertain how widespread this resurgence of pre-Islamic identity has become and whether it is just an offshoot of teen rebellion. In truth, it appears to be popular only among the consumerist middle class who already lost out in the post-revolution system when the left was eliminated from Khomeini’s revolutionary government. There are still millions of Iran’s poor who have dramatically improved their lot under the populist economic practices of the Islamic Republic.
One of the Islamic Republic’s strengths is that its Islamic version of national identity is more inclusive than that touting the pre-Islamic Iranian history. Iran is 98% Muslim and only 54% ethnically Persian. There are Arabs, Baluchis, Armenians, Azeris and Kurds (amongst others) that would soon feel alienated, at least those who are not already, if the state placed the Persian language, history and culture in the forefront. The fear of separatist movements across the country is far more worrying than an attack on its nuclear programme, especially as the Arab province of Khuzestan is Iran’s top oil producer. The fears in the British government of the possible loss of Scotland to the independence referendum spotlight the anticipated consequences of a peaceful and legal transition to separatism within a stable, democratic and established state. When you have a state that is living in a neighbourhood as Iran, any separatist movement is linked with weakness and possible invasion. After all, Saddam Hussein had believed the Arabs of Khuzestan would join him in his offensive against the Islamic Republic.
The 2009 elections were an earthquake for Iran. Tehran had not seen demonstrations on such a scale since 1979, with the most optimistic figures numbering the protestors at 3 million, roughly 4% of Iran’s population – though still shy of the estimated 10% that rallied against the Shah. This is not meaningless, however, as an estimated 2% were involved in the French Revolution and 1% in the Russian. However, considering Tehran’s population is bigger than it was in 1979, it would seem that the Green Movement cannot boast the same support as the anti-Shah factions under Khomeini.
The leadership of the Islamic Republic remembered from its own experience that the Shah’s failure was his refusal to use overwhelming brutality until too late. Their added ace in their collective sleeve is the paramilitary Islamic institutions of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia, along with the Revolutionary Courts (which are responsible for ‘political crimes’ paralleling the criminal courts), that were established as an added insurance against the regular army’s neutrality, the key event in 1979 that hammered the final nail in the Pahlavi’s coffin.
The Green Movement itself is a shadow of the opposition movement under Khomeini. A recent interview with Mojtaba Vahedi, the former spokesman for the movement’s leader Mehdi Karoubi, detailed the incoherence of the movement. Whilst Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi are under house arrest and are regularly denounced in the Iranian Parliament, they are both firm believers of Khomeini’s vision but believe the current Republic is neither ‘Islamic nor a Republic’. Yet in Vahedi’s opinion, if a referendum were conducted across Iran today, most would vote out an Islamic Republic. Mousavi and Karoubi perhaps may be blunting their true opinions to avoid further punishment from the state, but it is equally likely they are telling the truth as both participated in the Iranian Revolution and supported Khomeini. This incoherence has essentially immobilised the opposition as they are missing the two key ingredients of 1979: a strong personality as Khomeini’s, who could be accepted as a leader of all the various opposition groups, and unity of direction. Whilst the 1979 opposition had incompatible visions of the post-monarchist government, they at least all agreed with one another that the Shah had to go.
Read the second part of this series here.
Tagged 2009 elections, BBC, Chicken Prices, Green Movement, Iran, IRNA, Islam, Islamic Republic, jahiliyya, Khomeini, Khuzestan, Mehdi Karoubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mojtaba Vahedi, Nishapour, Persian, Saddam Hussein, Sassanian Empire, Shah, Shia, Tehran, Theocracy, US