You can read the first part of this series here.
The dynamics of the Republic’s politics are another advantage to the regime. Under the monarchy, the Shah was the regime and the regime was the Shah. His micromanagement of the state meant that he was ultimately responsible for every decision made, which bred a culture of decision-making deference that worked toward his downfall in the times of his indecision during the revolution. As a consequence, every mismanagement eventually became the fault of Reza Shah’s autocracy and made him an easy target for the opposition. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s fragmented politics diffuse frustration and anger, as it is never really clear who is involved in the decision-making. If you were to look at an Iranian news agency’s websites, their home pages are filled with seemingly insignificant politicians making various seemingly insignificant statements. This doesn’t exist in autocracies or dictatorships, in which the only politician that counts is the ruler. It simply comes to this: when the opposition rallies, whose caricature do they draw on their placards? Who do they direct their slogans against? Rallying against a system is far more difficult than rallying against a person, as everyone will disagree as to who is the source of the country’s problems.
The important point to remember is that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is primarily based on two pillars: anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. The cronyism that emerged in the 1990s during the post-war reconstruction has made a small Islamic elite very, very rich (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is reportedly the richest man in Iran). The regime has had to wean the population off state handouts and the pillar of anti-capitalism is wavering. Despite this, the regime’s championing of anti-imperialism could not be stronger. For a country that has been invaded by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Russians and the British, Iranians are not likely to open itself to foreign influences dictating the future of their country – which includes ideology. Khomeini’s vision may be based upon a foreign religion, however its Shi‘a identity allows Iranians to distance themselves from the rest of the Islamic world. It may not be perfect, but it is the line of best fit.
Could there be another revolution? With the above points in mind, it seems highly unlikely that any sort of revolution could occur that would recreate as profound a change as 1979. Any hope of total regime change should be shelved next to those of the England football team winning an international competition. People may be frustrated and angry with the government, but there are no indications the IRI is anywhere near as unpopular as the Shah. However, it is hard to imagine that the continuous pressure of the sanctions will not deepen the fissures in Iranian society.
In the wake of the elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the fear of a neo-Islamic Empire sans Caliphate under Islamist parties in nation-states is appearing to be unfounded. What the people of the Middle East want for their future is far more nuanced and could be the next step for Islam and governance. Whilst many want some sort of general Islamic direction, most are far too consumerist to want something like Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s model of an Islamic state. The notion of replacing secular state penetration of their daily lives with an Islamic one cannot be an appealing prospect, nor can the international isolation and condemnation that accompanies Iran’s system. Within this context, should a reform movement really develop in Iran it could very well be in the Arab Spring’s image – a ‘yes’ to Khomeini but a ‘no’ to the current system. How Velayat-e Faqih would fit into this concept is difficult to imagine, but it would certainly be subject to serious re-interpretation to reconcile Khomeini’s vision with a more democratic, transparent system.
Time is against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s population is young and as the new generations age the memories of the chaos of the 1980s will fade from their collective consciousness. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Tunisian Spring was that people were no longer afraid to take to the streets, unlike their parents’ generation who were witness to the brutal crackdowns of the 1980s. No government can rely solely on the use of force to hold a country together, but the bitter internal divisions between the reformists and the conservatives, who currently hold a de facto control of the state, will prevent the country from achieving the reform it needs to adjust to the daily realities of everyday life. However, the current conservative leadership sees such reform as a second imperialist onslaught, which in its essence is an affront to their power but simultaneously a product of Iran’s acrid interaction with the West. The enforcement of the Islamic code is now less an ideological belief rather an attempt to crackdown on dissent, hence why the brutality of the codes’ enforcement tends to intensify with the heightening of political pressure.
The final thought to leave with is this: this is not the first time Iran been subject to severe economic punishment for the sake of nationalism. The movement to nationalise the oil industry brought a similar international response where British-led sanctions attempted to strangle the Iranians into giving up their demands to wrestle control for the oil industry from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Unlike today, however, there has not emerged as skilled, eloquent and popular a politician such as Mohammad Mossadegh that could unite the country rather than divide it. When Mossadegh blamed the ‘imperialist powers’ for Iran’s ills, the people cheered. Now, when an IRI official blames the West for all of Iran’s problems, it seems more and more people are rolling their eyes. Mossadegh was welcomed as exuberantly in Cairo as he was in Tehran. None of the IRI’s politicians can boast the same popularity. The honeymoon of the post-colonial era has long ended since Mossadegh’s premiership and Islamic Republic has failed to translate the nationalistic issue of its era into enduring unity.
Tagged 1979, Akbar Hashemi Ransanjani, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-Imperialism, Arab Spring, Egypt, Iran, Iranian Revolution, Islamic Republic, Islamism, Khomeini, Libya, Mohammad Mossadegh, Muhammad Reza Shah, Reza Shah, Saudi Arabia, the West, Tunisia, Velayat-e Faqih