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Iran's Not-Yet-Revolution: Cause for Optimism

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In more than three months following the rigged election that Khatami described as a 'velvet coup', the Iranian regime has been stripped of all shreds of its legitimacy. More than at any other time in its short history, the power of the state is reduced to naked force. As the shadowy power of the revolutionary guards comes to the fore the regime grows more fragile. For despite a bloody crackdown, killings, arrests, torture, the rape of both women and men and Stalinist-style "confessions", the unrest in Iran not only refuses to disappear, but shows signs of becoming more widespread and radicalised.

Even by the fortieth day after Black Saturday (20 June 2009), the uprising had moved visibly beyond the regime. It was on this historic day that protestors began to secularise one of the most popular slogans of the 1979 revolution, changing it from 'independence, freedom, Islamic republic' to 'independence, freedom, Iranian Republic'.

To the great dislike of Musavi and others, the uprising entered the phase of revolution. More recently on 'Jerusalem day', Green demonstrators came out in various cities, defying threats from the security forces and revealing the growing discontent with the revolutionary guards. In Tehran they overwhelmed the state-organized demonstrators, most of which had been bussed in. This growing public does not simply demand an annulment of election results, a re-run or even the removal of the supreme leader. It wants regime change.

As a protest movement, it has of course already had considerable impact. First, it has demonstrated to the world that the ruling elite which some calls the 'military-financial mafia' does not represent the will of the majority of Iranians. We saw the effect of this on Ahmadinejad's recent visit to the UN, where the largest post-revolution demonstration was staged against him. His speech there was attended by only 43 of the 192 country representatives. Second, the movement has shown that what many people are actually pursuing is the establishment of democracy in an independent Iran.

Finally, it reveals that the opposition advocates an understanding of Islam that is defined on democratic principles. The theological and theoretical bases of this form of Islam are in fact already being developed by Muslim intellectuals such as Kadivar, Soroush, Shabestari and above all Banisadr, who argues that Islam in itself is a 'discourse of freedom'.

Khamenei, Negative Leader of an Acephalous Revolution

Hence, an unrest that began from a dispute over election results now shows all the signs of a revolution in the making. Could it happen? Sociologist Charles Tilly identified five factors that have to be present if so: interest, organization, mobilization, opportunity and finally collective action itself. All of these are in place in the current uprising in Iran, and we can add two more: the lessening of external threats from the US, and a re-imagining of the relationship between Islam and democracy.

Thanks to Khamenei, the Iranian regime is so irreconcilably fragmented that no faction can compromise with the other. When the supreme leader led the coup to solidify his power, he needed to camouflage this beneath a democratic mandate that could only be achieved through mass political participation. In order to make this possible, he let reformist candidates Musavi and Karubi to run.

However, as much as the regime has tried to use people to implement their plans, the people have also used the opportunities given to them to pursue a different agenda: the establishment of freedom. The dynamism of the movement has carried Karubi and Musavi away with it. Their daring refusal to submit to Khamenei upon the wave of protest provided a historical opportunity for people to pour into the streets and express their desire for freedom, on a scale unprecedented since the 1979 revolution.

The spontaneous nature of the uprising, its radical demands and its limited leadership means that the movement had to organize itself horizontally rather than vertically, making it impossible for the regime to decapitate. Unlike in the 1979 revolution, people are now deprived from using mosques as centres for mobilization, as Mosques are controlled by revolutionary guards and the basijis. But they have been able to use new social media such as the Internet and even online governmental resources, as well as the traditional technology of 'radio bazaar' (word of mouth).

With no discernable centre of power and organization, the arrest of hundreds of elites and thousands of others did not have the slightest effect on the capacity of the movement to re-organize itself and draw up new plans. Furthermore, this uprising is the first since the revolution that has been able to cut cross gender, class, age and ethnic barriers; it taps into popular resources on a national scale. As thousands of schools have opened and more than three-and-a-half million students have returned to universities, student protestors have demonstrated that they are increasingly willing to use the resources and opportunities available to them for mobilization.

They are demanding the resignation of Ahmadinejad's government. His ministers are booed and, even in small university in the small town of Kashan, his propaganda minister had to visit secretly to avoid protests. So the regime faces a dilemma: it can close down the universities to curtail the spread of protest, or it can allow the protests to continue, and face the consequences. Once again, the regime is trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Threats and Possibilities

Demands for regime change irritate many reformist intellectuals, who for years have written of the 'vices' of social revolution and warned people against it. But it is precisely these radical demands which prevent the regime from doing any internal deals that compromise the popular demand for freedom. As the regime is not unified in repressing the uprising, it has not been able to use its repressive forces to their fullest capacity, which is being further weakened by increasing global public support for the democratic movement.

There are also numerous reports from within military barracks that an increasing number of guards and basijis are becoming disillusioned about their role in the suppression of peaceful demonstrations. As long as the uprising maintains its peaceful methods, and the more the guards are brought to the streets, the faster the regime will collapse. However, the demand for regime change may not necessarily follow the path of the 1979 revolution. Such a change could also be made by reviving and revising the democratic first draft of the 1979 Constitution, in which the elected president, not the clergy, was the head of the state. However, there is both a major internal shortcoming and a possible external threat to the uprising.

Internally, the uprising has yet to form a viable, popular and trustworthy leadership, in the form of a front. It needs a unified leadership that does not suffer from the limitations of Musavi and Karubi, imposed on them both by the regime and their beliefs, and that is based on the three guiding principles of independence, freedom and republicanism. There have been attempts to form such a front, but it has yet to truly materialize.

The greatest external threat to the uprising may be the possible escalation of crisis around nuclear issues. The sudden willingness of the regime to compromise over the nuclear issue, which UN-Chief negotiator, Mohammad Elbaradei, describes as a 'gear shift', could be seen as both a sign of the regime's weakness and an attempt to foster international peace in order to crack down internally. In this case, global public opinion should be vigilant about any agreement over the nuclear issue, lest it come at the cost of a green light for domestic repression.

On the other hand, it is also possible that the regime will return to an old method of control, creating international crises to control the public through a politics of fear. In such a scenario, the hardening of sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians and even a possible military attack on Iran's nuclear installations could prolong the uprising. This is not only because it distracts attention by forcing Iranians to temporarily rally behind the very regime they are trying to overthrow, but also because it could provide an opportunity for the ruling mafia to annihilate its opponents and extend its power.

Despite these shortcomings and threats, there is cause for optimism. Those in the movement realize that there is no third way, and that the regime has closed itself off. It is difficult to say whether the not-yet-revolution will come or be made. It may be some combination of the two. In any case, the future is open with possibilities, and the courage and perseverance of Iranians will condition the path. It has already set a new precedent of political will to establish a genuinely home-grown democracy in the region and throughout the Islamic world in general. Its global impact cannot be underestimated.