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Mark Levine Headshot

Prague, Beirut, or Tiananmen? Iran Teeters on the Edge

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It was just one of thousands of photos circulating across the internet and adorning the home pages of major newspapers as they struggled to keep up with events in Iran, and it's already disappeared off the Huffington Post home page where I briefly glimpsed it. But for me the picture truly spoke 1000 words. A young man, like so many Iranian friends of mine, with shoulder-length, shaggy hair and casual clothes, a mid-20s college student or IT worker, or perhaps a musician, was surrounded by several middle-aged women in chadors, all them being beaten by riot police on the streets near Tehran University.

It's almost impossible to determine whether this election was free and fair. But it's clear that the regime is nervous enough about threats to its power and stability that it is willing to unleash a high level of violence to maintain complete control over the Iranian street. And that says something about how bifurcated Iranian society is today, along class and cultural lines together.

The majority of commentators seem to agree that had the votes been fully and fairly counted, Mousavi would have won. Roger Cohen, of the NY Times, who spent a lot of time in Iran in the last few months, captured the feeling of near devastation so many Iranians and their foreign friends are feeling at the moment. But of course, Cohen (like me, and so many other Westerners who visit Iran), has spent the lion's share of his time with precisely the kind of educated, relatively liberal, or at least culturally open and curious, Iranians who are the base of Mousavi's support. It is true that the Iran of southern Tehran is very different than that north of Taleghani Avenue and up the mountain, where the air is cleaner and the voices far more liberal and likely to speak fairly fluent English.

Yet at least one pre-election poll by respected non-Iranian organizations allowed for the possibility of an Ahmadinejad win by a substantial margin, while a study on inequality on Iran during the Ahmadinejad years reveals that it has gone down significantly across the board, which would offer a good reason why broad swaths of the public would support his reelection despite continued economic problems.

For every Ali Answari or Juan Cole offering a convincing list of arguments supporting the claims of electoral fraud, and countering claims that pre-election polling predicted an Ahmadinejad victory, there is a Robert Fisk reporting from Tehran about having lunch with trustworthy contacts inside the government telling him that the election results were accurate and clearly reflected the will of the overwhelming majority of Iranians, precisely because Ahmadinejad has focused government programs and funds on improving the lives, and life chances, of large swaths of the population.

At the same time, however, it's hard not to wonder why a government that is confident it won fair and square would authorize police to beat citizens with abandon, shut down opposition headquarters and various news and social networking outlets, and arrest over 100 reformist politicians.

Or perhaps the focus on the two candidates is misplaced. Maybe Ahmadinejad and the current political and religious leadership on the one side, and Mousavi and the reformers on the other, are merely rallying poles around which two bitterly opposed histories of and visions for post-Revolutionary Iran have rallied and are now doing battle. Maybe, as one protester exclaimed, "There's no one in charge right now" either among the still nascent protest movement or the state that's trying to figure out how to suppress it without losing a large chunk of its legitimacy among the millions of Iranians who are likely still on the fence over who's election narrative to believe.

Indeed, this election might well have released a host of pent up forces -- desperate hope for change, smoldering resentment at the vast inequalities plaguing Iran, utter disdain for the other side's core cultural identity -- that will necessitate what could well end up being a bloody (if cathartic) settling of scores between two irreconcilable sides over grievances that date back to the dawn of the Revolution, and its innumerable betrayals, failures and still unrealized goals.

One would hope that the problems with this election would lead to reforms in the voting process and even international monitoring of the next elections. But if the difficulty of addressing the irregularities in the 2000 and 2004 US elections is any guide, those in power in Iran will have little incentive to change a system that, whatever its flaws, has allowed them to hold onto power.

These elections are of course part of a larger story, which many commentators have argued is about the growing divide between a Western-leaning economic elite and the mass of poor and working class Iranians. On the other hand, Juan Cole argues -- rightly in my mind -- that what we have witnessed is much more a culture war than a class war. Yet if true, the war has been over a small piece of terrain. It's true that Mousavi was appealing to the clear desire of millions of Iranians for greater cultural openness to the world and internally as well. But it's not as if his victory would have brought an end to mandatory headscarves for women and patriarchal power more broadly, saw rock concerts in Iran's parks or coed skiing at Dizin or Shemshak, the country's main resorts. Nor would it have led to a Sadat in Jerusalem type moment with the United States. Mousavi might have once been a well-known artist, but Khomeini "fundamental values" that Mousavi pledged to return to were the very opposite of moderate or tolerant of other points of view.

What's more, extremely powerful forces inside the Iranian political-military-security-religious establishments have a vested interest in continued, if manageable, conflict with the United States, as well as with keeping a tight lid on cultural expression, at least publicly. Whether their views are in fact in line with 63 percent of the Iranian electorate -- the number who supposedly voted to reelect Ahmadinejad will not matter unless the large number of disaffected Iranians upset by the election "results" are willing to continue struggling against increasing government violence to pry open their society. What is certain, however, is that no amount of twittering or facebooking is going to reverse the current situation, no matter how much American news outlets like CNN want to spin the story towards the role of social media as a potential aid for social and political change. As in Egypt, as long as the government can control the streets, it still matters relatively little who controls the ether, especially when ultimately the government controls that too. And right now, the main question is clearly who in fact controls the streets.

It's not for nothing that the Ahmadinejad government has for several years been warning of the threat posed by so-called "Velvet Revolutionaries," which can seemingly include everyone from politicians to metalheads. It would seem that Iran today is closer to Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the first attempt at peaceful revolution was violently crushed, than it is to the situation twenty years later, when the young students beaten and arrested a generation before had become the culturally hegemonic force in the country. As Robert Fisk so appropriately noted, in Tehran today, "the policemen went on breaking up stones, a crazy reverse version of France in May 1968. Then it was the young men who wanted revolution who threw stones. In Tehran -- fearful of a green Mousavi revolution -- it was the police who threw stones."

It appears that as in 1968 in Prague, the police and security services are solidly behind Ahmadinejad, who after all is a child of the Revolutionary Guard and knows how to combine the economic populism of Hugo Chavez with a level of ostensible religious fervor and piety worthy of Khomeini. At the same time, at this as yet very early moment in the unfolding of the latest drama, it doesn't seem that a conglomeration of forces exists today comparable to the bazaari-student-socialist-religious nexus out of which tens of thousands of marchers rushed to the streets, day after day, ready to die, until the mass of soldiers and police tasked with stopping them could no longer stomach the job and stepped aside to let history take its course. Moreover, such is the continuing power of Islamic Republican ideology that it seems very unlikely that the security services -- whether uniformed police or plain clothed thugs -- will grow weary of beating their compatriots, young and old, men and women, with various levels of savagery any time soon if that's what it takes to quash the post-election protests. Indeed, already they have moved to shooting, and at the time of writing at least twelve students are reported to have been killed.

But this dynamic could change very quickly. The latest email from an Iranian friend informed me that:

as I am writing this we can hear the whole city howling allah-o akbar from rooftop. millions poured onto streets this afternoon in a show of power that matched the 1979 revolution in every way. it is still not easy to predict what'll happen tomorrow. every hour is full of surprises. there is a long way to go. but people have gained confidence. and that's good news.

If this is true, it might convince Ahmadinejad that he must use the current chaos to push the reformers back in the closet for the foreseeable future, and push the cosmopolitan liberal-cultural elite who have the ability to leave, to do so. This would make it easier for him to continue devoting a relatively large share of government funds to his poor and working class base, while ensuring that the millions of Iranians hoping for a cultural perastroyka accept that it won't happen any time soon.

On the other hand, if the hundreds of thousands of people who poured into the streets on Monday in defiance of a government ban on protesting can maintain this momentum and a critical mass of first person accounts of voter fraud or intimidation comes to light, the government might be forced to hold a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi to settle the matter once and for all, only this time with much more robust and transparent monitoring. Will the "street politics" unfolding before us produce a Tehran Summer that mirrors the Beirut Spring of 2006, or will they end with one side either deploying or absorbing enough violence to win the day, at least for the time being?

Iran could quickly be approaching a Tiananmen moment -- when the Iranian government calculates that by crushing the pro-reform opposition it can gain time and space to continue remaking society along its preferred lines. The problem is that Iran can't follow China's path. It is true that if oil prices continue rising they will produce enough revenue for the government to keep the poor and working classes happy. But what allowed the Communist Party in China to maintain its hegemony rather than merely dominance over Chinese society was its willingness to liberalize culturally at the same time it closed down politically.

Cultural liberalization became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist Party. Needless to say, no such safety valve can exist in the Islamic Republic, and with one of the world's youngest populations, and an increasingly urban, educated and sophisticated citizenry, it's hard to know how long the Iranian government can continue to enforce the conservative moral values upon a bourgeois-aspiring, cultural open technocratic class whose expertise and loyalty will be crucial for Iran's long term social, economic and political development, even if the oil and gas revenues continue unabated for decades (Saudi Arabia is a good example of what happens when you force a culture shut for too long).

What does seem certain, however, is that the many Iranians who are hoping the US will stand by them are going to be sorely disappointed. Like Bush before him, Obama has already sacrificed Egyptian democracy and human rights activists to the alter of realpolitik and the perceived need to keep Hosni Mubarak in power in order to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There seems little chance he would take a principled position in support of Iranian democracy at the expense of calming nuclear tensions with the Ahmadinejad government/regime.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad's "victory" -- precisely because it is arguably so fraudulently obtained -- has brought a smile to the faces not just of neocons in the US who want to continue an aggressive anti-Iran policy, but also to Israel's government, who can rest assured that with an even more emboldened Ahmadinejad to contend with, the Obama Administration will not have the political leeway to take on "America's most important ally in the Middle East" over the best way to create the Palestinian state Benjamin Netanyahu has just signed off on (albeit with enough conditions to make its successful establishment an impossibility). With North Korea becoming more belligerent by the day and even threatening nuclear war, it seems that at least two thirds of the original "Axis of Evil" line-up will be singing in tune for quite some time, with a potentially profound impact on US foreign policy in the next year or two.

In the heady days of October 1978, when the Iranian Revolution was still young and uncoopted, the French philosopher Michel Foucault commented of its unfolding that it should remind the West of something it had forgotten since the Renaissance and the Reformation -- the possibility of a political spirituality that in Iran had created a "unified collective with perhaps the greatest ever insurrection against global systems, the most insane and the most modern form of revolt the force that can make a whole people rise up [importantly, even 'with no vanguard, no party'], not only against a sovereign and his police, but against a whole regime, a whole way of life, a whole world."

Whatever is unfolding in Iran now, it has clearly not achieved the level of "political spirituality" that elicited such hopeful comments from Foucault a generation ago-even as many of the protests are chanting "Allahu Akbar" against the current government with the same fervor that the previous generation of would-be revolutionaries chanted against the Shah. Rather, it seems even as I have written this piece the situation has grown more grave. When I began on Sunday afternoon, I received an almost giddy email from a close Iranian friend who is in one of the country's best heavy metal bands:

I enjoyed fighting on the street with different people from different cultures! ... these 2 Nights ... Poor amateur police is so loose and frightened.

This seems to be the hugest culture jam one can see ...

Some of Hezbollahiz and religous fellas and women also are fighting with guards with us and once i was carrying a Woman in her Chadorr full hijaab!!!

The Spectrum of people types seems to be rich (wide) ... Variety of people ... all the streets ... different cities.

P.S. It seems this fuckin' gas that police uses has no effects on me other than losing sleep!

Perhaps the gas was affecting him more than he realized. I hope not, but exactly 12 hours and 2 minutes later I received a message with a very different tone:

Ahmadinejad now wants to put people against each other!

There is no organized movement ... all self-motivated or Lost Vote-motivated ...
But basiji's and police and special police are doing it so organized ...

Now we are going with some intellectual people to Azadi squre ...

None of them can fight ...

It's too early to tell whether it's a fight they can win -- precisely by refusing to fight on the Basiji's terrain of violence, dehumanization and revenge. But we can at least hope that their bravery will inspire those of us lucky to be on the sidelines to ensure that our own government does a better job of standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, not just in Iran, but across the Middle East and North Africa.