17 June, 2009 – guardian.co.uk
Anyone expecting another Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square does not understand the nature of Iranian society’s duality
With rival rallies and a return to street politics over the last three days, Tehran has come to look like Beirut over the last few years. Crowds too large for any camera to cover have been organised by pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad groups. The controversial president has the support of the state infrastructure and a revolutionary culture with 30 years of experience in mobilising millions. Meanwhile, the opposition has harnessed the energy of massive discontent from multiple cross-sections of society. But even as at least seven confirmed deaths have turned the tension here into tragedy, on e can be sure that Iranians, like the Lebanese, will choose anything but a return to civil strife and social breakdown.
Of course alarmist press coverage over the last few days is understandable. Most acutely because the Iranian government has pursued a self-defeating policy of blocking international press access and internet communication sites, making the outside world rely on video clips from phone cameras and blogs for information on the ground. Nor did authorities here help the situation by pouring riot police on to the streets and failing to restrain vigilante motorbike gangs in the days following the election results. These are hardly conditions suitable for good reporting.
But this was all predictable. Supporters of the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi threatened in street chants a week leading up to the elections that they would protest if there was election fraud. Their leader cried foul and banks were set aflame. Immediately, satellite broadcasts owned by exiled Iranian monarchists urged Iranians to the streets. So, when international media opinion decided to make hard evidence of anomaly and implausibility, the multi-layered security apparatus of the state showed its teeth. Having had to deal with 30 years of international sanctions aimed at its collapse, an eight-year war with Iraq funded by imperial powers, the continuous US and European support of opposition groups in and out of Iran, it was to be expected that the authorities would react the way that they have.
But now that it begins to be accepted that the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hardly out of the realm of possibility, not to mention accurately predicted by independent polling groups, we may be able to take a sober look at what is really happening on the ground in this country seemingly too complex to grasp.
Iran is having an identity crisis. Since the Iranian revolution turned into an Islamic Republic few voices other than the party line have been accepted in the public realm. Nonetheless, the vacuum left by the flight of the wealthy elite after the revolution (now mostly in Los Angeles) has led to the rise of an upper class that has benefited from the industrial development of Iran over the last 20 years. Over the years this class has increasing become disenchanted with Iran’s international isolation, strictures of Islamic governance and what it sees as the blatant exploitation of religion for political ends. They have long desired a rapprochement with the west in addition to the adoption of western modes of democratic governance. The government has largely left them and their satellites alone in their northern Tehran suburbs.
Meanwhile, the seemingly viable mixture of theology and modernity introduced by the revolution has allowed the integration of an extremely large conservative segment of the population into Iranian society. This is the exact inverse of countries like Turkey and Egypt where national development and professional training have benefited almost exclusively the secular classes. Thus, a generation of Iranians from traditional Muslim backgrounds has been reared in the mores of the Islamic revolution and come to adopt its ideals and ambitions as a matter of choice and identity. Over the years this multi-constituted class has prided itself on its many anti-imperial achievements and Iran’s very survival in the face of countless internal and external challenges. Educated, on guard, and devoted, they are the life blood of the regime and far from the puppets of a few old clerics that they are made out to be.
Unfortunately, as these two segments of society have matured over the last three decades, they have entirely ignored one another. Living in separate sections of the cities and working and socialising among their own, they have thus come to understand themselves and Iran in entirely different trajectories. Thirty years of mutual distaste has now burst forth upon the streets in the form of an election contest.
Ironically at the root of both groups is an obsessive concern with Persian pride and visceral aversion to political corruption. One of the many Mousavi posters shows him with the caption ‘New Introduction to the World’. His supporters hold plaques ‘Where is my Vote?’ and ‘UN where are you?’ A few miles away Ahmadinejad supporters wave Hezbollah flags, wear Palestinian scarves and hand out flyers describing the alleged political plots of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the now reviled former president in a critical standoff with the supreme leader (this is the story that deserves the most attention). They cry ‘Death to those traitors ready to sell the country’ and ‘Supreme leader, we are ready’.
Over the last few days I have attended both pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad rallies. Compared to Sunday when I got caught in the crossfire of tear gas and the batons of nervous young soldiers, the mood at both rallies on Tuesday was of genuine caution and reserve.
I am sure in the coming days there will be more protests, rallies and burning buses. But this release has been long coming. Like the French suburban riots in 2005 these are just painful cries to be heard from a class long ignored by the state. There is little ideology or political infrastructure behind them. Mousavi’s demands are far from revolutionary nor is there any indication that there is even a viable strand of dissent among his supporters in that direction. As he pursues a legal resolution to his complaints and encourages calm, the violent elements of his movement will increasingly be marginalised. So, anyone expecting (or encouraging) another Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square severely misunderstands the situation here. Instead, the long-term solution to the predicament in Iran today is much more complex than any political reform could provide – Iranians have to solve an identity crisis generations in the making. From my estimation, the calming climate of the mass gatherings is the first indication that Iranians would rather tackle that challenge than return to the dark days of the early 80s.