Iran – Looking Beyond the Protests

Iran commemorated forty years since the beginning of the revolt, in January 1978 (against Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, which ushered in the Islamic Republic in the country) with tens of protestors dead at the hands of security forces.

The demonstrations in Iran stemmed from economic grievances. Young jobless university graduates, primarily in marginal regions, took to the streets to express their anger at a ruling establishment, they see, as complacent and corrupt.

These demonstrations are different from the ones that gripped Iran, in 2009, after Mahmood Agmadinejad won a presidential election that many deemed unfair. Unlike in 2009, Iran’s large merchant classes, especially in the country’s main urban centres, have stayed home.

Still, two large-scale waves of protests in less than a decade compel observers to think about the future of the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic has secured three major achievements in these four decades.

First, it has survived. Despite sustained acute enmity from the world’s sole superpower, a strategic positioning opposed to Israel (the most advanced military force in the Middle East), a decade-long war (in the 1980s) against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and three decades of various forms of economic sanctions, the Islamic Republic remains with us.

Second, the Republic’s survival is all the more remarkable given that its founder, the charismatic  Ruhollah Ayatollah Khomeini, died less than a decade after its birth and at a time when its economy, at the end of the war with Iraq, was in tatters.

And third, in the last decade, the Islamic Republic has achieved for Iran something that has always lurked deep in the country’s collective psyche: the want to have political and cultural influence in the eastern Mediterranean, a region with strong emotional connotations to Shiis, all over the world, and especially in Persia.

But despite these achievements, the Islamic Republic has still failed in two crucially important areas.

First, it has not managed to come up with a governing model that reconciles Khomenei’s vision of a religious state with democracy. Though Iran holds regular presidential and parliamentary elections, the country’s political system is based on the concept of “the rule of the most learned jurist of the age”, an old Shii notion that Khomenei had resuscitated and endowed with new meanings that give almost unrestricted powers to the “ruling jurist”. And so, on one hand, the people can choose their representatives and the head of the executive authority; on the other hand, the people, their representatives, and the head of the executive submit to the ruling jurist (today’s Supreme Guide, the ageing Ali Khamanei).

There was an attempt, led by former president Mohamed Khatami in the late 1990s, to evolve the system. Khatami and the reformers who surrounded him, sought a gradual transfer of the prerogatives of the Supreme Guide, and of the clerical bodies that act as guardians of the governing ideology, to elected officials, primarily MPs. The attempt failed, because the power of the Supreme Guide and the clerical bodies, let alone the Islamic Republic’s special military arms (most notably the Revolutionary Guard) proved vastly stronger than those of all elected politicians, including the president, put together.

The Islamic Republic’s second failure is its inability, if not unwillingness, to accommodate Iran’s broad-minded, permissive heritage. Political Islam (in different Shii forms) has always played leading roles in Iranian history, even during the reign of the Shah. But the Islamic Republic’s acute narrowing of the Iranian identity to one specific interpretation of Shii Islam flies in the face of Iran’s rich, illustrious cultural inheritance. It also negates the major achievements of modern Iranian culture which boasts a vibrant and internationally successful artistic scene. To a large extent, the highly conservative rule of the jurists has imprisoned many components of the Iranian free-spirit.

These two failures haunt the Islamic Republic’s future. By refusing to evolve, crushing genuine political representation, and perpetuating a restrictive interpretation of what Iran means, the regime has stuck that wonderful country in a vicious cycle of social polarisation. On one hand, there are those who accept “the rule of the jurist”, and on the other, the rest who see the system as not only oppressive, but an affront to their heritage.

As we have seen, the Islamic Republic’s regime can contain demonstrations of anger. And, given the outcomes of the Arab uprisings in countries such as Syria and Libya, large segments of the Iranian society, especially the large and influential mercantile classes, reckon that the cost of abrupt change will be chaos.

But as long as that social polarisation persists, the Islamic Republic will continue to face eruptions of anger and frustration. And at one point (probably not far off in the future) the country’s free-spirit will win over the current narrow interpretation of its past and fear of its future.