The future of Islam and democracy in Iran

Despite the systematic efforts of many commentators and media outlets to represent what is happening in Iran as a wholesale revolt against everything the Islamic Republic stands for, a sober analysis reveals that we are witnessing the renegotiation of political power in the country. The protagonists represent different wings within the system; the contours of their politics are drawn upon the expanding canvas of the Islamic Republic. In short: Iran is in a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary one.

At the height of the demonstrations after the contested election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad during last summer, I argued, in an article that was disputed and challenged by many skeptics, that we were not witnessing another revolution. But simply because there is a consensus amongst many people with vested interests that the Islamic Republic must be subdued and vilified by any means, one should not be bullied into overlooking the nuances of the changing political landscape in Iran. Simply because the legitimate yearnings for democracy and justice by Iranians are misinterpreted as a rebellion against Iran’s bias toward the Palestinian cause or indeed Islam itself, one should not be fooled into underestimating the capabilities of the state-sanctioned proponents of the political order in the country. What supporters of "regime change" can hope for, and what every Iranian, Arab, Muslim and any other person who empathizes with the plight of the people in the region must fear, is an entrenched civil war that would rip the country apart.

But I don’t think it will come to that. We are already witnessing signs of accommodation. Mir-Hossein Mousavi has written a conciliatory letter, which was followed up by Mohsen Rezai in his own communication with the Supreme Jurisprudent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Behind the curtains the political factions are negotiating in order to rescue the political system in Iran from further destabilization. The opposition figures, Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami and most notably Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, emerged out of the revolution and would never devour the project they have been busy building up. They are disciples of the Islamic Republic, and they are revealing themselves as such at this very moment.

There is a second reason why it is likely that the Iranian state and its vast underbelly will navigate through this crisis. The state has its destiny in its own hands, it was not placed where it is as the Shah was after the MI6/CIA-engineered coup d’etat in 1953 that deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled the oppressive monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. So the Islamic Republic displays a totally different self-understanding. It perceives itself entirely capable and legitimized to assert its power and to dig in and defend itself by all means if necessary. It remains, despite the massive protests, rather self-confident.

A similar "indigenous" self-confidence animates the protesters. The movement in Iran is writing its own script. It is steeped in the symbols of Iran’s political culture and the very language, adjusted to a different political reality, that permeated the constitutional revolt in the country in 1906/1907, the movement of the aforementioned Mohammad Mossadegh and the Islamicized revolution itself. What we are witnessing today, in other words, is a part of a long struggle in Iran for government accountability and a system that is based on popular legitimacy rather than transcendental entitlement.

The Islamic Republic itself came into existence through a popular mass movement, a plebiscite and a rhetoric that was amenable to the demands of the populace. It reintroduced electoral competition, however confined, supervised elections, and instituted checks and balances within the system. It created a set of strategic preferences that were independent of external dictates. And yet thus far it has failed to place itself beyond the residues of authoritarianism in Iran. It has also contributed to the demographics of the current protests: the brave youngsters demonstrating on the streets and campuses of Iran are a part of the "baby boom generation" born during the Iran-Iraq war that benefitted from the vast expansion of the higher education sector in the 1990s. The Islamic Republic, in other words, has created the very political reality it is currently challenged by.

Iranians have managed to fulfill two of the promises of the Islamic revolution: independence (esteghlal) and Islamic Republic (jomhur-ye eslami). The "Green Movement" demands nothing but the logical conclusion of the revolutionary process. What they demand is its third central promise: the great utopia of freedom (azadi) from government oppression. This is by far the most difficult to attain, but the most valuable for a nation to strive for. Hence the ongoing protests and hence the willingness of Iranians to die for their just cause. This momentum will keep Iranian society going and it will decide whether or not Islam and democracy are finally reconcilable, in Iran and beyond.