Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Angry Arab on Iran developments: the Revolution Ages

Saja kindly translated an article I had written on Iran for Al-Akhbar.

"The Revolution is Aging: Iran Faces Itself
As’ad Abu Khalil
It has been amusing to follow events in Iran, both on Arab and western media outlets. Saudi media has been fit for listing under comedy classification: you see the anchor (who is usually Lebanese – what’s the story behind Lebanese loyalty to the House of Saud’s oil? Is it a matter of principle or is it the one-day Arabhood that Antioch’s patriarch described?) screaming in face of the Iranian guest or his delegate: and why doesn’t Iran repeat the elections under free and fair regulations? The House of Saud insists on free and fair elections, but only in Iran.

The program “(Some) People’s Talk” hosted Ghassan Salamah (who considered Netanyahu’s speech “a step forward”) to discuss Iran (and other various topics including advice to Sa’d al-Din Al-Hanif Al-Hariri in Monte Carlo). Salamah is informed about Iranian affairs but he misquoted a statement by Muhammad Al-Baradi’e. Al-Baradi’e said in English that he had a “hunch” that Iran was seeking to obtain nuclear weapons but Salamah made mistranslated the English word Al-Baradi’e used as “deep conviction.” In any case, it was an innocent mistranslation. Salamah (who had contributed to the bestowment of international legitimacy to the American occupation of Iraq) undermined American intervention in Iran’s affairs by saying that everyone intervened in everyone else’s business: meaning that the equation of intervention negates anti-intervention. Accordingly, the volume of Iraqi intervention in American affairs parallels that of American intervention in Iraqi affairs. The House of Saud’s media treats ongoing events on the assumption that the Iranian people will not find peace until Prince Nayif casts his shadow on Iran.

Robert Fisk has moved to Iran. We do not know why some in the Arab world continue to rely on Fisk’s reports: since the assassination of Hariri, the man has transformed into a propaganda machine for the Hariri family and Junblat no different than the Quraytem broadcast. He’d spent years in the Middle East without learning its languages or interacting with anyone aside the elite: he seeks the help of interpreters, assistants and his driver “Abd” in Lebanon. Fisk applauds revolutions even if they’re unworthy of being called a “revolution”. Unlike The Economist’s Rusana Marasli for example, he relies on rumors and news tidbits that coincide with his taste. But Fisk has decided that Rafiq Al-Hariri, who had offered to transport Fisk in his private jet after he was assaulted in Pakistan a few years ago, deserves loyalty.

An analysis of the heated situation in Iran requires insight into the revolution’s theories: how do revolutions occur and why, and when does a revolution lose its goals? When do people discover the falsity of a revolution’s slogans and when do intellectuals abandon the revolution (the Chinese Revolution preempted that through the “Cultural Revolution”)? The Iranian Revolution was one of few revolutions in the developing world (Cuba, Mexico, China and Nicaragua), especially in the Arab world (its “wind” gushed over many Arab intellectuals). One can discuss revolutions that resist colonialism or failed revolutions or counter revolutions, but in the Arab world the ease of verbally enunciating the word revolution (which is love, as Michel Aflaq told us in his only publication, although a citizen would be hard pressed to find love in the Ba’thist regimes that the “professor” espoused) has replaced true revolution, probably to protect the regimes. What does revolution mean in the Arab world when sectarian brouhaha in Lebanon is called the “Cedar Revolution”? In his book Theorizing Revolutions, which has not yet been translated to Arabic, John Foran attempts to classify revolutions around the world and reaches the inevitable conclusion that revolutions are difficult in the developing world due to various factors including economic dependence, foreign intervention and disunity of the opposition. Revolutions define a new era, or a strict divorce from the obsolete regime, as Crain Brinton explained in hi s essential book The Anatomy of Revolution, though he focuses only on four revolutions: the American, British, French and Russian. French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville does not adopt the demarcation theory: he saw in the French Revolution continuation of the royal tradition of a centralized state. However, the Iranian revolution has been the center of much attention not only because of its massive impact on international politics, but also due to the rarity of “Islamic” revolution, which explains the excess of the revolution’s intellectual-religious analysis at the expense of political, economic and social factors. The Iranian Revolution shares some features with other revolutions and is unique in some other aspects. Perhaps its unique features are what led to its crisis.

The Iranian Revolution promised separation from a past from which it didn’t completely depart. Perhaps the deep crisis which the Iranian regime suffers today stems from the scenes of quelling peaceful protests: they remind us of the protests against the Shah, which accumulated to the point of rendering him helpless before the growing popular movement. The dilemma facing the regime lies in its need to defend its survival: every time it resorts to power to defend itself, it weakens its revolutionary legitimacy and its historic ability to continue in power. Of course, the regime can impose itself by excessive force and increasing bloodshed, but it can count on no other method of survival: it loses true authority whenever it relies on violence, as Hannah Arendt has theorized. Therefore, the regime is confused. It is not used to a popular protest of this size. Accusing the West of interference – and the West does interfere in all the Third World’s affairs, even in alliance formation – is not satisfactory. The regime cannot hide the opposition’s true nature and the contradiction with revolutionary legitimacy, for the revolution has entered a limp, calcified phase, which stems from the Revolution’s own slogans.

First, the Revolution’s slogans with regard to foreign policy have not given the citizen hope or a reason to support it in recent years. Those who believe the regime’s claims about the depth of Islamic revolution in Iran are as naïve (or stupid) as those who believe Communist regimes’ claims about the depth of internationalist solidarity in Eastern European countries. Those ideas disappeared as soon as the regimes fell, and the Russian people today for the most part have no connection whatsoever to the struggle of Third World peoples. It is incorrect to claim that the rise of the Islamic Republic has eliminated Iranian nationalism: historian Richard Cottam has studied Iranian history from the historical perspective of Iranian nationalism like those who study Soviet Union history from the perspective of Russian (not communist) history. Iranian nationalism has partnered with the Revolution’s Islamic identity, but the isolation that Iran has suffered in addition to increasing sanctions (which have influenced the Iranian pistachio king’s sales, Hashimi Rafsanjani, the symbol of the Revolution’s corruption, who is the richest Iranian as well as the hero of the Iran-Contra scandal which witnessed Israeli-Iranian flirtation) which coincided with a sharp decline in oil prices. One cannot rely on theories that popularize the Iranian role in supporting resistance movements (or supporting of Islamic resistance movements only, as Iran has never supported leftist resistance movements for example). The Iranian nuclear project (as is the case in India and Pakistan) may trump ideological struggles because it is a hallmark of Iranian national pride although it protects the current regime, but its political and economic price has exceeded the expectations of the regime and its supporters.

Second, one could indulge in details of the election process and analyze the voting patterns in various areas, though the regime has admitted a number of millions of excessive votes based on an examination of only 10% of votes, but there must be a division not only among the public but also within the ruling elite’s circles. Presidential elections in Iran express disagreements regarding the regime’s economic and political stances, not its legitimacy. Mir Hussein Mousavi has represented a more socialist economic model since the eighties, while Ahmedinajad has represented a conservative or right-leaning model (he has boasted about privatization during the electoral debates). Local elections in 2007 revealed popular resentment towards the Iranian president’s policies. But on the other hand, the claim that fraud took place in all areas still requires proof. The claim that Ahmedinajad could not have won in Azeri areas because Mousavi is of Azeri origin requires additional evidence because Ahmedinajad’s popularity increased among Azeris via educational programs that granted them additional rights. The claim that there is a class or regional distinction also requires proof, although Iranian expert Hamid Dabashi negates this point altogether. Voting in Tehran was close to less than five percent of the votes, which meant there were regional or semi-class features in voting.

Third, the Iranian Revolution is undergoing a test of legitimacy, and it is not certain to pass. The vilayat al-faqih (jurist state) was never held in consensus among Shii jurists, which compelled Khomeini to place some of the higher ranking ayatollahs under house arrest. The jurist state theory is ambiguous on several fronts, especially since it assumes a connection to the imam … who is hidden. As for Hasan Nasrallah’s claim that the jurist state is part of religious creed; this is true only insofar as Hezbollah is concerned, not Shiism generally, which means it is part of the Party’s ideology, to which it is entitled. The theory is paradoxical in its acceptance of the jurist (Khomeini appointing himself and Khamenaei by Khomeini) within Shii heritage in the jurist’s rise spontaneously and democratically among the public without appointment or influence from the state or religious institutions. Saddam and the American occupation tried to impact the rise of the jurist but the public’s sentiments withstood it. Khamenaei’s rise to the position of supreme leader did not align with the popular, spontaneous choice. There was a long debate about this in the eighteenth century in Iran between the Usuli [Majority Twelver] school and the Akhbari [consensus], which led to the Usuli victory (the word differs from the common use as term that was coined in the early twentieth century to refer to a Protestant American group) and led to a variety in Shii reasoning.

Fourth, the struggle between the two conflicting factions in Iran will not involve issues that concern us Arabs, but solely Iranian issues. Analytical reduction of the influence of Iranian nationalism ignores a long history in that country. Ahmedinajad’s position will weaken and may lead to an Islamic spin on a Stalinist mantra on “socialism in one country”. This isolation will increase if oil prices decline again. The Iranian people - just like the non-great Lebanese people in the recent elections – are swayed by outside threats, reprimands and sanctions, especially since the west treats elections in developing countries as an opportunity for influence.

Fifth, the Iranian regime has fallen in the same dilemma in which the Soviet Communist regime found itself in Gorbachov’s era. The Iranian regime is not democratic but it is not closed to the same extent as authoritarian Arab regimes, which allow no serious choice of leadership. The Iranian regime is religious and authoritarian but it does allow for some limited choice for some positions including presidency. However, the contradiction lies between limited choice and people’s drive for more freedom of choice. Meaning that the regime, any regime, can gain electoral legitimacy that decreases with the increase of the popular expectation for greater electoral freedoms. The regime cannot enjoy legitimacy, while limited, stemming from the electoral process, as this regime has not developed popular freedom of expression and freedom of choice, especially since oil revenues have not allowed economic legitimacy or utilitarian gain as is the case with the Gulf regimes.

Sixth, there is no doubt a personal factor in the dispute between Ahmedinajad and Mousavi, and between the latter and the Supreme Leader. Mousavi and Khamenaei conflicted during Khomeini’s era in the eighties, who usually supported Mousavi. Therefore, liberal western media’s attempt to depict Mousavi as a democratic activist (or depiction of corruption symbol, Rafsanjani, as a reformer) ignores the man’s past and present. His electoral slogans underscored the importance of returning to Khomeini’s teachings. He also chose “Allah akbar” as a protest slogan and promised that his opposition movement aims to elevate Islam globally. Mousavi’s history does not foretell democracy or liberalism whatsoever, as his era witnessed a horrific witch hunt at universities on religious and political grounds (to which Iranian Foucaultian thinker Abdulkarim Sourosh contributed recently). Of course, relative openness in Iran now is not indebted to Mousavi or Ahmadinajad, but to the Iranian people, who have given neighboring peoples lessons in courage, dynamism and political momentum. The current crisis may be the result of the Supreme Leader’s settling scores towards Mousavi due to what happened between them two decades ago. One cannot stress the element of class struggle (by claiming that the poor’s interests are represented by Ahmadinajad) as the latter is the hero of economic privatization while Mousavi’s economic policies are less capitalistic.

Seventh, free electoral debates played an important role in defining Iranian political discourse. The scene could not be displayed on Arabic states’ screens due to dual censorship: by the government and by Arabsat and Nilesat, so as to not threaten Israel’s interests. Ahmadinajad carried himself lightly and with excessive confidence towards his adversaries during the electoral campaign: he allowed for a number of debates that allowed his arch enemy to criticize not only his economic policies but also his credibility. Mir Hussein Mousavi accused him of lying without using the word. Ahmadinajad appeared bedazzled by his adversary’s audacity and effectiveness. Self-confidence might have led the regime to cook up the election’s results and announce them before counting was complete.

Eighth, the regime cannot easily impute Iran’s events to an outside conspiracy. Of course, the Iranian people, which have suffered intricate outside conspiracies throughout their history, are entitled to be on the alert for outside conspiracies. No doubt, Israel and its Arab and western aides have worked to cause trouble in Iran for years. All the Shah’s Men, which relies on documents published in American government archives, describes in detail how American intelligence planned a coup against Mosadeq and how it organized protests, wreaked havoc and made it look spontaneous. A writer on Al-Manar’s website may see a malicious conspiracy in Iran’s events, and the Supreme Leader may express outrage towards Britain (which deserves denunciation due to its colonial past and present, which hasn’t ceased even though both the sun and moon have set on it), but in reality the reasons behind Iran’s events are primarily internal while facing outside exploitation by governments, media outlets and the United Nations (the latter has been a tool in the United States’ hand since the end of the Cold War, especially during the current secretary’s leadership, who has about the same as Najib Miqati’s charisma). Treating these events as if they were the product of outside intermeddling will only expedite the Revolution’s aging process, because revolution dies when it loses vision and mimics the obsolete regime (the Shah saw in what happened to him the ultimate conspiracy although his oppressive regime enjoyed peerless western, Israeli and Gulf support). To say there was no external conspiracy against the Iranian regime is as ignorant as saying there were no internal reasons for the Iranian crisis.

Ninth, we cannot generalize about the popular movement in Iran: it ranges from those who want a return to the “purity” of the Revolution, those who want to connect Iran to the west , leftist groups, liberals, fundamentalist, opportunist etc. There are those who hide behind slogans for malicious purposes or noble purposes or vague purposes.

The Revolution is aging and withering and risks falling. It’s a matter of time. Revolutions face counter revolutions. The revolutionary tradition may either lead towards revolutionary glimmer in subsequent regimes as happened in France, or to constitutional stagnancy as happened in America, or to a divorce with the revolution as has happened in Russia. The Chinese Revolution has not yet decided: it divorces the past in one step and preserves it in the next, though its path appears similar to that of the Russian revolution while maintaining the Party’s control (as opposed to the control of monetary monopolies aligned with Putin in Russia). There are clear aging features in the Iranian revolution: the discord, to avoid claiming complete conflict, within the ranks of the mullahs is clear. Not one of the nineteen grand ayatollahs stepped forward to instantly and publicly support the disputed elections.

However, Arab regimes rotate between public jubilation and internal worry. The House of Saud’s media (especially King Fahd’s brother in law’s “Al-Arabiyya” and Prince Salman’s newspaper “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat”) celebrates like a bride’s mother. The media of the state, which does not allow for even hollow elections on paper as in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, demands free and impartial elections in Iran. The House of Saud has no sense of irony. Arabic regimes can only sense internal worry and panic towards the Iranian elections. They fear the spread of street dynamics to their capitals, which suffer more repression and injustice than the Iranians experience. Popular protest fever may catch the entire region’s peoples: this scares the regimes more than swine flu. Our leaders prefer to contract swine flu a thousand times rather than their people catching revolutionary fever once."