what next in iran?

I am looking forward to see what will happen tomorrow: will a mass strike materialize?  Will more senior clerics express a lack of confidence in the election or – more dramatically – in the Supreme Leader?

It’s all very dramatic and exciting and fraught with potential.  But it’s also important to remember that a revolution is not made in a weekend.  It takes time.  In fact, years: the events which led up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 started in 1977, didn’t begin to build into a mass movement until 1978 and then finally culminated in the coup of 79.

So as this flash point moment recedes, the real work of revolution is going to begin.  Or, it may have been simmering for some time in the form of underground movements, power bases, leadership structures.  I am not familiar enough with the reformists in Iran to know.  But either way, the violence and mass-protests will give way to the building of an alternative power base which will take this movement forward.

As it does, we should pay attention to the process… as orgTheorists.  This is where the rubber in the literature on social movements and institutional change hits the road.  To me, the most interesting unresolved questions in that literature have to do with how movements make the turn from insurgency to establishment.  We will watch this process unfold from a distance in Iran.  One thing the social movements literature teaches us with some certainty is that movements do not appear from whole cloth.  They are mobilizations and their sucess depends on the underlying strength of the coalitions, organizations and networks which unite protesters and bring pressure to bear on the power structure.

Brayden raises the question of how on-line social networks are shaping protest.  But, I have a few more questions based on a reading of earlier revolutions and at least somewhat informed by the literature:

  1. What are the institutional homes of the resistance (universities? the army? moderate religious institutions?)
  2. What coalition of factions is possible or likely (if its just a middle class revolt, it will not succeed) to particulate in an ongoing resistance or to become the basis on which a new ruling elite will be established?
  3. What is the ideology of the reformists and what are their competing visions for Iranian society moving forward?
  4. How is the movement being framed (from what I can tell, it is resisting from within the existing value system: the focus is not on libterties or westernization or the role of women, but on the sanctity of the vote which is a value espoused by the ruling ayatollahs… hypocrisy seems, in my reading, to be the strongest possible framing early in a protest cycle; it is the most powerful rhetorical claim when it comes to driving a wedge among elite defenders of the status quo).  And how will the frames shift over time as the movement proceeds?
  5. Other than people on the streets, what sources of power does the resistance movement have to wage against the establishment?
  6. Will Moussavi emerge as the leader of the opposition or are there others waiting in the wings to take the movement in a more radical direction?

I’ll be a bit incendiary to justify these questions by pointing toward the invasion of Iraq: The kind of thinking which suggests that a large, loud, outburst topples governments and then magically leads toward the emergence of a new order which “makes more sense” was, in the end, what undid our efforts in Iraq.  It was naive – of us then and perhaps of protesters today – to think that opposition and even toppling a regime is enough.  It’s what comes next—the alternative power structures and institutions that will step into the void—which require our attention now.  Because it will be a power struggle–just as it became in Iraq.  Educating ourselves on the underlying layers of Iranian society is vital because understanding this is how the US and supporters of Iranians’ freedom can best lend target support.  Now is the time to educate ourselves.

Written by seansafford

June 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. “Other than people on the streets, what sources of power does the resistance movement have to wage against the establishment?”

    I’ve heard many people say that Iran is unusual in that the state is autocratic, yet the elites still seem to believe in respecting the people. So the opposition does have some moral resources available. Wonder if that will be enough to have an impact.



    June 16, 2009 at 3:27 am

  2. To what extent is the electoral process divorced from the clerical institutions and the Ayatollah? I think the move by the Ayatollah to open investigations into the elections is significant. It seems to separate the religious institutions from the messy politics below. In ’79, on the other hand, the Shah was the common enemy that united leftists, intellectuals, the elite and the Islamists together against the state.



    June 16, 2009 at 3:33 am

  3. Charlie Kurzman has a commentary in Foreign Policy here, arguing that it’s essentially unpredictable what will happen.



    June 19, 2009 at 2:48 am

  4. […] a comment » Andrew Perrin points me toward this article by Charles Kurzman in Foreign Policy which argues: In a year’s time, […]


  5. The 23 June ’09 FT editorial on the implications of the Ayatollah’s backing of Ahmedinejad (after calling for the investigation of the election) hits the nail on the spot.

    I quote:
    “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader at the apex of the system, has recklessly forfeited his position as its supreme arbiter.
    From above the fray he has descended into the arena in an overtly partisan way. This calls into question the legitimacy of the regime in three fundamental ways.
    First, it is no longer possible – after the supreme leader’s endorsement of the results and chilling threats to demonstrators who continue to question them – to oppose Mr Ahmadi-Nejad without confronting Mr Khamenei, now reduced to just another factional leader. Second, this episode has destroyed the ambiguous balance within the Islamic Republic, whose theocratic institutions have overwhelmed its democratic redoubts, and the will of the Iranian people.
    Third, moreover, the regime’s management of this crisis is a powerful reminder that Mr Khamenei never had the theological credentials to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This has never been forgotten by influential members of the higher Shia clergy in Qom – fed up of seeing their religion dragged through the dirt of factional feuding around vested interests – or Mr Moussavi and others who now preach a return to the principles of the Imam Khomeini”



    June 23, 2009 at 9:58 am

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