Two Months After the Iranian Elections and Protests: What Did We Learn?

Iran’s disputed Presidential election in June and its violent aftermath dominated international headlines this summer, before slowing to a trickle as Ahmadinejad was inaugurated last week. Having completed an in-depth Monitor report on Iran in March, we at World Savvy were riveted. What were we witnessing? What did it all mean? Like many all over the globe, we followed the developments and duly compiled updates to our profile of this complex country.

Now as the dust settles, we step back and look critically at the big picture. After the twitters and shaky video images, the outrage and rhetoric, the pundits and experts, we ask ourselves: “What did the world really learn about Iran in the summer of 2009?” The answer is that, despite more coverage of Iran than we have seen in the media in decades, we don’t know much more than we knew before. It appears that the drama in Tehran, rather than revealing new insights, mostly served to confirm things the world already knew, and to reinforce the fact that we don’t know enough about this complex country.

We feel this is being somewhat lost in the media frenzy as hopeful observers in the West have a tendency to read into situations what they want to see going on in Iran in the wake of contested elections – a weakening of an oppressive regime’s legitimacy, a flowering of democracy, the triumph of reformers, a color revolution in green like those in the former USSR. The point is that we just don’t know yet. This could be the start of something new… It could be that a full-scale revolution is brewing – it’s tough to say when successful reform movements get their legs. Often, we only know that in hindsight.

For now, the certainty with which some commentators are proclaiming the beginning of the end for the Iranian status quo seems premature. The reality is that the clerical/military regime led by Ayatollah Khameini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not in any real danger of falling at this time, despite the convulsions of Presidential politics and unrest in the streets. The theocracy remains firmly in control of not only the government, but the state security apparatus and the press as well.

An interesting comparison that perhaps we should be seeing more in the press is that of Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 where many in the West thought they were seeing the undoing of a different powerful regime, a regime that went on to survive and flourish up to this day, twenty years later. More on this as developments unfold. In the meantime, see the China edition of the World Savvy Monitor for food for thought.

What We Know:

1) The theocratic regime is well-entrenched and wields enormous influence over the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, even amidst considerable discontent. What seems to be getting lost in the noise is that the world knew this well before the elections. In the run up to the vote, almost no one predicted that Ahmadinejad would lose to Moussavi; and, in fact, it looks like Ahmadinejad would have won even if there had not been irregularities and alleged fraud. (An interesting conversation here is why the regime felt the need to steal an election it was going to win anyway).

2) The regime in Tehran will go to great lengths to ensure that its popularity is bolstered by demonstrations of strength against its critics, including repression of free speech, imprisonment of dissidents, and violence. In other words, legitimacy conferred by Allah in the form of “divine right” is often accompanied by military might conferred by the Revolutionary Guard. But, again, the world already knew this – the regime may not have had quite the stage the post-election protests provided, but it hasn’t stayed in power for 30 years without using a few of these tools before.

3) Many Iranians are fed up with inflation, unemployment, and economic isolation stemming from the regime’s policies; and this discontent simmers under the surface, threatenening to explode into protests at any time. We knew this before June as well. It is no secret that that countries with large, well-educated youth populations and few economic opportunities are ripe for serious protest movements, especially now in the era of cell phones and twitter. The world may have been surprised by the scale of post-election protests, but not by the tensions they revealed.

4) The regime is experiencing internal strife over how the principles of the 1979 Revolution are to be interpreted and realized in the 21st century. Khameini, Ahmadinejad, Khatami, Moussavi, Rafsanjani – tensions exist among these men and their followers over the legacy and ideals of the 1979 Revolution which Iranians have always seen more as an ongoing process than an event. But, even as they play out in current headlines, these fault lines are hardly new, nor are they new to the world– see the Iran edition of the World Savvy Monitor for a description of conservatives, pragmatists, and reformers over the past decade. We must remember also that the regime has survived this division within the ranks before, (see the ultimately chilly Tehran Spring 1997-2004). Perhaps most importantly, from history, the world also knows, but often forgets, that all of these men are stakeholders along the spectrum of the current system – status quo players – and are unlikely to advocate for its radical upheaval.

5) If the winds of change are in the air, if the convulsions of summer 2009 represent a democratic opening…this change has to be carried out by the Iranian people, not by exiles or well-intentioned people in the West. The world knows all too well that the “meddling” of outsiders in Iranian affairs is a flashpoint (throughout history and especially today). It is not helpful to dissidents and would-be reformers in Iran to give the impression that the West or the US in particular is pulling the strings. Any intervention by the US in Iranian internal affairs in the wake of the election would likely only play into the hands of the hardliners who use anti-Americanism to bolster domestic support. It is important to note that we already know that intervention need not be physical to have this effect – even words of condemnation from US officials are viewed in Iran as an affront to the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty. And sovereignty concerns still pack a punch, a half- century after the CIA-linked Mossadegh affair.

What We Do Not Know:

Too much to be saying anything else with certainty. The events of the summer have driven home how much we do not understand, and cannot understand about the Islamic Republic of Iran at this time. Such as…

What the Iranian people want at this juncture. Even though, we know what many Iranian exiles believe, and we know some Iranians citizens connected with the diaspora believe, we do not know what the Iranian people want for their country. Assuming it is a Western model of secular democracy has gotten us into trouble before in pursuing our “freedom agenda.”

How decisions are made within the regime. Or how serious the internal rivalries really are at this point. With few reliable, transparent sources of information about dynamics inside Iran – no embassy presence, few free media outlets, little formal contact – Western analysts can only try to interpret speeches, rhetoric, and prayers for vague and often contradictory signals by Iranian officials. Presuming that we have insight into how the regime functions is largely wishful thinking and has led to faulty predictions in the past.

The Bottom Line:

Overall, caution (and even humility) seems warranted as we in the West consume media commentary, discuss these issues in classrooms and around dinner tables, and make conclusions based on what we know and what we think we know about Iran. Tiananmen Square or Green Revolution or something else entirely? The events of summer 2009 invite us all to be students of the gray areas and uncertainties of geopolitics.

-Cate Biggs, Editor, World Savvy Monitor

Recent articles we like on Iran:

Tehran or Bust” by Hooman Majd in Newsweek, June 1, 2009.

In Praise of Caution” by Paul Kennedy in The New York Times, June 30, 2009:

Editorial by Beatrice Montamedi, a contributor to New America Now from the July 24, 2009 radio show.

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