islamic republic mark II: theocracy with a smiley face?

by Nathan Coombs

In the Guardian Simon Tisdall recently asked whether the bloody protests we are currently witnessing on the streets of Iran herald a ‘second revolution?’

All the trademark signs seem to be there. Much like in the run-up to 1979 the protests are beginning to move in cycles locked into the mourning rituals of those who have died in support of the cause; all too familiar are the scenes of the streets filling with masses openly defying authority – which with every fumbling attempt at repression only loosen their legitimacy and hold on power.

And yet with all the excitement the differences between what is currently playing out on the streets in 2009 and the revolution of 1979 seem to be being missed. It is admittedly hard at this point to measure what success for the green movement would exactly mean (they appear to be now just fighting for the space to exist); but those differences do not bode well for the hopes of a second revolution and radical change in the country, even if the movement were to reach a tipping point of strength in their favour.

Firstly, no one denies that what is underway is a split within factions of the regime, rather than an outright challenge to the regime itself – although the two appear closely related. On the one side we have supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini and presidential incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinijad; on the other, presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi and his rich backer Rafsanjani. All are squarely situated within the tradition of the Islamic Republic; and even the recently deceased ‘dissident’ Ayatollah Montazeri could not have been considered dangerous to the premises of theocracy, despite his criticisms of Iran’s human rights record. It is also worth noting that Mousavi parted on good terms with Ayatollah Khomeini after eight years as prime minister (1981-89) – during which time tens of thousands were sent out across the trenches in suicidal, martyrdom missions in the Iran-Iraq war, and thousands of political opponents were executed in mass purges.

Second, whereas in 1979 there was a multitude of groups all working for decades plotting the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty and creatively theorising strategy and ideology (the Tudeh Party and the Fidayeen and Mujadidden guerrilla units, amongst others), today it is not clear what the green movement stand for other than vague reforms. The urban, educated and cosmopolitan backers of the protest movement demand change, but keep their cards close to their chest as to what this means in concrete terms. As we have recently witnessed with Obama’s presidency, promises of change in the absence of any specifics often end up ringing very hollow when new leaders rise to power with few commitments pledged to the mass movement who brought them there. Third is the question of the green movement’s draping themselves with religion. The famous Iranian philosopher and influential ideologue of the 1979 revolution, Ali Shari’ati, is an inspiration. Equally eulogised and reviled by the authorities in the Islamic Republic, Shari’ati is an icon for proposing an ideology which appeared to allow one to be all the following at the same time – a revolutionary, an Islamist, a secularist, a Marxist, a mystic, and a rebel. Behind the green movement’s latching onto Islam is the belief that any secular movement will never gain mass support; and Shari’ati provides a way to think using political Islam for progressive purposes.

But in using Montazeri’s funeral as a focal point for protest, the instrumentalisation of religious authority to legitimate the movement crosses into territory which would have been antithetical to Shari’ati. Shari’ati’s Islam can only be described as a form of reformationist political religion; it actively denigrated Islamic, Shia institutions and all they stand for. There is a thus continuum between the opposites of Shari’ati Islam and Khomeini’s fundamentalist Islam, and using the mourning of Ayatollah Montazeri (an enthusiastic advocate of theocracy) to advance the green movement’s cause pushes their location an uncomfortable further inch towards Khomeini’s end of the spectrum.

The peril of the green movement’s strategy therefore appears to consist in the following catch 22: the more they anchor their movement in figures, motifs and traditions indigenous to the Islamic Republic the more legitimacy they appear to have. But that legitimacy comes at a price: it means that even if successful the green movement might only succeed in empowering one faction of the Islamic Republic, ushering in meek reforms, and legitimating theocracy with a smiley face – Islamic Republic Mark II. If the level of compromise is too great it might take decades for a more radical opposition to theocracy to take root.