Death to Potatoes!

James Buchan

  • BuyThe People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel
    Melville House, 439 pp, £12.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 935554 38 7
  • The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge by Hooman Majd
    Allen Lane, 282 pp, £20.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 319 9

The tumult that followed the Iranian presidential election of June 2009 revealed to an inattentive world an Iranian public that bore little resemblance to its idiosyncratic and touchy rulers. It helped that many of the protesters were young and fashionable, adept in modern forms of communication, and decked out in green. The Islamic Republic’s self-image, virtuous and united against relentless foreign conspiracies, was shattered under the force of mass demonstrations, street violence, the ill-treatment and murder of young men and women, squabbling factions, incivility, seminarians at loggerheads, and show trials of the kind that Iranians had stopped watching a quarter of a century ago.

As a result of all this, Iran’s Supreme Leader or juridical overseer, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lost prestige and the man declared victor in the election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a lame duck, beset by enemies in Parliament, the judiciary and the security services. The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, otherwise known as the Revolutionary Guards, long suspected of covert political activity, has stepped out of the shadows. The report in the WikiLeaks cables that Ahmadinejad was slapped in the face by the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Ali Jafari, at a meeting in January 2010 belongs to that category of Iranian fact which, while not necessarily actually true, is nonetheless illustrative of Iranian reality. And the Shia clergy, never united behind the notion of clerical government, seems to be adrift.

The uprising has its place in the series of popular protests against long-lasting regimes in the Muslim Middle East that began in Lebanon in 2005. At the outset of each uprising, a predominantly young population, both male and female, without much ideology, and no leaders worth the name, has given vent to its frustrations and attacked not just the boss but the system that produced the boss. For days or even weeks, the regime in question seems panicky and directionless and betrays all manner of weaknesses. For a moment, as the Iranian political scientist Hossein Bashiriyeh puts it in The People Reloaded, the populace of these countries experiences ‘the increasing disappearance of the feeling of fear’, and anything seems possible. As one of the many curious Persian sayings reproduced by Hooman Majd in The Ayatollahs’ Democracy puts it, ‘They say you can’t screw your mother-in-law. Oh yeah? I did, and it was possible.’

What distinguishes Iran (and Lebanon, but Lebanon is always a special case) is that it is more or less a functioning democracy; its hybrid popular-clerical government, established by the revolutionary constitution of 1979 and known as ‘the system’, enjoys wide support. Old now, the revolutionaries of 1979 are wary of protest: they have seen a regime fall and know how easily it can happen. As Majd puts it, Khamenei was never going to say after the 2009 presidential elections what the shah said on 6 November 1978: ‘I have heard the message of your revolution.’ The Green Movement, whose members had been bullied and shot at in the streets and then subjected to abuse and torture in prison, ran out of steam after eight months early last year. The system, convinced it had suppressed the movement for good, was shocked on 14 February when thousands of Green supporters turned out in defiance of a government ban to demonstrate in sympathy with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In Parliament, in a scene of near hysteria, deputies called for the summary execution of the movement’s leaders. For all its claims to be a pioneer of Islamic liberty, Iran seemed just another despotic Middle Eastern state ready for the historical boneyard.

Majd, who has lived for a long time in the United States, moves with confidence between system and movement, helped by his unusual background. Though from a clerical family, he is the son of a diplomat who served the monarchy and now lives in America. He is related by marriage to the reformist former president Mohammed Khatami, yet has a soft spot for Ahmadinejad. Majd makes much of what he calls the ‘complexes’ of the Iranians, the mixture of pride and self-doubt in a people hard-used over the years, making the Islamic Republic as sensitive to insult from foreigners as some petty 18th-century kingdom. To the flayed sensitivities of the Iranians, as Majd shows, Obama’s friendly overtures in his first year in office were an agony of salt and vinegar.

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