Death to Potatoes!

James Buchan

  • The 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.

The People Reloaded, a collection of essays and interviews assembled by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, often from out-of-the-way journals and websites, gathers much useful information. It also pursues a feud with those leftists in the United States and Latin America who insist that, since Ahmadinejad is anti-American, he must be all right. (Majd argues with some justice that Ahmadinejad was keen to reach a deal with the Americans over uranium enrichment in October 2009.) Neither book throws much light on if, how or why the presidential vote was rigged or tries to guess what will happen next.

For the tenth presidential election of 12 June 2009 the Council of Guardians, the Neoplatonic college established by the revolutionary constitution of 1979 to maintain the Shia character of the regime, approved just four candidates. They were Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, the incumbent president; Mehdi Karroubi, 71, a pugnacious clergyman from Luristan, twice the speaker of the Iranian Parliament and twice an unsuccessful presidential candidate; Mohsen Rezai, 54, a veteran former commander of the Revolutionary Guards; and Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, who served as prime minister until the office was abolished in 1989 and then retired. All were committed to the system, and all implicated to some degree in its crimes after the Revolution and at the end of the war with Iraq in 1988. All wanted to keep their distance from the West and to obtain civilian nuclear power. No doubt, they are also in favour – most Iranians are – of a nuclear deterrent: if not the bomb then the capacity to build one.

The candidates were not exciting, and for much of the spring and early summer of 2009, Iranians assumed that Ahmadinejad would win a second term. The most popular of the challengers, Mousavi, had a reputation for administrative competence. As prime minister between 1981 and 1989, he had managed to finance the war with Iraq through inflation and rationing. A protégé of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mousavi got on badly with Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Khamenei, though not as badly as he does now. Like many of the pioneering Islamic leftists of the early revolutionary years, Mousavi was hung out to dry when Khomeini died in 1989. Disgusted with the drift of the postwar years, he had considered standing for president in 1997. As it turned out, Mohammed Khatami, a clergyman of great charm and composure, won a landslide that year on a reformist ticket, and served two terms in which he managed to reform nothing at all. But in the 2009 campaign Mousavi seemed no match for the incumbent: he came across as a slow and careful speaker, with a weakness for Shiite pieties typical of the Iranian laity.

Ahmadinejad, with his car-coat, cheap shoes and street Persian, is the common man. Majd, who loves this sort of comparison, likens him to Sarah Palin. Ahmadinejad represents to a fault the prejudices and superstitions of the ordinary Iranian, anti-semitic in an unsystematic fashion, bitter and sentimental about the war, and, as Majd reminds us, a little anti-clerical. Iranian anti-clericalism did not simply vanish with the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979. Indeed, as the senior Iranian clergy, with their elegant clothes and hands untouched by labour, have become more aristocratic in manner, anti-clericalism has been on the rise. ‘At times,’ Majd writes, ‘Ahmadinejad has seemed to be almost taunting the mullahs and ayatollahs.’ Ahmadinejad’s bugbear is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the rich former president who was present at the creation and pretty much everything else, and now holds a number of high clerical offices.

That Ahmadinejad is erratic in his office work, and that his appearances abroad resemble cabaret performances, may not matter much. As the editors of The People Reloaded write, ‘Iran is a rentier state, which means it pays its bills from the sale of oil rather than through taxation. This gives the regime a significant degree of autonomy from society, which immunises it from popular pressure.’ Indeed, oil permits the regime to ‘buy the allegiance of millions of people whose livelihood is tied to its survival’. Yet Ahmadinejad’s promise in 2005 to put the country’s oil wealth on the people’s dinner table or picnic rug has not been kept. His dole to the poor of surplus potatoes from government stocks was ridiculed by the opposition candidates. ‘Death to Potatoes!’ their placards said.

In a conversation with Khatami just before the start of the four-week election campaign, Majd fretted about Mousavi’s lack of ‘charisma’. Khatami said: ‘If a wave (mowj) of support does not materialise, or if we can’t create that wave, then we’re in trouble, but we’ll see in the next few weeks.’ After the ill-tempered Mousavi-Ahmadinejad television debate on 3 June, the ‘Green Wave’ (mowj-e sabz) began to swell. On 8 June, demonstrators in Tehran created a chain of people dressed in green stretching 15 or more miles from the railway station in the south of the city to the village of Tajrish on the northern fringes. Since the Revolutionary Guards and the security services were known to be alarmed about the prospect of an Eastern European-style revolution, the use of the colour green was risky.

A high turnout was expected on election day and it was thought many would vote for the opposition: people do not generally turn out in mass to confirm an incumbent. There was good reason for the Mousavi campaign to hope at least for a run-off against Ahmadinejad. The results, as they were announced by the Interior Ministry that same Friday night, were unexpected: 63 per cent for Ahmadinejad, 34 per cent for Mousavi, 2 per cent for Rezai and less than 1 per cent for Karroubi. There would be no second round. Majd tells some anecdotes about the day but the best analysis remains that of Ali Ansari of St Andrews University, for Chatham House. The regime’s demand that its critics produce evidence of fraud is answered with some heat by Ansari in The People Reloaded: ‘It is the governing elite and holders of power who must answer to the people, not the other way round.’

Whatever the actual count – and US diplomats wonder in the WikiLeaks cables if the votes were ever counted – a large fraction of the people did not believe in it. Demonstrations began on Saturday 13 June, and by Monday millions were involved. As Akbar Ganji, a long-standing dissident now living in New York, argues in The People Reloaded, Mousavi and Karroubi did not so much lead the protests as allow themselves to be dragged along in their wake. Folksy, flippant or rude, Ahmadinejad did not rise to the occasion.

On 19 June, at Friday prayers on the campus of Tehran University, Khamenei made no pretence of impartiality: he applauded the ‘epic’ character of the vote and warned of repercussions if the opposition did not clear the streets. The next day, Neda Agha-Soltan, a young philosophy graduate, was shot in the heart. Her death agonies, filmed on a mobile phone, were broadcast round the world. She was one of perhaps more than a hundred young people who lost their lives either on the streets, in an attack by the Basij militia on a Tehran University dormitory on 14 June, or in the prisons of Kahrizak and Evin.

Abdullah Momeni, a student leader, describes in his ‘Open Letter to Ayatollah Khamenei’ in The People Reloaded how he was forced under torture in Evin to make allegations of sexual and other crimes against Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami, Rafsanjani and a clergyman close to the radical students, Mohammed Mousavi Khoeiniha. Torture reveals little about the tortured, but a great deal about the torturer. In Momeni’s contribution, one sees the regime’s night terrors in hideous caricature. The indictments in August and September of prisoners suspected of ‘the project of the velvet coup d’état’ are no less revealing. The significance of obscure foreign or émigré figures is magnified to suggest a vast and single-minded international conspiracy against the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, fires were burning in the seminary. An Iraqi acquaintance who was studying in Qom during the summer of 2009 told me that most of his fellow students intended to vote for Mousavi. Khomeini’s grandchildren, he said, were predominantly with the Greens. The most popular teacher there, Hossein Vahid Khorasani, though, rejected the whole notion of temporal government and refused to pray at Tehran Airport on the ground that it is the estate of usurpers.

On 10 July, the Greens received a boost when Hossein Ali Montazeri, a venerable jurist who was once designated Khomeini’s successor, issued from Qom an opinion or fatwa declaring the election void and Ahmadinejad without authority. In a judgment printed in full in The People Reloaded, Montazeri specifically rejects the principle established by Khomeini, in a rebuke on 6 January 1988 to the man who is now Supreme Leader, that the defence of Islamic government is a higher duty even than prayer, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca. (It is that principle, the Islamic Republic’s Animal Farm moment, that is used in Evin to justify tortures that would give even Egyptian prisons a run for their money.)

As we emerge from the thicket of incumbent and contingent duties, the enjoinders towards the proper and discouraging of the wicked, we stumble on what sounds like common sense:

A regime that is based on club-wielding, injustice, violation of rights, usurpation and adulteration of votes, murder, subjugation, incarceration, medieval and Stalinist tortures, repression, censorship of newspapers and means of communication, imprisonment of the thinkers and elites of the society on trumped-up charges – especially when these are extracted under duress – is condemned and unworthy of religion, reason and the world’s wise observers.

Montazeri’s death on 19 December 2009, his funeral on the 21st and the mass demonstration on the Ashura holiday a week later, breathed fire into the ashes of the Green Movement before it died down again.

By then, the movement’s demands had gone far beyond electoral frustration – ‘My vote? Where is it?’ – to encompass a broader notion of civil rights, greater access to broadcasting and the dismantling of the Council of Guardians and, even, the office of the Supreme Leader. And in the face of the regime’s repression Mousavi himself seems to have been drawn towards more democratic and even secular positions. His statement of 15 June 2010, printed in The People Reloaded, mentions Khomeini only once, and then more with affection than awe, and only once quotes scripture. Instead, he presents the Green Movement as the natural heir of the 1979 Revolution, the oil nationalisation movement of the 1940s and early 1950s and the constitutional revolution of 1905-11.

In the 20 months since the disputed presidential election, both Mousavi and Karroubi have shown persistence and bravery. What can be faulted, as Ganji says, is the predictability of the movement’s tactics, which have yet to extend beyond street protests. Iran has at least 25 bank or public holidays, on which the government, like the old Soviet Union or the Arab nationalist regimes, encourages its supporters to come out into the streets. By staging their counter-marches on such holidays as Jerusalem Day (18 September), US Embassy Day (4 November), Student Day (7 December), Ashura (27 December) and Revolution Day (11 February), the Greens telegraphed (or rather tweeted) their intentions. In a sort of boardgame fought out in city streets and squares, the Greens were outnumbered, outgunned and overwhelmed.

There was no great attempt, as in the revolution in Cairo last month, to take and hold territory in the heart of the capital city. The Greens did not, as in Iran in 1979 or Egypt in 2011, organise strikes in the public services. As Juan Cole writes in The People Reloaded, political conditions overseas were not favourable: US pressure on the nuclear issue and Israeli expansionism played into the hands of the regime. Neither book makes much of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and their role may be exaggerated in the West: nobody now remembers that, in the Tobacco Protest of 1891 against the shah’s granting of a tobacco concession to Britain, the insurgents made extensive use of the jellygraph. As shown by the events of 14 February, the movement is alive. Mousavi and Karroubi (and, it appears, their wives) were arrested on 28 February and have no contact with their followers; but Khatami is still at liberty, and Rafsanjani continues to weave his webs around everybody, including himself. Most writers in The People Reloaded seem prepared for quite a long march. Both books were printed before the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

At heart, the problem for the system is the problem faced by all revolutionary republics and first identified by Saint-Just. The republic, whether in 1789 or 1979, is made not by the virtuous but by people who have been tainted by the trash and crimes of the monarchy (‘d’un peuple épars avec les débris et les crimes de sa monarchie’). Asef Bayat, a sociologist who has written well about the lowest classes of Iranian society, makes this point in The People Reloaded: ‘Iran experienced an Islamic revolution without first developing an Islamist movement.’ Islam was mostly imposed after the Revolution, from above, and often provoked dissent. ‘Today’s crisis is the legacy of that disjuncture over the very meaning of the Revolution,’ Bayat writes. In other words, the Iranians are not inclined to be virtuous in the way their government wants them to be virtuous.

The result is that Iran, like the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, is becoming harder to govern. With the exception of Japan, Iran has the longest experience of parliamentary government of any Asian country, going back to 1906; a parliament – subservient to clerical dictation – is indispensable to the system’s survival. This is not, as one contributor to The People Reloaded argues, a mere ‘simulacrum of republicanism’. If the public has no confidence in the next presidential election, or if the election itself is a mere oath of allegiance, the Islamic Republic will become fragile, as fragile as the Pahlavi monarchy in its absolutist phase. And we all know what happened to the Pahlavis.