While Libya is on fire and many other countries in the region are experiencing either various stages of unrest or a delicate transition to democracy, the case of Iran remains an enigma to the world and to itself.
It’s almost an understatement to say that Iranian nationalism is characterized by a substantial dose of haughty self-centeredness. Much more than its purported opposition to the West (an ideological banner of the Islamic Republic, but not a very deep sentiment), its scarcely concealed condescension towards the Arabs is one salient feature of its modern identity.
Of course, those despised nomad invaders have brought to Persia the message of the Prophet that is at the core of Iran’s traditional civilization and of some of its modern political institutions, so it makes for a rather complicated relation.
The recent events add a new layer to this ambiguity. The Iranian opposition to the current regime has been transfixed by the Arab uprisings, but not without a tinge of envious perplexity. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised the Tunisians and Egyptian revolutions, mischaracterizing them as essentially “Islamic,” and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has harshly criticized Gaddafi’s brutal repression of its own people, but Iranian security forces have cracked down on tens of thousand of protesters too eager to imitate their Arab brethren.
Faribah Abdelkah, a researcher from Centre d’Etude des Relations Internationales in Paris (CERI), is one of the more acute analysts of Iranian society and politics, and she has a rather interesting angle on the present situation. The problem of Iran is not so much that fundamentalist clerics are in power, explains Abdelkah, it is rather that clerics have no more a monopoly on Islamic orthodoxy. Religious legitimacy, still a potent source of social and political authority in Iran, is up for grabs, and the struggle to redefine it is sometimes ferocious.
The fact that Ahmadinejad can be at the same time an advocate of a radically messianic brand of political Islam and the first non-cleric president of the Islamic Republic is quite significant. His interpretation of what a virtuous Muslim polity should look like is not only different from former president Mohammad Khatami’s Muslim reformism, with its explicit appeals to Tocqueville and western liberalism. It is also in conflict with the worldview of traditional religious conservatives, who are wary of his boisterous international activism and his lack of social tact and theological acumen.
The conflictive pluralism of Iran’s religious politics is compounded by the growing complexity of its economy. In spite of Ahmadinejad’s populist rhetoric and of his insistence on “social justice,” he is not a representative of a statist “Islamic left” that was still somehow influent at the beginning of the revolution but has almost completely disappeared from the political landscape.
Economic liberalization is a fact in Iran, but it has not given way to a clear differentiation between the private sector, the public domain and an entangled web of “foundations” and semi-public corporate entities that puzzles the observers. What seems to prevail is a very specific kind of crony capitalism where every political and religious faction has its own cronies and denounces the corruption of the other cliques.
In the Iranian unrest as it emerged in the wake of the 2009 elections and as some of the reformists try to revive it now, one essential ingredient of the Arab revolts seems to be absent. The cosmopolitan middle-class has not been able to connect with large sections of the working class and the urban plebs, as it has been the case in Tunisia and in Egypt.
The failure of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to convincingly document their assertions of electoral fraud and, more generally, the lack of strategic clarity and decisive leadership of the Green Movement, have not played well with most Iranians. Symptomatically, Khatami, a potent reformist figure in his own right, has discreetly distanced himself from the protesters and vowed to work within the rules of the current political order.
Khatami may underestimate the growing intransigence of the faction in power, though. One of its more worrying expressions is the intensive judicial harassment and arbitrary detention of dozens of peaceful opponents and human rights defenders and the alarming recrudescence of death sentences in the last few months. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, in January alone, 83 people were executed in the country, against 179 for the whole year of 2009.
For human rights activist Hadi Ghaemi, issuing and carrying out death sentences is now a state policy in Iran. Most victims are allegedly drug traffickers, but Ghaemi believes that “the political developments in the region have had an impact,” and that authorities employ “extreme violence” to instill fear. As we saw, Iranian society generally thinks of itself as much more sophisticated than the Arab world. In the context of a Middle-East in turmoil, such a surge of barbarous cruelty might well backfire.
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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.
Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).