After six days, the Iranian protests remain an inscrutable phenomenon, at least on account of the variety of slogans and demands that the crowds in turmoil have come up with, mixing the frustrations of a betrayed working class with the confused and grotesque nostalgia for the Shah, overthrown in 1979 by the revolution that led to the establishing of the Islamic Republic.
With 20 protesters killed, most likely by the police, despite Rouhani’s conciliatory tone, the regime has in fact already shown that the momentum towards changes that history itself is demanding (one that has many times been interpreted as such and supported by the elites of the regime) is viewed more and more as a threat by its autocratic and cynical core.
The reaction by the establishment has certainly been very different from the response ordered by Ahmadinejad during the so-called “green wave” of 2009. But from the point of view of the martyrs of this popular uprising, the accusation of “foreign agents” mixed in with the crowds in order to sow panic and sedition sounds like nothing more than the broken record that insecure and hysterical power regimes tend to play.
This, however, does not mean that political actors, inside and especially outside the country, are not already watching for an opportunity for strategic and political profiteering, capitalizing both on the negative exposure that the protests are giving to the Rouhani government, but especially on the unstructured and confused character of these popular revolts, in order to destabilize Iran in accordance with their own international agendas.
To be clear: Ever since 1979, Iranian society has been imbued with a very deeply rooted political opposition to the regime and its instrumentalization of a religious conservatism to limit the self-expression of society, starting with the very bodies of its citizens.
This was, for example, what happened in the “green wave” of 2009. A real movement for civil rights was structured around Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two political figures in opposition to the Ahmadinejad government but still members of the elite, asking “where is my vote?” and denouncing the electoral fraud perpetrated by the establishment of the conservative then-president. It was a well-structured movement, in continuity with the activism of the ’90s, with a clear political agenda that was not intended to overthrow the system but rather to transform it from within, making use of every possibility offered by Iranian pluralism.
The political system of the Islamic Republic, after all, allows a genuine democratic debate, albeit subject to the obvious limitations of an oppressive and authoritarian clergy. Not surprisingly, despite the harsh repression of 2009, the demands of the protesters penetrated the halls of power and triggered a process of (later) change that led to the progressive marginalization of Ahmadinejad and his conservative circle, and finally to the election of the reformist Rouhani. The political openness of the current president is only the latest step in a slow process of transformation that has advanced, in fits and starts, beginning from the very aftermath of the 1979 Revolution.
However, the nature of the popular revolts that have marked the transition from 2017 to 2018 seems as of now very different from those of 2009. The many different voices of those demonstrating, and the absence of a genuinely counter-hegemonic force that could envision (not to mention realize) a change, are rather reminiscent of the spontaneous protests that occurred in 2011 throughout the Arab world. At least this is what we can see of the current momentum for revolt from our vantage point, far-removed and limited in time.
The weakness of this revolutionary impulse, according to the Marxist scholar Asef Bayat, is to be found not only in the strength of the repression against it, but rather in the absence of a true “revolutionary idea.”
It was for this reason that the restoration of the hardline core of the regimes, and the triumph of Islamist forces (which were not the protagonists of the early stages of the protests), were the outcomes of the showdown between rulers and societies in the Arab world.
One suspects that a similar dynamic is at play in Iran today: partly fueled by conservatives hostile to Rouhani (although the events are perhaps already out of their control), partly the result of the popular discontent of the working classes against the government’s economic policy—steeped as it is in neoliberal initiatives, and in the end focused on hard cuts to subsidies, with inflation rising and employment falling—and partly tinged by a veneer of “retrotopia,” looking back to a non-existent “golden age” projected into the past (i.e. the authoritarian and corrupt government of the Shah), to compensate for the absence of a programmatic creativity aimed at the future.
What is strikingly absent from the Iranian protests, which in terms of numbers have involved fewer people than in 2009, is, in fact, ideology, which is what defines the structure of movements. In this vacuum, actors undesirable to most of society can find a place to lurk.
Not surprisingly, the riots have propagated even to the hyper-conservative cities of Mashhad and Qom, but have not had much echo in the capital, Tehran, where the feeling is that most of the small and medium bourgeoisie, while hostile to the regime, is afraid of unpredictable developments orchestrated by actors who have more of a rhetorical than a real interest in democratic change.
We should remember that the “great Iranian people” on whom Donald Trump has bestowed his enthusiastic endorsement in one of his tweets is the same people stigmatized by the travel ban promoted by his administration. Also, while the chorus in favor of a “democratic transition” is resounding across the Western media, it is perhaps appropriate to recall that an Iran which would be reintegrated into the international community would easily win the position of regional leader, and that this is exactly what the new White House has aimed to prevent by boycotting the nuclear deal signed by Obama and slowing down the process of the lifting of sanctions, causing a halt in the economic growth that Iranians were expecting.
It is our duty to exercise epistemological caution, taking care not to descend to the level of an intellectualist elitism that tends to denigrate and Orientalize any protest in the Middle East that has made headlines in the West, alongside the many other protests that have been ignored or vilified, especially when directed against regimes friendly toward the West.
The risk is that the media chorus, almost unanimous in its convergence around anti-Iran prejudice and as reluctant as ever to appreciate the complexity of both the society and the political system of this country, might end up—in our condition of postmodernity, where things first “happen” in the virtual realm of communication—materializing the wishful thinking of the conservative circles of Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, rather than the will of Iranian society, to which our media is quick to proclaim its emotional closeness.