Iran’s Bastille Day

by Andrew Kessinger on July 20, 2009

Taking it to the streets

We have recently celebrated the anniversaries of the American and French Revolutions, both violent civil uprisings that changed the course of their nation’s history. A similar storm seems to be brewing – this time in Iran.

In contrast with French President Sarkozy’s high profile role in last week’s Bastille Day festivities, which included the presence of several foreign dignitaries, Iranian President Ahmadinejad is facing increasing international isolation amid accusations that his June reelection was rigged. While thousands of everyday French citizens toasted with champagne to commemorate their nation’s history and hard-won liberties, the Iranian people are assembling to protest the miscarriage of their own.

The contrast is striking. A week of French fêtes…:



… and a month of struggle:



Dozens of Iranians turned out to bury Sohrab Arabi, a 19 year-old student who had been missing since the massive street protests against the election began on June 14th, and whose death had been kept hidden for weeks by state agencies. His fate joins that of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26 year-old singer who was shot in the heart by a sniper during the same demonstrations. Both are victims of the current climate of state-sponsored repression, are now perceived as martyrs and are unifying the opposition movements.

The Iranian government’s blatant disregard of the people’s will, accompanied by its heavy-handed crackdowns, has brought its legitimacy into serious question. With parallels to Louis XVI’s so-called ‘divine right’, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule is based on similar religious claims. However, just as in Louis XVI’s case, challenging Khamenei’s authority is no longer off limits, confirms Borzou Daragahi:

For two decades he was considered to be above the petty political squabbles, a cautious elder contemplating questions of faith and Islam while guiding his nation into the future.

But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose title of supreme leader makes him Iran’s ultimate authority, has gotten his hands dirty. His decision in recent weeks to so stridently support the nation’s controversial president after a disputed election has dramatically changed his image among his people, setting in motion an unpredictable series of events that could fundamentally change the Islamic Republic.

“Public respect for him has been significantly damaged,” said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Opposing him is no longer the same as opposing God.”

While the United States was celebrating its own Independence Day, further dents in Khamenei’s armor appeared when an influential group of Iranian religious leaders, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, weighed in on the voter-fraud scandal and called the election “illegitimate”. The NYTimes:

[The Association’s statement] represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final.

“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.”

[The Association] even directly criticized the Guardian Council, the powerful group of clerics charged with certifying elections, [asking]: “Is it possible to consider the results of the election as legitimate by merely the validation of the Guardian Council?”

The events unfolding in Iran, unlike those that transpired during the French Revolution, do not seem to be building up to a full overthrow of the government. Protesters are not, for the most part, positioning themselves against the religious establishment out of disdain for an Islamic vision of the state. Rather, many are looking for what they see as a return to the Revolution’s original ideals, including social justice and the fight against corruption. They are not seeking a coup d’etat, so much as the right to determine their leadership – something granted in a republic, Islamic or not – and are motivated by the burning resentment that their votes were discredited and concerns ignored.

In another move illustrating the goal of reform and not revolution, the only conservative candidate to run against Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections, Mohsen Rezai, released a letter this week urging the government to address public misgivings for the sake of preserving the Islamic revolution:

Imprisoning the revolution politically is an unpardonable sin. Political disputes should not keep us from progress in economy and culture. We have no option but practicing unity to push ahead with the Islamic revolution.

Anyone who has committed a mistake in the recent post-election events should compensate for and those who were damaged should be indemnified. We need cooperation and brotherhood. We have to respect civil rights.

Political justice is more significant than economic justice. If we cannot let others participate in the state affairs, we are sailing into uncharted waters.

Nonetheless, just as the storming of the Bastille gave rise to a total system overhaul, so too could Iran’s post-election protests set off serious domestic reform.

While the opposition has produced fewer demonstrations in the last two weeks, one should not assume the government’s strategy of applying force has succeeded in squashing the movement. Laura Secor of the New Yorker:

The less we hear from Iran, the easier it is to presume that the regime’s strong-arm tactics have succeeded in putting down the protest movement. But the silence we hear is only our own. The protest movement that exploded into Iran’s streets in June was not a momentary flash of anger. It would not have been so heart-stopping if it were. Rather, for the segment of the populace engaged in the protests, it was the culmination of decades of frustrated hopes and indignities. Among the protesters were those who had placed their trust in the reform movement, which had promised evolutionary change through legal means; these people were already bitterly disappointed by the end of the Khatami years, in 2005, and had, with some difficulty, mustered the will and the optimism to participate in the electoral process once again. What propelled them to the streets was the long, slow burn of accumulated grievance, and there is little reason to believe that their fury has so swiftly expended itself.

Iran’s broad middle class has entered into open revolt against its government. The reformists, who once sought to triangulate between these forces and the theocracy, have by and large chosen the side of the protesters. This is a confrontation to be measured not in days but in months, or even years. Among analysts of Iran, debates rage over the relative demographic, political, and economic strength of the opposition coalition. We’ll know it by its failure or its success, and not in the immediate short term.

When it comes to the short term however, look out for continued challenges to Khamenei’s authority and subsequent push-back. Just last week, former President and prominent Moussavi backer, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, tacitly appropriated Khamenei’s mantle of leadership when he directed the national keynote message during Friday prayers. In it, he urged the release of arrested protesters and asked authorities to address the doubts surrounding the election. He is the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the governmental body charged with monitoring and, if deemed necessary, dismissing the Supreme Leader. On Sunday, presidential contender-cum-opposition leader Mohammed Khatami, went a step further and called for a national referendum on the government’s legitimacy. He too is a former President.

In any case, one thing seems certain: while Iran might not transform from a clerical oligarchy to a Western-styled democracy, at least not overnight, the democratic principles for which the people are fighting (political participation and representation, freedom of press and freedom of assembly) stand to be strengthened in the near future. Freedom-loving citizens worldwide have much to celebrate during this month of independence.

This article was first published in the New Atlanticist. Photo by Getty Images.

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