Mir Hossein Mousavi addressing supporters in Tehran (photo: AP)
Iran and the Arab Spring

Trapped in the System

Some members of the Iranian opposition feel that their failed Green Revolution was in many ways the model for the uprisings in the Arab world. If that is so, why has the country's pro-democracy movement not benefited from the new democratic spirit sweeping the region since the Arab Spring? Reza Hajatpour investigates

The wave of Arab protest movements has led to a sense of a new beginning in the Muslim world which has been welcomed almost everywhere. The Muslim population has had enough of the repressive systems under which it has suffered. One could almost say that the political and religious power struggle that has been going on in Iran for years has now spread to a large part of the Muslim world and has taken on new forms in the process.

The opposition in Iran had hoped to draw new power from the wave of protests, but the government in Tehran has also been trying to demonstrate its closeness to the people and its solidarity with the Arab uprisings.

Neo-conservative revolutionaries

President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo: www.khameni.ir)
Power struggle: Reza Hajatpour says that no-one would have imagined that it would come to a battle for power between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or that anti-clerical elements would gather around Ahmadinejad

​​For a long time, at least at official level, Iran has been trying to appear unified to the outside world. But the mass protests in June 2009, and the emergence of a new movement known as the Green Path demonstrated the younger generation's deep dissatisfaction with the situation in Tehran. That unrest has now spread to conservative circles.

No-one would have imagined that it would come to disagreements and even a battle for power between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still less would they have imagined that anti-clerical elements would gather around Ahmadinejad, aiming for an Islamic state with a nationalist ideology that might even do without the clerics. The neo-conservative revolutionaries no longer seem to be satisfied with the classic framework of the Islamic system.

Who would have thought that Ahmadinejad would ever call into question the strict rules for the veiling of women? He has now demanded that "women should not be molested on the street by the morality police," and that "women should be allowed to go to football stadiums". Such statements are seen by the mullahs as interference in religious affairs and, as such, an attack on their power. In confrontations such as this, the dispute is about the principle of vilayat-e faqih, or the rule of the religious scholars, which is no longer favoured by the majority in the country, but which remains the basis of the Iranian theocratic system.

The root of such conflicts can be traced back to the early days of the Islamic Republic. Back then, the progressive Organisation of the Mujahidin of the Islamic Revolution, which attached itself in the 1990s to the moderate reformers, was in opposition to the conservative pragmatists and hardliners, which included the Islamic-Republican Party. The party fell apart after internal power struggles, but the ideological and power-political differences remain to this day. Since then, various groups and networks have developed and now work politically and ideologically within the framework of the existing system.

Members of Iran's Green Movement demonstrating (photo: AP)
Surprising as it may seem, the Arab Spring has not given any impetus to the Green Movement in Iran; in fact, the protest movement that was so vibrant in 2009 would seem to have run out of steam

​​One side extends from those who are relatively pragmatic to those who are relatively moderate and reformist and includes the Executives of Construction Party of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the National Trust Party of Mehdi Karroubi, the Green Path of Hope of Mir Hossein Mousavi and the Islamic Iran Participation Front of Mohammad Khatami.

The other side extends from the neo-conservatives to the radical revolutionary hardliners and includes those who gather around the spiritual leadership as well as several Muslim organisations that propagate the ideals of the Islamic revolution and mainly support Ahmadinejad's presidency. Even within the clergy, there are different fronts supporting one or the other side.

The lack of an alternative

The fact remains that both the political landscape and the religious networks in Iran are dominated by a number of disparate groups. That's one of the reasons why the Green Path has been unable to bring together all the opposition groups and has thus been unable to win widespread support among the people.

Another reason is that the Green Movement is itself in a process of development, as can be seen by its lack of intellectual concepts and clear political goals. In addition, the religious orientation of the Green Movement is not attractive to the secular opposition and the educated classes. At the same time, it can't be ignored: the new movement displays the subversive power of a new national culture, which is elegant and cultivated and works within civil society.

But the Iranian people are under severe pressure. They have to struggle with daily difficulties caused by inflation, unemployment and economic sanctions. For this reason, the masses have become the pawns of various political elements which seduce them at elections with false promises and offer them simple, superficial solutions.

President Ahmadinejad of Iran (photo: AP)
Since Ahmadinejad's election victory in 2009, paramilitary supporters of the clergy's conservative religious opponents have begun speaking of "a government of our own" and Iran's "complete independence" from Western powers as their sacred purpose.

​​The people lack a clear insight into what is going on in politics; there isn't a real alternative that would gain the trust of the people, would be able to propose a different structure for the state or would be able to make suggestions as to how the problems of the country could be solved. That also explains why most of the people are scarcely active politically. The majority is silent, thereby creating the impression that the majority backs the Iranian system.

The conservative and radical revolutionary hardliners are perfectly aware of this fact, which explains their current struggle for power. For now it is a matter of jockeying for position within the existing system. But it's not just the reformers who represent a threat to the power of the clergy, it is also conservative religious opponents who are now trying to win the trust of the people with nationalist slogans and religious populism. Since Ahmadinejad's victory, their paramilitary supporters speak of "a government of our own" and proclaim the "complete independence" of Iran from Western powers as their sacred purpose.

That emphasis on "a government of our own" is not just a nationalist cliché designed simply to distance themselves from the rest of the world. With that slogan, they seek to exclude all religious groups that do not belong to their own, even if they still hold to the doctrine of the Islamic Republic.

In reality, the struggle is not really about Islam – it is a kind of cultural battle between the various circles of religious patriots. This is where the decisions will be made as to how Iran will position itself politically and culturally, both domestically and towards the West, and as to whether nationalist or Islamic-nationalist tendencies, the clerical establishment or the neo-conservative revolutionaries will set the tone for the future. Alternatives are only being sought within the existing framework in order to keep the system going.

A solution that only looks good on the surface?

Mir Hossein Mousavi (photo: AP)
According to Reza Hajatpour, Mir Hossein Mousavi might have been the best man to stabilise the system, had he been elected president in 2009

​​Mir Hossein Mousavi would perhaps have been the best option for such a stabilisation of the system, had he been elected president in 2009. The clerics who rule cannot afford to have someone more radical than Ahmadinejad. For the regime in Tehran, someone with a slightly more moderate attitude would have been a better solution; a man (or even a woman) who is concerned about the day-to-day problems of the people and who would be strong enough to keep them quiet for eight years. It would have to be someone who could put out the "glimmering fire beneath the ashes". Why not a woman president from the pragmatic wing? That would have been something revolutionary, something new.

But to bring about real change in Tehran, there would have to be much more civil courage. This change would have to be based on more than just religious or nationalist slogans; it would have to redefine the self-image of the nation; it would have to bring about rational equilibrium at political level and protect the nation against the threat of division by bringing the country's identity and religious tradition into harmony with modern ways of life.

Reza Hajatpour

© Neue Züricher Zeitung 2011

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan

Reza Hajatpour teaches Iranian studies at the Otto Friedrich University in Bamberg. He has published his recollections of the Islamic Revolution, which he experienced as a young student of religion, in Der brennende Geschmack der Freiheit (The Burning Taste of Freedom).

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