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Counter-Revolution and Revolt in Iran: An Interview with Iranian Political Scientist Hossein Bashiriyeh

Hossein Bashiriyeh is one of post-revolutionaryIran’s key political thinkers. Known as the father of political sociology in Iran, he has influenced, through his voluminous writings and his 24 years teaching political science at the University of Tehran (1983-2007), both the study and practice of politics in Iran.

In his recent book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Mehran Kamrava describes Bashiriyeh as “one of the country’s most influential and most serious thinkers and analysts.” Bashiriyeh’s two and a half decades as a scholar and mentor inIran, Kamrava writes have left indelible marks on successive generations of political science graduates, many of whom have gone on to become academics themselves or have secured policy-making positions in the state bureaucracy.

Bashiriyeh has figured critically in Iranian public life, says Ali Mirsepassi, author of Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, by “introducing democratic theories and ideas to a generation of Iranian intellectuals and political figures who latter played significant roles in the democratic and reform movement.”

Sadly for those of us not literate in Persian, only one of his numerous books is available in English: the monumental State and Revolution in Iran, a largely Gramscian analysis of the Iranian Revolution published in 1984 — alas, long out of print and extremely difficult to find (only a single used copy is available via Amazon and not one via Powell’s).

His books in Persian include Revolution and Political Mobilization (1991), Political Sociology (1993), History of Political Thought in the 20th Century [Volume I, Marxist Thought, Volume II, Liberal and Conservative Thought] (1994-96), The Kingdom of Reason (1993), Civil Society and Political Development in Iran (1998), New Theories in Political Science (1999), Sociology of Modernity (1999), The State and Civil Society (2000), 20th Century Theories of Culture (2000), Obstacles to Political Development in Iran (2001), Lessons on Democracy for Everyone (2001), Political Science for Everyone (2001), An Introduction to the Political Sociology of Iran: The Era of the Islamic Republic (2002), and Transition to Democracy: Theoretical Issues (2006). His translations from English to Persian include Hobbes’s Leviathan, Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and Robert Holub’s Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere.

Among the subjects Bashiriyeh explores in his 2003 essay collection Reason in Politics are the Frankfurt School, liberalism and anarchism, Weber and Islam, and class struggles, political ideology and identity-building after the Iranian Revolution.

In the summer of 2007 Bashiriyeh was fired from theUniversityofTehran(the handiwork of the “Committee of Cultural Revolution and Purges of Universities”). The previous year, President Ahmadinejad had challengedIran’s university students to “scream” and ask, “Why are there liberal and secular professors in universities?”

Bashiriyeh has since taken a position in the Department of Political Science atSyracuseUniversity, where he teaches courses on Middle Eastern Political Systems, Islamic Political Thought, Social Theory and theMiddle East, the Politics of Modern Iran and Comparative Revolutions.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail in June and July of 2009:

Danny Postel: As the author of a classic study of the Iranian Revolution (The State and Revolution in Iran), and given your recent comparative work on “transitional situations,” what are your impressions of what’s been happening in Iran in the aftermath of the June 12 presidential election? Some have argued that we are witnessing “a great emancipatory event” (Slavoj Žižek); “something quite extraordinary, perhaps even a social revolution” (Hamid Dabashi); a “velvet coup” (Anoush Ehteshami); “the final acts of a protracted war for the control of the Iranian economy” (Behzad Yaghmaian); even an attempt to abolish the people (Pepe Escobar). How would you characterize the situation?

Hossein Bashiriyeh: I think that the aftermath of the election constituted a catalyst for a potentially revolutionary situation facing a government caught in a number of crises. More specifically, it has signified a fatal crisis of cohesion and unity. Of course the basically authoritarian electoral theocracy had been more or less experiencing a number of crises, affecting its bases of power: ideological-authoritarian regimes, generally speaking, may develop crises in the sphere of their ideological legitimacy, administrative efficiency, internal elite cohesion, and coercive capacity. If all these crises occur at the same time, the situation may be described as revolutionary; out of these crises emerge the necessary ingredients for a political opposition too, i.e. mass discontent, ideology, leadership and organization.

So for a revolutionary situation to develop at least eight factors are required: the four regime factors (crises) and the four revolutionary-movement factors. Obviously all these factors are dialectically interrelated and enhance each other. In the case of the Iranian regime before the election, I would say that a considerable degree of the first two crises had already come about, but the crisis of unity and cohesion had been contained since 2004, and there was no crisis of coercion or domination at all. I think that the aftermath of the election signified a quite unprecedented crisis of elite cohesion and unity, further intensifying the crises of legitimacy and efficiency. Never before had an internal rift caused such a large-scale mass mobilization of opposition.

In the specific case of the Iranian regime, a more or less chronic crisis of legitimacy had been caused by a number of factors and developments. Four major causes can be identified: (1) the rise of a more republican interpretation of the dominant Islamist ideology; (2) the contradictory nature of the Constitution, in terms of seeking to combine theocratic and democratic principles of legitimacy; (3) an increasingly noticeable gap between ruling-class practice and its legitimizing ideals; and (4) a widening gap between public opinion and official ideology as a result of the increasing secularization of social values and attitudes. In any case even if the elected offices may be said to be periodically legitimized by popular elections (although elections are controlled), the unelected offices are no doubt subject to an erosion of legitimacy as a result of the four factors I’ve outlined. As I will explain later, I think the grave crisis of cohesion and unity resulting from the June election has also actualized the underlying crisis of legitimacy.

In terms of a crisis of efficient management, I would argue that the Islamist government has suffered from a chronic crisis of efficiency throughout its rule; the more recent intensification of the crisis since 2005 has resulted from irregular and erratic economic policies and practices, political nepotism and general mismanagement. The adoption of a politically useful discourse of alms-based Islamic welfare policy by the Fundamentalist faction in power has, according to expert views, caused economic disruption, inflation, recession and more unemployment. Irregular redistributive policies, price intervention, and a reduction in interest rates have contributed to the critical situation. Obviously in the absence of a crisis of cohesion and elite unity, economic problems may have no political outcomes, but as rifts develop within the regime, they may expand the possibility of political mobilization by opposition forces. However, in the actual mass political mobilization in the aftermath of the election, the motivating force was not the economic conditions, but rather what I consider to be a sense of political frustration and inefficacy mainly on the part of the urban middle classes, who found their vote and their political participation to be of no consequence in changing the political situation. The mass mobilization resulted from a gap between rising political expectations and the outcome of the election — a gap which has become very intolerable indeed.

But the real meaning of the aftermath of the June election seems to me to lie in the unprecedented intensification of a crisis of cohesion and unity. Such a crisis had emerged and persisted in the 1980s under Ayatollah Khomeini himself. But as mentioned, never before 2009 had internal divisions led to such a mass political mobilization and massive repression. From the beginning, the Islamic state witnessed internal divisions over economic policy, the interpretation of Islamic law, emphasis on the Islamic vs. republican nature of the Constitution, and so on. In the 1980s two parties emerged: the Party of Tradition and the Party of Khomeinists; the former supported non-intervention in economic affairs and a traditionalist jurisprudence; the latter advocated economic intervention and redistribution, as well as a dynamic jurisprudence — but this division was contained as a result of Khomeini’s arbitration.

Then in the early 1990s a new division emerged within the Party of Islamic Tradition itself, as the ruling elite under Rafsanjani sought to modernize the Islamic state and to readjust it to the requirements of globalization. That internal division did not lead to popular mobilization, as the ruling elite succeeded in containing the rift as an internal affair. The division within the ruling parties and elites was intensified from 1997, when the old Khomeinists came to power and sought to democratize the Islamic state by augmenting its republican aspects. That division led to the political activation and mobilization of new middle classes, the rise of new parties and violent confrontation. However, from 2004 the core clerical elite, led by the office of Leadership, sought to minimize internal divisions by ousting the supporters of modernization and democratization from power and by creating new political formations and alliances, especially the Party of Fundamentalism (Party of Principles). The power bloc since 2004 has been occupied by an alliance of the Fundamentalist and Traditionalist-Conservative parties to the detriment of the Reformists. Given the controlled nature of popular elections in the country, the ruling factions have now sought to retain their positions by what the reformists regard as an electoral coup followed by repression. What is meant by an electoral coup is in fact a late “political abortion” or an “abortive coup” preventing the reformist baby from coming into life.

So on the whole I think developments since June 12 can be understood and explained in terms of a grave crisis of elite cohesion and unity, which has not been solved by arbitration as in previous episodes, but has been met with violence and repression. Generally there is little doubt about the vital importance of internal divisions and opposition for change under ideological regimes such as the Islamic Republic, particularly in the absence of any organized external opposition. However, the issue of disunity has not led to a crisis of coercion and domination; there are no apparent rifts within the armed forces, no rival military force, and the ruling elite’s will to power and repression seems to be intact. But crises of cohesion cause other problems for ideological regimes, such as further undermining regime legitimacy, paving the way for the organization of popular discontent, and providing leadership and ideology, as other necessary ingredients of a revolutionary situation.

At any rate, the aftermath of the June election can be understood in terms of the intensification of internal divisions and polarization between ruling factions. But unlike previous episodes, it has led to the mobilization of popular opposition on a very large scale. The highest degree of internal division in the regime’s history has now been reached, causing polarization, confrontation, and an expanding circle of “counter-revolution.”

DP: As you observe, never before in its 30-year history had the Islamic Republic seen such mass political mobilization. So why now, in your view?

HB: Obviously mass mobilization or the mobilization of a large number of people for political purposes — especially in a polarized form and under an authoritarian regime — does not come about easily or frequently; it is only rarely and under exceptional circumstances that political leaders or parties succeed in calling people onto the streets in huge numbers, as happened for a few days following the June 12 election in Iran. Given this, we need to know what those exceptional circumstances and conditions that make mass mobilization possible are.

Since mass mobilization is a rare occurrence in the politics of authoritarian regimes, it follows that its outbreak cannot be explained by reference to “ordinary” situations prevailing under those regimes, such as economic problems and crises, government incapacity, general mass discontent, or political repression. Although these may constitute the eventual ingredients of the mobilization episode, the mobilization itself requires specific mechanisms in order to come about; it is through these mechanisms that those raw elements may be articulated. As the history of mass mobilization shows everywhere, the phenomenon is not a mechanical one, resulting from some “objectively” undesirable socio-economic and political conditions per se; it is the “subjective” channeling of those objective conditions which is the key element.

In general, three rather complementary theories have been advanced in order to explain why and how mass mobilization becomes possible: first the theory that regards mass mobilization as a rare and exceptional psychosocial or existential condition which results from the development of an intolerable gap between popular expectations and the possibility of meeting them. From this psychosocial perspective, for example, persistent poverty or persistent prosperity do not lead to mass action; rather it is going from prosperity to poverty or from poverty to prosperity that creates the gap between expectations and the possibility of meeting them. According to this famous Davies J-Curve theory, collective action may take place at the point where the gap is most intolerable. So the theoretical dispute and debate concerning whether it is abject poverty or prosperity that leads to insurrection is thus resolved. Another major theoretical debate has been going on concerning whether mass collective action becomes possible in a mass society or in a society experiencing the development of a civil society; this dispute is similarly resolved in the theory of segmented civil society, according to which there is no possibility for mass political mobilization in a repressed mass society on the one hand, and there is no need for such a mobilization in a fully grown and developed civil society, on the other; so it is under conditions of segmented civil societies that mass mobilization of the type we have witnessed in Iran may come about. A third, political, theory relates the possibility of mass action and mobilization to internal ruling elite disunity. In the specific case ofIranin June 2009, a combination of these three factors made the large-scale mobilization of the people possible.

First, an intolerable gap resulted from rising expectations before the election and violent repression after the election. The result was public indignation and anger on an unprecedented scale. Obviously the rising expectations were political in nature, not economic (as in the theory mentioned above). For a few weeks, a large, mainly urban middle-class-based socio-political movement emerged around the two reformist candidates (Mousavi and Karroubi), mobilizing a large segment of the population in the name of the Green Movement for reform and change. The period of the electoral campaign was marked by festivities, public discussions and gatherings, heated debates, hopeful projections for change, intriguing TV debates between presidential candidates, popular excitement, relative press freedom, critique of government performance, political publicity and propaganda, and the reactivation of political groupings and parties.

As the unexpected election results were announced, the atmosphere changed completely and a mood of public despair and anger replaced the exuberant mood of hope and expectation. The focus on a single issue — the rigging of the election — polarized the population, leading to mass street demonstrations against the manipulation of the election. The first week after the election witnessed the height of the gap mentioned above. The leaders of the movement were also successful in concentrating and focusing on the single issue of fraudulence. The second week, however, witnessed a rather different situation as the Supreme Leader vowed, in the Friday prayers, to suppress any street demonstration and endorsed the official election results as accurate. So on the whole the gap resulting from rising political expectations and hopes for freedom and change, on the one hand, and the anger, disappointment and indignation caused by the manipulation of the election, on the other, was the reason for the mass mobilizations which have had no precedent during the 30 years of Islamic rule in the country. In the weeks since, however, the sense of anger has been gradually replaced by a sense of fear, as the security forces have shown no sign of mercy in ruthlessly and violently crushing any public gathering or demonstration.

Regarding the second factor — the civil society vs. mass society debate — I would argue that developments during the so-called Reconstruction Period from 1989 to 1997, as well as the Reform Period from 1997 to 2005, had to a certain degree paved the way for a slow transition from mass society to a segmented civil society. The emergence of civil associations, independent student organizations, associations of writers and journalists, a rather independent press and increasing independence of arts and culture from government control were all signs of this transition from mass to civil society, albeit in a circumscribed way. A number of similar (though much more limited) collective actions and mass protests had already occurred during the Reconstruction and Reform periods (like the uprisings in Islamshahr, Qazvin, Mashad and the 1999 Student Uprising, known as 18 Tir), but the recent mass mobilization was very different in nature, scope, intensity of government reaction, and particularly in terms of its consequences in disclosing the real character of the political system for the majority of the people. The violent confrontation took place on a mass scale; the lines of division between the government and the public opposition were clearly drawn; and a state of disillusion came about. On the other hand, it seems that the civil-society base of the mass mobilization was not wide or strong enough to sustain the opposition movement — though the role of political repression has been much more decisive in this regard.

Finally, the widening divisions within the ruling elites and popular awareness thereof were highly effective in generating the public outburst. Internal disunity took place on a number of levels: first, despite sharp differences between the ruling Fundamentalists and the contending Reformists, the Reformist candidates had been approved by the Council of Guardians; and the Reformists obviously confirmed their allegiance to the Constitution and the theocratic system; all this (apparently) provided a margin of safety for the public to come out on the streets and demonstrate in large numbers; in this way they were supporting some of the candidates and political figures who had, presumably, been endorsed by the core clerical elite.

At a second level, emerging signs of division between the Fundamentalist faction in power and the Traditionalist-Conservative parties within the power bloc (especially between Rafsanjani and the Fundamentalists) generated the expectation (or perhaps the illusion) that the Traditionalist-Conservative clerics would actively support the Green movement; so the perception was that the movement enjoyed the tacit support of some Conservative parties who had become disenchanted with the economic and foreign policies of the ruling Fundamentalist faction. And finally, on a third level, signs of some emerging divisions within the ruling Fundamentalist faction, in parliament and outside, and reluctance on the part of many Fundamentalist MPs to support the current president’s candidacy, might have been further encouraging for the supporters of the opposition movement. Of course, following the announcement of the election results, and with increasing polarization of attitudes, some of those more secondary rifts would disappear as the Conservative and Traditionalist parties would rush to the support of the government and the position of the Supreme Leader at a time of deep crisis threatening the very existence of the Islamic regime.

On the whole, although such an occasion for mass mobilization had been dreamt of by the external or even internal opposition groups for a long time, it had not been planned in any way; rather, it was the result of a rare political conjuncture — as is the case with almost all revolutionary situations.

DP: The other night at a panel discussion on the situation in Iran held in Chicago, the sociologist Ahmad Sadri argued that we are witnessing the “beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic.” Do you agree?

HB: In order to begin to think about any breakdown, we need to know the consequences of the recent crisis and confrontation for the political system; that is, we need to ask what difference the recent developments have made to the regime in terms of the eight various analytical factors I laid out earlier. The consequences of the recent crisis and confrontation are manifold; and we need to assess the durability of the government in terms of these consequences.

My general argument has been that if the political system had previously experienced any sort of crisis, it is now intensified and has gone through a qualitative change. In terms of ideological legitimacy, the preexisting deficit has now become a first-degree crisis of legitimacy. The Islamic Republic claimed, from its inception, to be at least partly based on popular support and consent; one could argue that in the conception of the Islamic Republic, “Republic” as the noun is more essential than “Islamic” as the adjective of that noun (at least in the Persian language this is the type of perception we have about nouns and adjectives). Elections have been held regularly and even the Supreme Leaders have considered elections and popular participation as a major basis of the political system. Of course, as we know, elections in the Islamic Republic are restricted in the sense that all candidates in all elections have to be declared as qualified by the Council of Guardians, which is the legislative arm of the Supreme Leader. In any case, according to the opposition, which enjoys a mass following, even the institutionally restricted elections have not been respected by the regime itself.

During the June election, all four candidates had been endorsed by the Council of Guardians and indirectly by the Supreme Leader; yet popular support for the two Reformist candidates has increasingly been regarded by the regime as counter-revolutionary, and as we have seen, peaceful protesters have been beaten and crushed for legally protesting against the official election results. In the eyes of supporters of the mass Green Movement, they had done nothing except legally protest against the election results, but they were treated ruthlessly and violently (even the Council of Guardians itself admitted that on the basis of a partial recount some three million votes had been manipulated; and if a full recount had been allowed, perhaps the allegations of the Reformist candidates would have been corroborated). The Supreme Leader’s endorsement of the official election results — even before the partial recount, which he had himself allowed — caused the sense of illegitimacy to spread, in the eyes of the protestors and opposition, from the government to the entire political system.

Furthermore, the Supreme Leader’s rather explicit permission for the ruthless suppression of any demonstrations, and their actual violent suppression, further intensified the crisis and deficit of legitimacy. If previously there was a second or even third degree crisis of legitimacy, in the sense that the policies of the government had faced popular objection, now with the recent turn of events a first-degree crisis of legitimacy has come about, throwing into question the legitimacy of the entire system.

In terms of legitimacy, therefore, the recent confrontation has had several consequences. Firstly: it has somewhat exposed or uncovered the nature of the power structure; previously the Supreme Leader had been regarded (at least by the politically uninformed or misinformed) as being neutral in factional rivalries and as standing above the various factions like an impartial judge; but this illusion was shattered by the Leader himself when he announced that he had personal political preferences and actually supported the current government and policies and would endorse them at any price. Previously there was a disagreement concerning the role and position of the Supreme Leader; some political activists and commentators regarded him as politically weak or impartial; accordingly, he did not have a base of social support for himself, despite his great institutional powers, and so he had to adjust to the policies of whatever government was in power (Rafsanjani’s from 1989 to 1997 and Khatami’s from 1997 to 2005). But in fact, he had been trying to uphold his own power and position; this had not been possible during Rafsanjani’s presidency or during Khatami’s; but Khamenei eventually emerged as the architect of a fundamentalist alternative to reform and democratization after 2004 by encouraging the formation of the fundamentalist bloc which won the various elections in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and now 2009.

So the Leader’s own pronouncements and actions demonstrated that he was the core figure and the real coordinator. In terms of legitimacy, however, this was not in his self-interest, as he removed all the mists of illusion and put himself in direct confrontation with the popular opposition. In a superficial sense, which is very meaningful in the history of modern Iran, he was moving from a constitutional to an absolutist sort of velayat (rule). So, on the whole the recent confrontation has made the power structure of the regime more transparent for the general public.

A second consequence of the recent crisis and confrontation is going to be a growing belief among the ruling cliques about the disruptive nature of elections and high popular participation; elections will be considered disruptive; mass participation of the people in elections will not be seen as an advantage for the regime; if this is going to be the case, then the legitimacy of the regime will be further undermined. Thirdly, and in a parallel way, the people can be expected to lose their belief in the value of voting and political participation, which is yet another factor in the erosion of political legitimacy. So in this way the electoral aspect of the theocracy is going to be discredited from both directions, and apparently the regime will have to rely more heavily on the undemocratic or clerical-aristocratic aspect of the system.

A fourth outcome of the recent confrontation, which should be taken into account in any assessment of the future course of events, is the expansion of the circle of “counter-revolution”; some hardliners are already talking about the “new hypocrites” (referring to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, which was ousted from the political arena in the early years of the revolution and which was labeled as the party of hypocrites). I think the most important impact of the current upheaval and confrontation (which again has to be reckoned with in any projection of the future) is the increasing disappearance of the feeling of fear, which has been the main basis of the political order; a feeling of courage to express long pent-up grievances is the hallmark of the current developments. As a rule, both on an individual as well as a social level, anger kills fear; the government did everything it could, in the span of a few weeks, to make the general public angry, frustrated and desperate. The “counting” of the votes, the humiliating arrogance, the intimidation, the brutality, the detentions, the violent repression, and so on, caused widespread anger and indignation. If all the pent-up grievances had been tolerated for years because of fear, now anger caused by imprudent government action is paving the way for a catharsis.

Authoritarian regimes usually attempt to compensate for the loss of ideological legitimacy either by resorting to more coercive and repressive measures or by turning to more public welfare services. In the case ofIranafter June 2009, what has happened is the expansion of the coercive dimension or base of the regime as a compensation for the legitimacy deficit. This in itself means a transformation in the character or type of the regime, which is becoming more militaristic; a militaristic language is now utilized by the armed forces in reference to the opposition movement. This tendency is of vital significance for the future course of developments, if the political system is to remain in place. Given the prevailing economic situation mentioned above, as well as the limited managerial capability of the government, there is little chance of success for any attempt at compensation for the loss of legitimacy through the expansion of the public sector and provision of welfare; indeed, the system had already been suffering from a crisis of efficient management.

Out of the four main bases of regime stability — legitimacy, efficiency, elite unity, and coercive capacity — it seems that only the latter has remained functioning, at least for the time being. The unity of the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic has also been somewhat damaged. To be sure, factionalism, as discussed above, had always existed among the ruling elites. Interventionism vs. non-interventionism, socio-economic modernization vs. adherence to tradition, and Islamization vs. democratization have been some of the major points of contention in the life of the Islamic Republic over the last 30 years. But in a sense, all these cleavages and rifts had been non-antagonistic; the significance of the recent confrontation is that it has turned non-antagonistic divisions and rifts into antagonistic ones. Several moderate and reformist parties which had been regarded as members of the family of the Revolution are now being castigated as counter-revolutionary. The unity of the ruling elites is being damaged as antagonistic rifts are emerging, firstly between Reformist and Fundamentalist parties, secondly within the clerical institutions, and thirdly within the military elite. More indications of increasingly antagonistic rifts are emerging every day.

It seems that the Reformist parties are not to be tolerated any more, as hundreds of party leaders and members are being detained and imprisoned. They are already disqualified as illegitimate and counter-revolutionary parties; in fact it seems that political party activity will become meaningless in the emerging power structure; so the reformist parties will definitely find themselves in an entirely different situation and consequently will have to adopt new positions, if they can continue to exist at all. The Participation Front has been hit the hardest. There are also some indications of growing division within the clergy associated with the Supreme Leader and the more independent-minded clerics in Qom, who have tacitly or explicitly opposed the crackdown. There are even some signs of division within the Revolutionary Guards; in the early years there were some differences of opinion between the commanders of the Western and Southern war fronts; following the crackdown an open letter has been written by a number of older commanders to the Supreme Leader, questioning his endorsement of the election results before full investigation and the violent repression of the protest demonstrations. Still it seems that the regime’s point of strength lies in its coercive capacity and the unity of its coercive forces, at a time when the legitimacy of the political system is coming under question. So in responding to your question, the strengths and weaknesses of the regime should be taken into account.

Likewise, we need to take into account the state of the opposition movement, its strengths and weaknesses. We need to consider the four factors in relation to the opposition movement that has erupted. In analyzing socio-political opposition movements, as already mentioned, we need to examine the state of mass discontent, the organizational network, the ideology and the leadership of the movement. Concerning popular discontent, historical experience shows that potential mass dissatisfaction and discontent in authoritarian regimes becomes effective when made actual through a specific catalyst. Socio-economic and cultural discontent must become politicized to have political effects. What politicized all the pre-exiting potential discontents was the issue of fraud in the election as alleged by the opposition candidates supported by a large popular movement. We have already explained why and how public anger and indignation was produced as a result of government actions. Now all the grievances were finding a political focus or epicenter; the annulment of the election was the first public request, but as intimidation and suppression followed mass demonstrations, a new cause for anger and frustration was added to the initial one, now targeting the leadership of the Islamic Republic. The steam of general public discontent, as it were, was now finding a political engine. Thus public discontent was being organized into a specific public demand. As we have seen, public discontent without organization and mobilization leads to nothing. In terms of organization, a quite adequate organizational network (including the electoral headquarters, student organizations, electronic means of communication, the Internet and so on) has emerged and has proved capable of providing the necessary rudimentary functions. Of course the organizational capability of oppositions has a converse relation to the coercive capacity of regimes. In our case so far, government coercion has almost demolished the organizational capability of the opposition, but things are not going to remain as they are now. For one thing, the organizational capacity of the opposition is a function of its leadership. A number of people have emerged as leaders, but as usually happens in such situations, moderate leaders will be gradually replaced with more radical ones. So far Mossavi, Karroubi and Khatami have led the movement very cautiously and moderately; on the other hand Ayatollah Montazeri has issued a very significant statement justifying public rebellion against the theocratic system and considering the regime as already deposed because of its unjust and cruel treatment of the protestors. The gradual replacement of more moderate by more radical leadership would also mean an escalation in the ideology of the movement, from questioning the election results to questioning the very legitimacy of the whole power structure.

So two factors stand out as decisive in the outcome of the turmoil: the coercive capacity of the government and its ability and readiness to use it; and the leadership of the movement and its ability and readiness to redefine its ideological objectives and enhance its organizational capability.

DP: Several parallels have been drawn between the present events and those of 1978-79, the most obvious being the mass street demonstrations and the echoes of Allahu Akbar. In fact during the revolution of three decades ago it took much longer — many months — for the crowds to grow to the size we saw within a matter of days in June 2009. On the other hand, some argue emphatically that this is not a revolutionary movement or situation, pointing to the fact that the “Green Wave” phenomenon is bound up with the presidential candidacy of a figure (Mousavi) who was operating within the framework of the Islamic Republic. How do you view this? As a scholar of the 1979 revolution, do you see parallels between the two moments?

HB: To me it seems that the current confrontation may well turn into a thoroughly revolutionary situation, given the intensity of popular anger and frustration and the humiliating way the government has responded to it. But there are, as always, both similarities and differences between the two historical situations; and in any case there is no need for the current confrontation to be an exact replica of 1979 in order to turn into a revolutionary situation; it may do so on its own merits.

Now we can elaborate on the similarities and differences in terms of the several theoretical criteria we have already used to explain the nature of the situation. So first, in terms of a crisis of legitimacy, it seems that the Islamic regime has been depleting its own legitimacy from within, by violating its own rules: the reformist candidates had been allowed to stand for election but then peaceful protests on the part of their supporters regarding the disputed results are violently and brutally suppressed. The Shah’s regime at the time was facing the opposition of an outside contender in Khomeini, one who would normally be repressed by an authoritarian regime. So for such a regime, the Shah’s repression could seem more “normal” (norms of repression) than the Islamic regime’s repression, as it is repressing an opposition which is an insider, or part of the family, as some say. From another perspective, legitimacy has also something to do with longevity and durability; the imperial monarchy had been in place for 2,500 years, whereas Islamic theocracy has been around only for 30 years. Obviously the institution of Persian monarchy had been in a state of crisis since the late 19th century, leading to the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), which provided a criterion for gauging the legitimacy of the system, i.e. the Shah was to reign and not rule, and the breach of the constitution in this regard was a sure sign of the royal government’s crisis of legitimacy.

A similar argument could be and has been developed in the case of the Islamic Republic, in the sense that the Sovereign Theologian (or Supreme Leader) should stand above factional conflicts. However, there is a great deal of difference between the constitutions of 1906 and of 1979 in that the latter is evidently not constitutionalist but absolutist: there is no real separation of powers and the Ruling Jurist (or Supreme Leader) has supremacy over the three branches of government. So we cannot speak of a deficit of legitimacy only in this very technical and restricted sense, since the Ruling Theologian both reigns and rules. This in itself, on the other hand, is obviously in contradiction to the ideals of a popular revolution which was supposed to restrict the power of the ruler; and it points to the more general and historical problem of legitimacy as far as the theocracy is concerned. But there is a more mundane sense of a legitimation crisis usually felt by the general run of the people, and that is when instead of persuasion, force is used to keep a people in its place; and this is exactly the meaning of the crisis of legitimacy as it is unfolding. The crisis of legitimacy as a major ingredient of a revolutionary situation has become grave.

A clear difference between the two historical situations is to be found in the rulers’ will to repression. The shah’s regime, after an initial period of suppression, lost its will to power and gradually shifted to a policy of moderation, toleration and compromise: the Shah’s hearing of the message of the revolution, the negotiations with the National Front, the Bakhtiar regime, the Paris negotiations, the Shah’s flight and so on; apparently the Carter human rights policy and U.S. pressure (in the context of differences of interest and opinion between Washington and Tehran following the oil embargo of 1973) had something to do with the loss of the will to repression. But so far the Islamic regime’s will to repression has remained firm; maybe it is still too early to judge, given the circular nature of demonstrations and protests taking place every now and then, in a fashion reminiscent of the events of 1978. In terms ofU.S.–Iranrelations, it seems that the current administration’s approach may have contributed to the will to suppression.

The decline or continuation of the will to suppression is partly a result of the state of unity within the ruling group; in the case of the Shah’s regime, elite unity was in a sense damaged by the Carter human rights policy, and the Shah vacillated between repression and relative toleration. As we have already seen, some major signs of division within the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic are also emerging. Once begun, such divisions and rifts are hard to contain; they tend to escalate and drag all political actors into the abyss. Hence the current confrontation seems increasingly to be creating a revolutionary situation.

Differences also exist in terms of the nature of the opposition. In terms of popular discontent, a similar pattern has occurred, a pattern I have already explained in terms of the J-Cure theory. In the case of the Shah’s regime, a long period of economic stability and growth from 1962 to 1976 was followed by a sharp reversal and downturn, creating an intolerable gap between popular expectations and government capabilities. In the case of the Islamic Republic, the same pattern has come about albeit with a different content, which is not economic but political: a long period of moderation and relative toleration under Rafsanjani and Khatami from 1989 to 2005 (the post-Khomeini period) was followed by a sharp reversal and downturn under the militaristic-fundamentalist regime of Ahmadinejad. The specter of its repetition in June 2009 caused widespread fear, anger and dread and led to the confrontation.

In terms of ideology, it seems that the current confrontation is more specific in nature than was the case with the slogan of “Islamic Republic” in 1978-9. Indeed its specificity makes it non-revolutionary, since (at least as far as the top leaders are concerned) its aim is to annul the disputed election; however, as with the early phase of the 1978-9 revolution, the moderate opposition was calling for the implementation of the constitution and a constitutional monarchy; obviously it was the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini which made the difference, calling for a complete revolution — something the reformist leaders have not been willing to take up; the most they have called for so far is the holding of a referendum for endorsing or annulling the election results (which has to be allowed by the leaders of the Islamic Republic).

So, on the whole it seems that some of the ingredients of a revolutionary situation have already come about but some others have not (yet) materialized.

DP: What do you make of the responses of certain leftists in the Western Hemisphere to the events unfolding in Iran — from the likes of James Petras defending the official election results and dismissing any doubts about their authenticity as an imperialist “hoax” to MRZine (the online organ of the venerable socialist magazine Monthly Review) openly defending Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist to Hugo Chávez embracing Ahmadinejad as a “revolutionary” ally and the Foreign Ministry of Venezuela denouncing the Iranian street demonstrations:

The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. FromVenezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution.

It’s important to note that there have been strong critical responses from others on the Left to such statements — those of Reese Erlich, Hamid Dabashi, Saeed Rahnema, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and others. What is your impression of these contending positions?

HB: To me it seems that such unfavorable reactions to the popular movement inIran are not hard to explain. I think they result from three factors: first, ignorance of and misinformation about the nature of the political system in Iran since the Revolution, the various historical phases it has gone through and the widening gap between official ideology and public opinion, particularly the rapid secularization of society under the theocracy; consequently such regimes end up being more popular among some foreigners than among their own people. Secondly they result from financial and commercial self-interest and the special favorable commercial relations Iran has with some of the countries mentioned; obviously they think more of their own national interests than the interests of the Iranian people. In my opinion, analyses resulting from such positions and interests are not much worth discussing from an academic point of view. Ideological regimes tend to create their own satellites or close friends, who obviously endorse their policies and actions. Here we can add Islamist parties and organizations in the Arab world and their ideological/commercial ties with the Islamic Republic. Thirdly, such analyses result from the analysts’ attachment to and use of obsolete theoretical and conceptual frameworks, divorced from current developments (what Ulrich Beck calls “zombie categories”); as a result, they accept demagogical positions at face value and confuse Fascism with Socialism.

I think that the leftist responses you have mentioned have forgotten all about the democratic dimensions of Marxism and have fallen prey to demagogy in this case. They sometimes forget that the extreme Right and the extreme Left deceptively look alike. In the case ofVenezuela, a combination of pseudo-leftist appraisals and commercial interests have been at work. The Venezuelan government knows nothing about the political situation and public opinion inIran, which is increasingly turning against the foreign allies of the Islamic Republic.Russia’s support has already brought about chants of “Death toRussia” from protestors on the streets of Tehran.

Regarding more theoretical responses, I would say that the type of class analysis applicable to the case ofIranin a long-term sense is very different from the type of class analysis usually applied in a short-term sense. From a long-term historical perspective, the main social conflict has been taking place not among the social classes belonging to one social formation, but between those belonging to two social formations: pre-modern and modern. The historical meaning of various political developments inIranshould be understood in terms of this underlying conflict: the Constitutional Revolution signified the victory of the social classes of the modern formation over the social forces of the traditional/pre-modern formation. In its own peculiar way, the absolutist state structure of the Pahlavi regime further strengthened the modern social formation (albeit in the framework of modernization from above under a dictatorship). The traditional social forces made a comeback after the revolution of 1979 and imposed the traditional political-cultural pattern of elitism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism and cultural order, discipline and obedience under the rule of a theocracy. With the subsequent development of the modern formation and its social forces, advocating the ideas of citizenship, political equality, democracy, popular sovereignty and socio-cultural freedom (as partly seen in the Green Movement), the underlying contradiction between the world of coercively-reconstructed tradition and the democratic path is bound to come to a head, as we are witnessing now.

DP: There are discordant views among progressives on whether the Obama administration should move forward in engaging Iran at present, given the circumstances. Some progressives — particularly Iranians — argue that the U.S. should hold off for the moment on engaging Iran; Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently gave expression to this view:

“For the first time ever, I think we shouldn’t even be talking about engagingIran, we should take a wait and see approach. The strategic imperative to have relations withIranwill always remain, but let’s wait until the dust settles inTehran. … By prematurely calling for engagement I think we run the risk of demoralizing the opposition and the millions of people who took to the streets and who continue to reject the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government; we implicitly endorse an election that is still being hotly contested inTehranand tip the balance in favor of the hardliners.”

Others — particularly in the American peace movement — call for engagement and diplomacy regardless of the post-election aftermath. Thus Reza Aslan, author of How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, recently argued that one must not ignore the dramatic opportunities for long-term change inIranthat have emerged as a result of this crisis, opportunities to which the international community must respond through a confident and coherent policy of engagement. … “[A] concerted dialogue withIran… will offer moral and political support for the genuine expression of the will of the Iranian people at a time when the regime’s authority is at an ebb. Most important, it will offer Iranians hope. … if the West keeps talking to Iran, it can empower its citizens to change their society from the ground up, and to influence those who have the capacity to act from the top down.”

What is your view on this question?

HB: I am definitely in agreement with those arguing against engagement. I too think that engagement would in a sense grant legitimacy to a regime confronting a very deep crisis of legitimacy, on the one hand, and would alienate a democratically-inclined and growing opposition movement, which expects moral support from all democratic nations, on the other.

I think that now is the worst time for the U.S. government to pursue a policy of engagement, as the regime in Iran is at its worst; it should have tried when the Iranian regime was at its best, that is during the Khatami presidency (of course the Iranian fundamentalist groups were opposed to it at the time). As we all know, rational decision-making in general and in the field of foreign policy in particular should take many factors into account — the current political environment, reactions of other decision-makers, intended and unintended consequences, among others — and not just react to the policies of a previous rival administration. One specific factor which needs to be taken into account in this case (regardless of the issues relating to regional and international security) is the impact on the Iranian democratic opposition in the shorter as well as the longer run.

Although the Iranian government’s perception that no threat now comes from the U.S. under the new administration (unlike its perceptions following the invasion of Iraq) may have made it feel more comfortable dealing with and suppressing the opposition movement recently, and the government may have thus indirectly benefited from the new foreign policy orientation in the U.S., any engagement policy would definitely (and this time directly) embolden the government vis-à-vis the democratic opposition, which would be another instance of a familiar foreign policy pattern particularly common during the Cold War era. We all remember the case of British and American support of the regime ofSouth Africaand its Apartheid system during the Cold War, which played a part in stifling the anti-Apa rtheid movement and which endorsed the apartheid regime. On the other hand, the new western foreign policy towardsSouth Africathat was gradually adopted towards the end of the 1980s, with the end of the Cold War situation, contributed to the weakening of the Apartheid regime and encouraged the anti-Apartheid movement. More generally as a rule, if democratization gained pace in many parts of the world in the 1990s, it was partly due to the abandonment of the security-based western foreign policy supporting all sorts of regimes opposed to the Eastern bloc. More precisely, it was not active support for the democratic oppositions, but rather disowning the non-democratic regimes, that contributed to the transitions. In the case of Iran-U.S. relations, the U.S. government has already experienced a similar episode, when it gradually withdrew its support from the Shah’s regime and thus encouraged the anti-Shah opposition.

DP: I’d like to close by discussing your intellectual biography. How would you locate yourself on the intellectual-political map? What are, and have been, your main theoretical reference points and influences? There are strong Gramscian flavors in your book State and Revolution in Iran, which you wrote as a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Ernesto Laclau. Has Gramsci continued to influence your thinking? Has Laclau? How would you characterize the arc of your outlook over the last three decades? How have your views changed over the course of time?

HB: I studied the Marxist literature on political sociology at the University of Essex where Ernesto Laclau and Bob Jessop taught me. I was and have remained interested in many aspects of the political-sociological ideas of Marx, Gramsci, Poulantzas, Laclau and Barrington Moore, and I have used them in my works. Later on I developed an interest in the work of Michel Foucault and his analysis of power, and I have used some aspects of his ideas in my more recent works. I have always considered these thinkers as building blocks for political sociology, an area still under construction. More recently I have focused on the political sociology of democratization, especially with reference to the Middle East.

DP: What occasioned this shift in your thinking from a largely Marxist frame of reference to a more post-Marxist/Foucauldian one?

HB: I considered Foucault’s work on discourse and power as a culmination of Marx’s understanding of ideology and power; somehow they seemed akin, but Foucault’s provided a wider scope for application.


Danny Postel is a Contributing Editor of Logos and the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism (2006). He interviewed the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in Logos 5.2 – spring/summer 2006.

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