The ongoing demonstrations in Iran are testimony to the continued strength and resilience of Iranian civil society. They make a mockery of the Islamic Republic’s ambition of offering a model for successful Muslim governance to the world.
The next major manifestation of the protests is likely to be February 11 – the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The seventh and 40th days following the deaths of those killed this week are also likely to witness dramatic scenes.
Still, the overheated punditry of the last week predicting the imminent demise of the regime, claiming that this is the beginning of the end for the Islamists in Teheran and that a “tipping point” has been passed is misleading and should be questioned.
Two parallel movements exist in Iran, each of which seeks to change the nature of the Islamic Republic as it has existed since 1979.
The first of these has been much in evidence this week, in the protests and demonstrations that have rocked Teheran and other cities. This is the so-called “Green movement.” It has no clear ideology beyond a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Within its ranks, one may find supporters of the reformist wing of the current regime, including former presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami.
The protest movement also undoubtedly includes individuals and groups with a far more determined and radical agenda, who would like to see the end of the regime established in 1979. But no credible, organized revolutionary leadership with a clear program for toppling the regime can yet be identified from within the broad mass of this movement.
The second “movement” exists within the regime itself. This is the trend whose most visible representative is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The coalition of hard-line conservative political associations which produced Ahmadinejad, along with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, have been steadily advancing in the institutions of the Islamic Republic over the last half-decade.
Unlike their opponents in the Green movement, this group has a clear and unifying set of ideas and goals. Their aim is a “second Islamic revolution,” which will revive the original fire of 1979. What they are aiming at is the replacement of clerical rule with a streamlined, brutal police-security state, under the banner of Islam. This state will be committed to a goal of building regional hegemony – through possession of a nuclear option and the backing of radical and terrorist movements.
This year has been mixed for the Iranian hard-line conservatives. On the one hand, the electoral “victory” of Ahmadinejad and the subsequent backing given to him by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei represented their biggest advance yet. Ahmadinejad later reinforced his victory by forming a cabinet packed with hard-line conservatives and Revolutionary Guardsmen. This cabinet is currently administering Iran.
There were gains further afield, too. The closest regional allies of the hard-line conservatives – Hizbullah – have become the effective governing force in Lebanon. Iran’s Palestinian clients, Hamas, are maintaining power in Gaza, as well.
But on the other hand, 2009 is also the year in which the limitations of the hard-liners and their ideas became apparent.
The ongoing unrest in Iran may not constitute an immediate danger to the regime, but it surely indicates that large numbers of Iranians have no desire to see their country turned into the instrument of permanent Islamic revolution and “resistance” envisaged by the hard-line conservatives. The domestic unrest thus hits significantly at their legitimacy and their ability to promote their regime as a model for governance to the Arab and wider Muslim world.
More tangibly, the Iranian hard-liners have not had it all their own way over the last year in the field most dear to them – the practice of political violence.
Their resistance model failed in a straight fight with the IDF in the early part of the year. Hamas’s 100-man “Iranian unit” suffered near destruction in Gaza. The client Hamas regime in Gaza managed to kill six IDF soldiers in the entire course of Operation Cast Lead. This is a failure, and has been recorded by all regional observers as such.
In addition, there appears to be an attempt to demonstrate to the Iranians that the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy is a two-way street. Hence the killing of 29 Revolutionary Guards in a bombing near the Iran-Baluchistan border in October, and the mysterious explosion in Damascus last month which killed a number of Iranian pilgrims.
These are significant setbacks. Still, the bottom line remains that for as long as they maintain the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Basij militia, and the patronage of Khamenei, the control of the hard-line conservatives is not in danger.
Should a real challenge to the power of the hard-liners emerge, the likely prognosis would be for prolonged civil strife, rather than their swift departure. This is not a tired and decaying elite, parallel to the East European communists in 1989. The Iranian hard-liners and their allies regard themselves as the wave of the future, only now ascending to the pinnacles of power. They will not go quietly.
So the prospect is for a long struggle in Iran. The Iranian people are not about to enter the stage like a deus ex machina, with one stroke destroying the Islamist regime and solving the agonizing problem of the Iranian nuclear program.
The most determined revolutionary current in Iran remains the hard-line conservatives. Their eventual failure is a near certainty, because they are likely to fail in building the real-world basis – political, social, economic and military – which alone could support their boundless ambition. Even then, much will depend on the will of the Western and regional enemies of the regime in confronting them.
But contrary to some of the more overexcited opining this week – the playing out of all this still has a way to run. The end is not yet at hand.