Friday, June 19, 2009

Will this Revolution in Iran be Self-Limiting?

Revolutions all too often get out of hand, and for those who see them as necessary for change, but wish to avoid the extremism that so often takes hold the desire to limit the revolution's goals has been always been strong.  In the 1970s, Adam Michnik articulated this idea most directly, when he proposed that any revolution that took place in Poland would have to be self-limiting in order not to provoke a Soviet invasion.  (This was a reason why the Solidarity agreement of August 1980 explicitly acknowledged the leading role of the Polish United Worker's Party for example.)  Remarkably, even when the threat of a Soviet invasion disappeared, all the European revolutions of 1989 did not get out of hand.  (Even in Romania, where things turned violent, the revolution was more or less ended with the removal and subsequent execution of the Ceaucescus from power, though arguably for less noble reasons than the faith Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians put in liberal democracy.) The so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have likewise managed to avoid the trap of revolutionary radicalization.  The question now is whether those who have joined the Green movement behind Mousavi will be satisfied with a rerun election, providing its  clearly and accurately reflects the sense of the electorate that Ahmadinejad could not have won last Friday's poll and now given his intransigence, the removal of Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme leader.  

The limited original goals of the Mousavi campaign, and his strong credentials as a supporter of the revolution, as well as several leading supporters were clearly aimed to promote reform rather revolution.  Even now the call for a fair vote embarrassing as it is to those in power is in line with the demands of other recent revolutions.  Nonetheless, the situation is already precarious, and every move Khamenei makes seems to make the complete rethinking of Iran's constitution plausible.  Consider that for the past several days we have been told that Rasfanjani has been lobbying other members of the Council of Experts, who choose the Supreme Leader, to revoke Khamenei's mandate and choose someone more in line with the people.  Yet let us assume that this is true, and that Rasfanjani is successful.  Nothing Khamenei has done so far has suggested he would acknowledge and act on the Council's decision.  Thus,  the Council would lose credibility as a source of power.  By the same token, deciding not to act  is hardly going to endear the Council to supporters of the the Green movement. (Indeed, though I am no Iran hand, it seems quite likely that this calculation can explain the hard-line tone of  Khamenei's speech at Friday's prayers today, especially when one considers the soft line taken towards Rasfanjani (Hat-tip Nico at the Huffington Post.).   

If such brinksmanship convinces Rasfanjani and the other currently dissident leadership that carrying on with protests is too risky he has won an important battle.  Yet, he will not necessarily have won the war even if the current unrest fades away.  At that point, though few thinking critics of the current regime will believe in the possibility of reforming the Islamic Republic.  From that point on all efforts will be put on a complete overthrow of the existing regime, and thus a far more radical revolution sometime down the road.   If Rafsanani, Mousavi, Karoubi, Khatami and others stand firm though it seems less and less clear to me whether the main institutions of the Islamic Republic will survive even long enough for alternative permanent or quasi-permanent structures are created to replace them.  Everyday Khamenei continues to support Ahmadinejad the question of how much change will satisfy the desires and interests of those who are currently lining up behind Mousavi grows more complicated.  A quick disavowal of the originally proclaimed Ahmadinejad victory a couple of days ago would have kept that question fairly simple and could conceivably even been sufficient that Khamenei remained in his current position.  Now the answers to the question of how much change is enough is growing by the day, creating the key phenomenon that creates radicalization -- hundreds of thousands of people united in what they are against, but not necessarily in agreement about the solution.   This will reach its most extreme conditions if Khamenei and his allies successfully repression of the current challenge by brute force. 

Andrew Sullivan still sees the events in Iran as leading to a limited revolution that ends tyranny because the demands are still limited and grounded in the existing traditions of the Islamic Republic.  For the sake of minimal chaos, I hope that optimism is borne out as Khamenei refuses to budge.  There are some real reasons to worry though.  First, Mousavi may be an effective governor, but he is, at least in Gary Sick's knowledgeable view lacking in charisma, something I have heard about Karoubi as well.  In short, if and when Khamenei and his allies are pushed out of power, they may not last long in the post-revolutionary environment, especially if charismatic figures emerge during the coming struggle, as may well happen.  Another sign of the growing options that seem to be opening up in the minds of Iranians is a return to secularism.  Yesterday a secular patriotic song "Ey Iran" was song publicly see Nico at The Huffington Post 6/19 12:21 AM).

None of this means that protestors won't be satisfied with a more limited agenda, or that even if the revolution takes a more radical turn it will not still create more flexible political structures that help maintain political stability.

Finally, coming back to my post of two days ago, I note that the eminent journalist Robert Fisk seemed to make it clear today that he does not think what has happened so far is a revolution, though it seems to go against his headline yesterday that fear was gone from the streets. Conceivably his assessment today is right, especially if now that tomorrow's planned demonstration has been not been granted permission to go ahead, and hence will be illegal, only a small number of die-hard Mousavi supporters show up.  Frankly though from what I have observed so far from my admittedly distant perch in New York I am doubtful that will happen.  As Juan Cole notes today, Khamenei and his allies do not appear to have gotten their head around the fact that this is a bottom up movement rather than one directed by Mousavi and Karoubi.  There are already martyrs to the cause of greater freedom, and they will be remembered again in a month's time and then at 40 days too.  Sadly, there I fear there will likely be more tomorrow.  

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