The 'myth' of a counter-revolution in Iran
By Mahan Abedin
The counter-demonstrations on November 4 (officially dubbed as the national day
against global arrogance) showed that Iran's political crisis - sparked by
allegations of vote-rigging in June's presidential elections - is far from
over. The political developments of the past five months have been
unprecedented and a close examination of the strategic forces at play will go a
long way in understanding this crisis.
While the Iranian establishment has a strong vested interest in resolving the
conflict as quickly as possible, there are no signs yet that key players are
willing to make the compromises necessary for conflict resolution. Without
resolution, the crisis will continue to produce significant street-level
disturbances that will
slowly chip away at the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.
Demise of reformists
The counter-demonstrations on November 4 (which is the annual official
commemoration of the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979) was
similar (albeit larger) to the counter-demonstration on Quds (Jerusalem) day in
September. On the surface, these counter-demonstrations show the ingenuity of a
new grassroots protest movement that exploits "official" days (of which there
are many in Iran) to come out on the streets to protest against the government
of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the wider establishment.
But behind the scenes, far deeper and significant forces are at play. The
street demonstrations since June 2009 are the clearest indication of the demise
of Iranian reformists, who captured the public limelight in dramatic fashion in
May 1997 with the presidential electoral victory of Mohammad Khatami. Over the
next eight years, the reformists fought a protracted political battle with
entrenched traditional and ideological conservative forces. This culminated in
their definitive political defeat in the June 2005 presidential elections which
brought Ahmadinejad to power.
The reformists spent the next four years trying to make a comeback and seemed
to have made a breakthrough with the candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi, but
their plans fell apart with Mousavi's defeat. But even if Mousavi had
prevailed, this would not have necessarily guaranteed reformist success. As the
past five months have shown, there is a big gulf between the views and
aspirations of the reformists and the street protesters.
Ultimately, the causes behind the reformists' demise aren't the actions of the
Ahmadinejad government or an allegedly rigged election, but the deceptive
nature of the reformist political program. Since the early 1990s, the
reformists have tried to be all things to all people. They profess loyalty to
the Islamic Republic but prescribe a set of political and socio-cultural
policies that if taken to their logical conclusion would abolish the Islamic
They present themselves as an "opposition" force, but at the same time they
have deep links to the most sensitive institutions in Iran. The best example is
Saeed Hajjarian - a former intelligence official widely regarded as the chief
strategist of the reformists - who throughout his reformist career doubled up
as a "consultant" to the Ministry of Intelligence, a lucrative engagement which
is thought to have been his main source of income in the 1990s and early 2000s.
At the ideological and philosophical level, the reformists have been even more
confused. Vague notions of "Islamic democracy" and "religious state not a state
religion" may serve as attractive and deceptive political slogans for a while,
but in the long term they fail to make a marked and sincere intellectual
The crisis sparked by an allegedly rigged election has more than ever exposed
the reformists as confused ideologues who for material, political and
ideological reasons are unable to definitively break with the ruling
establishment. While objectionable at so many levels, the main purpose of the
show trials currently underway in Tehran is to expose the hypocrisy and deceit
at the heart of the reform movement.
But it is the street protesters who have hammered the last proverbial nail into
the coffin of the reform movement. The deeply subversive slogans of the
protesters - such as "freedom, Independence, Iranian Republic", which perverts
the standard revolutionary slogan of "Freedom, Independence, Islamic Republic"
- highlight a considerable gap between the aspirations of an embryonic
grassroots movement and the reformists.
The immediate effect of the reformists' political demise is the projection of
disaffection and opposition feelings onto the streets. But a more profound
effect is the collapse of factional politics in the Islamic Republic. Another
contributing factor to the collapse of factional politics has been the
relentless rise of the radical right, as exemplified by Ahmadinejad and his
inner circle. The radical right stormed onto the political stage with the 2005
presidential election victory of Ahmadinejad, and has since gradually
consolidated its power, helped by numerous elements in the establishment who
are nervous about rising corruption and a perceived erosion of revolutionary
The rise of the radical right has been achieved at the expense of more
traditional conservatives. With a few exceptions, traditional conservative
leaders have acceded to the dominance of the radical right, seeing it as a
temporary and necessary corrective to the "deviations" of the reformist years
Another factor that has contributed to a radical transformation in Iranian
politics is the political eclipse of Hashemi Rafsanjani and his supporters.
Long in decline, Rafsanjani saw the post-election disturbances in June as an
opportunity to make yet another comeback. But this time everything was against
him, including his age (he is 75). His speech at Friday Prayers at Tehran
University on July 17 was widely seen by Islamic Republic loyalists as
treacherous and the most extreme and dangerous example of Rafsanjani's
Moreover, while Rafsanjani's mixed message was warmly received by some of the
protesters, it failed to have the desired effect because of his widespread
unpopularity. Most important of all, Rafsanjani's failure to heed the wishes
and advice of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali
Khamenei (who a month earlier had advised all key political leaders to desist
from fanning the crisis) was widely seen as implying a tone of finality insofar
as Rafsanjani's relationship with Khamenei is concerned. The breakdown of this
50-year relationship (which stretches back to the decades before the victory of
the 1979 revolution) will likely be seen by posterity as a key moment in the
history of the Islamic revolution.
A counter-revolution: Myth or semi-myth?
While the regime was successful in suppressing the wide-scale protests and
riots that erupted after the controversial June elections, it hasn't managed to
crush them altogether. Indeed, protests and riots on a far smaller scale have
continued. This has led to the emergence of a street-based movement that has
now come to be known as the "Green" movement, following the adoption of this
color by defeated presidential candidate and former prime minister, Mousavi.
The so-called Green movement is impossibly diverse and amorphous and takes the
adage "politics makes strange bedfellows" to new extremes. It encompasses some
of the old reformists, socially alienated youngsters, a new generation of
political activists and dissidents and exiled opposition groups.
At present, this embryonic movement cannot sustain even the broadest of
political coalitions. It lacks leadership and a coherent strategy. It is driven
entirely by street protesters, many of whom are from a new generation of
political activists that have little or no links to the reformists. While the
Green movement chants slogans in favor of defeated presidential candidates
Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, this is widely regarded as a tactical move, since
the new generation of political dissidents tends to look beyond figures like
Mousavi and Karroubi for solutions.
Although some leading reformists, in particular the Islamic Iran Participation
Front (the main organized reformist body), have enthusiastically latched onto
the Green movement, leading and rank-and-file reformists are not thought to
exercise significant influence over the street protesters. For one thing, many
leading reformists and their most effective political organizers and activists
are currently languishing in prison as a result of their alleged role in
encouraging unrest following the controversial presidential election in June.
From a strategic point of view, the most important development in opposition
circles has been the gradual sidelining of Mousavi, in whose name hundreds of
thousands of citizens protested in the wake of the presidential poll. Before
the polling, many influential leaders and activists from across the political
spectrum had high hopes for Mousavi as a "cross-factional" figure who could
create new political spaces and opportunities for the Islamic Republic on
account of his reputation for incorruptibility and ability to appeal to a broad
spectrum of the population.
As it turned out, Mousavi lacked political finesse and judgement. By imagining
that the protesters on the streets were animated by the same themes and
aspirations as the reformists, Mousavi bought into the classic reformist myth,
namely that the disaffected urban middle class shies away from sudden and
In the past five months, Mousavi, alongside other leaders of the "reformed"
Islamic left, have learnt that the main reason the reformist movement has
enjoyed near-total domination of opposition spaces since the 1990s is because
the establishment has allowed it to perform this role. Whenever new political
spaces and opportunities arise, alternatives to the reformist discourse also
Despite their success in defying the authorities, the street protesters and
agitators in the Green movement would do well to dwell on their limitations.
Their movement is far from reaching revolutionary capability. Moreover, had the
Iranian authorities firmly decided to crush the movement altogether, they could
have probably done it by now. At present, all indications suggest that the
authorities - in particular the Ministry of Intelligence - are advising key
figures in the regime to desist from a harsh crackdown, lest that produce
unintended consequences further down the road.
Furthermore, the new generation of political activists and dissidents would do
well to study the differences between the shah's regime and the Islamic
Republic. The two systems have little in common and the situation today is
nowhere near comparable to that which prevailed in 1978-1979.
One of the main reasons the shah's regime relented in the end was because it
was abandoned by the army in January 1979. In sharp contrast, the Islamic
regime is unlikely to suffer this fate. In the unlikely event that the current
protests morph into something much bigger and produce daily political
disturbances, then the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is expected to
take decisive action.
The IRGC's Seyed-ol-Shohada Division led by commander Ali Fazli, which is
strategically perched on the northern gateway of Tehran, can move swiftly into
the metropolis and occupy all important institutions and buildings, and cut off
the Iranian capital from the outside world, all within hours.
While this scenario is far-fetched, it is nonetheless a warning to all
political forces in Iran, including the government of Ahmadinejad, that the
IRGC will not hesitate to take decisive action and suspend the entire political
process if it feels that the Islamic revolution is faced with a massive,
immediate and potentially mortal threat.
Far-fetched scenarios aside, all responsible political forces in the country
recognize the need for a solution. Simply "muddling along" until 2013 (when new
presidential elections take place) is not an option, not least because a
weakened government with questionable legitimacy and an embattled establishment
will be unable to successfully negotiate the strategic and foreign policy
obstacles of the coming months and years.
One solution that was touted in the early weeks of the crisis was a
"partnership of the extremes", where the radical right and the authentic (as
opposed to reformed) Islamic left would reach an accommodation. While this
approach has had some success at the grassroots level, it has yet to be adopted
by the higher reaches of the regime.
Resistance by the more stubborn and aggressive elements of the radical right is
thought to be the main obstacle. But in the short term, this solution is the
most viable since it will at least paper over the cracks in establishment and
revolutionary circles and restore the balance of confidence to the Islamic
regime and its supporters. It is at that point that the street protests will
fizzle out altogether.
Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant
to independent media in Iran. He is currently based in northern Iraq, where he
is helping to develop local media capacity.