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Iran’s Ongoing Revolution

New America Media, News analysis, William O. Beeman Posted: Jun 26, 2009

Iran’s most visible leaders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i are on the brink of losing their respective offices in the wake of the controversial presidential election in Iran June 12.

Should this happen, many sectors of the American punditocracy will be thoroughly embarrassed. Having built these two figures up to mythic status, they will now have to face Iran as it really is, not as they would like to style it. It is, and has been for many years, not a calcified theocracy controlled by old mullahs. It is rather a nation on the brink of change as a new generation assumes power, and as the influence of women in the society rockets to the forefront.

Ayatollah Khamene’i has now been denounced by name in the streets — an unprecedented event. Furthermore, it is rumored that his rival, former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the powerful Guardian Council and the Iranian Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the authority of the Spiritual Leader, is lobbying the bodies he heads to replace the Spiritual Leader.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been accused of rigging the election along with the son of Ayatollah Khamene’i, Mojtaba, and key members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij strike force. Statistical analyses of the official vote published in the Washington Post a few days after the election suggest that the numbers are artificial. Documents from the Ministry of the Interior showing the “real” vote tall--in which Mr. Moussavi was the clear winner--are in wide circulation.

However, it is now clear that the presidential election has become irrelevant in Iranian political life going forward. The Iranian president is relatively powerless in any case. What is more important is that the people feel that they have been violated by the power elite of the country and are now bent on changing the very foundation of their government.

If sea change is truly in the works in Iran, how will it proceed?

People can only imagine what they can imagine. In Iran today both the people and the establishment have only one model for social and governmental change, and that is the original Islamic revolution of 1978-79. Because both sides are working with the same vocabulary of symbolism, they are groping to command those potent images that will galvanize public support in their favor.

The master vocabulary of revolution in Iran is the historical martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed on the plains of Karbala in present day Iraq in 680. Imam Hossein is the central figure in Shi’a Islam, and his death is commemorated perpetually in Iranian life.

President Ahmadinejad’s chief rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi, co-opted the symbolism of the Karbala tragedy early on. For his campaign, he adopted the color green, the color most associated with Islam itself, with descendants of the Prophet, and with the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. After the election, he declared himself “ready for martyrdom,” and his supporters appeared in the streets shouting “Ya Hossein,” echoing the cries shouted by groups of mourners in the annual commemoration of Imam Hoseein’s death. As a religious cry, it could not be faulted by the police and security forces. They have also taken to shouting “Allahu Akbar—God is Great,” which is both a symbolic cry in favor of change, but also a subtle reminder that change--even revolutionary change--is always in the hands of God.

Not to be outdone, the clerical establishment countered the idea of martyrdom in the election with the Iranian soldier-martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

The original revolution fed on occasions for public assembly, notably the three-, seven-, and 40-day mourning ceremonies for the dead. This created a cycle of martyrdom as protesters against the Pahlavi government assembled, were killed by the Shah’s forces, and were in turn mourned in an ongoing fashion. The entire Revolution took more than a year to complete before the Shah finally gave up and left. The world can expect a long and drawn-out process of resistance in this action as well—a point made by Dr. Gary Sick of Columbia University in an article printed on The Daily Beast. Dr. Sick served as a military intelligence officer during the earlier Revolution

The original revolution was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from his exile in France. He used the technology of the day--long distance telephone and tape cassettes--to spread his revolutionary message.

In today’s resistance a remarkably appropriate figure may be poised to likewise lead from abroad--Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi who finds herself in Europe at this time. The technology of today--the Internet and the cell phone may be the organizing force that drives this current force for change.

Those who think that change will bring an end to Islamic influence in Iran are dead wrong. Neither side in the current conflict has denounced the Islamic Republic. However the current opposition wants to change the basis for Islamic government. At the core is the controversial doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih, the Rule of the Chief Jurisprudent, in which the Spiritual Leader rules in place of the Hidden 12th Imam of Shi’a Islam, who has been in hiding since the 9th Century.

Only Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers supported this doctrine. All other Shi’a Grand Ayatollahs rejected it, or had serious reservations. Chief among the objectors today is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian, and serves as the chief religious authority in Najaf, Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani has more followers than any other Shi’a leader.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani would reportedly replace Ayatollah Khamene’i with a triumvirate of knowledgeable clerics, of which he might be one. There is currently no willing successor to Ayatollah Khamene’i, so this problem was going to have to be addressed in the future anyway.

It is likely that the Guardian Council, which vets political candidates and approves laws passed by parliament, would also have its powers curtailed.

Iran watchers are looking carefully to see how successful the opposition organization has become and whether it will be able to sustain itself and develop a potent ideology and leadership for the long haul. It will also be important to see how the cycle of demonstrations, strikes and confrontations plays itself out over time.

One thing is certain, change has once again begun in Iran, and however it plays out, it will leave the nation in a very different state than it is in today.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research on Iran for more than 30 years, and lived through the Revolution of 1978-79. He is the author of "The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

Related Articles:

It’s the Aftermath of the Iranian Election that Counts

Pelosi: Iranian Crackdown Similar to Tiananmen Square

It Ain't Over till the Ayatollah Says So

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