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Tehran Bureau

The Specter Haunting Iran

Danny Postel

A specter is haunting Iran -- the specter of democracy.

The events of the last eight months in Iran have occasioned -- one might even say inspired -- an array of interpretations and formulations. Many attempts have been made to categorize and explain the nature of the upheaval. In the heady, early days and weeks following the June election, Slavoj Žižek characterized what was unfolding in Iran as "a great emancipatory event." Hamid Dabashi described the situation as "something quite extraordinary, perhaps even a social revolution"; Dabashi is best known for arguing that the Green wave amounts to a civil-rights movement, which, he adds, "does not mean that the Islamic republic may not, or should not, fall." One commentator for a Marxist newspaper rhapsodically declares that what is happening heralds "a new reality," something "so unique and new" that it could "transform not just Iran but the entire Middle East, indeed the whole world."

So is it reform or revolution? Is it perhaps some amalgam of the two, or a gray area in between, as captured in Timothy Garton Ash's coinage "refolution"? Are we witnessing the metamorphosis of what began as a program of reform into something else, something more radical and ambitious?

I tend to agree with Iranian political scientist Hossein Bashiriyeh that this is a "potentially revolutionary situation" that, depending on several variables, "may well turn into a thoroughly revolutionary situation." Will it turn into one? Of course, we have no way of knowing. Following Charles Kurzman, we might describe the present situation as "unthinkable". How events will turn out, even what direction they're moving in, is simply impossible to determine.

What I think we can say, however, is that something very profound has taken place, and is taking place, in Iran today -- something of enormous significance for Iran and its future. Whatever concrete outcome emerges, or fails to emerge, from the events unfolding, something very important has already happened. As Nader Hashemi has argued, "the Green Movement has already won an overwhelming ideological victory against the regime. In the realm of political ideas, the battle is over and Iran's clerical oligarchs know it -- liberal democratic ideas have triumphed."

Others have claimed a moral victory for the Greens. As Muhammad Sahimi puts it,

even after a violent six-month crackdown on peaceful protesters, political figures, journalists, and human rights advocates, the Green Movement has not been weakened, but...has strengthened and expanded to many cities and towns around the country. This is already a significant victory for the Green Movement.

Another commentator claims a strategic victory for the movement:

But the youth of Iran have already scored a victory of sorts by using new media to stake claim to political space. By using new media to extend horizontal linkages and press the current regime, this generation has reinforced the foundation of a potentially robust force for democratic change.

Addressing the agents of repression directly, one blogger wrote,

This election -- whatever it was, whatever it did -- it made us big and it made you small.


Iran's Green Movement has itself offered a model of organization and social motivation that others are beginning to study, and I believe will continue to study for many years to come, whatever the outcome of its quest. It has, from its inception, been an innovative and imaginative force, in an open-ended and constant state of flux, building the road as it travels and re-inventing itself at every turn. It is for this reason ideally suited to open-mindedly engage with other models and movements around the world. It has always, from day one, been a bold and daring movement, so thinking big is in its very DNA. This might not be the optimal moment for Iran's Greens to undertake a detailed analysis of the economic experiments of Brazil, Venezuela, and Mondragón, or to engage the ideas of Schweickart, Sen, and Stiglitz, or any number of others, engaged as they are, right now, in a life-and-death battle. I would nonetheless like to encourage Iran's Greens not to wait until it's too late.

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Danny Postel is the author of Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran, a Contributing Editor of Logos, and a correspondent for LabourStart. He is a member of Chicago's No War on Iran Coalition and serves on the coordinating board of the Iran Labor Support Committees (ILSC).

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