Brainstorming Iran: An X-Ray of Immediate History
By Al Giordano
Last night, I instigated a sit-down skull session with seven colleagues that are closely following the situation in Iran, with, between them, encyclopedic knowledge (and lived experience) of the history civil resistance movements in Iran and around the world, to see if we could agree on an objective set of facts to describe what is happening and brainstorm on what might happen next.
We agreed that our discussion would be off the record, so I’m not going to quote anybody by name. But what I can give you is my own roadmap or x-ray of what the situation in Iran is today, informed by this consultation with: 1. a prominent Iranian human rights defender, 2. an award-winning filmmaker who has spent months at a time on end reporting inside the regions of Iran, 3. a veteran strategist from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa that successfully ended apartheid, 4. a Polish student of social movements, 5. a Mexican journalist and civil resistance trainer, and 6 and 7. two individuals much like me: authors with intensive experience and study of civil resistance movements and community organizing.
Some of the words below are, thus, not originally mine, but I borrow them because I agree with how they portray current events.
What we can see in Iran today are two simultaneous struggles, one from below (people with legitimate grievances against their government), and one up above (a power struggle between factions).
Although many had hoped that the post-electoral struggle in Iran would be a one act play, this one seems more likely to be headed into a saga that is four or five acts long. Like many previous social movements throughout history, this has turned from a hundred yard dash into a marathon.
The dynamics of this struggle are also very different than those that have occurred in other countries. The Iranian system is kind of “a state within a state.” There is an elected part of the government – the president and parliament – but they are answerable and subject to a Supreme Leader and the various bodies of Islamic clergy that choose him and that, on paper at least, serve as a check and balance to his powers.
That dual state apparatus, although designed to maintain those in power, has caused the regime of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad – very much joined at the hip - the problem of having to defend itself on two fronts at once. If it loses control of only one of those institutions, it loses everything.
Eurasianet.com describes the dual dynamic this way:
“…hardliners now find themselves caught in a cycle of doom: they must crack down on protesters if they are to have any chance of retaining power, but doing so only causes more and more clerics to align against them.”
About ten years ago, a deep split emerged in the high clergy that, under the Iranian Constitution, has the final say over all matters and is above the elected government in the hierarchy of state. About half of those theocratic leaders came to the view that the theocratic system is not desirable, that involving itself so heavily in political institutions was making them dirty (or defiled). Although that sentiment is heavy in Qom, the religious seat of power, the objective conditions have not appeared – until now – to provoke action toward reform.
Nobody knows if reports like this one, from IBT Times UK, are accurate. But the scenario it outlines is informative as to how those theocratic councils have, under law, the power to overturn the applecart of State:
"Iran's clerical establishment is considering scrapping the position of the Supreme Leader, currently held by Ayatollah Khamenei and forcing out President Ahmadinejad according to reports.
"The country's Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts is reported to be considering the formation of a collective leadership to replace the position of supreme leader, according to Al Arabiya, citing sources in the holy city of Qom."
Although there is presently no way to confirm or negate the accuracy of that report, the Iranian people are very well aware that those councils have that power. Their demonstrations and strikes are infused with appeals to that clergy to exercise its influence and change the course of the State. The protests are not aimed at Washington, or at the United Nations, nor at any other external power to intervene (if there's one thing that almost all Iranians agree on it is that they will never again be ruled from abroad, which is why the regime - and its clueless apologists abroad - flails so desperately to portray the protesters as dupes of CIA or other foreign manipulation; a tactic that is so far not gaining traction in any way to quell what is a distinctly Iranian revolt). The demonstrations are, instead, very shrewdly aimed at the internal dynamics inside Iran; the self-actualized protests of a people very well informed as to their indigenous opportunities for self-rule.
It is also no secret that former President Rafsanjani, himself a high cleric and influential in those councils, has been holed up in Qom lobbying his fellow clergy in an effort to bring the axe down upon the current regime.
Add to that dynamic the overlapping, and sometimes competing, security forces in Iran. The most repressive in recent days have been the Basij militias and the Revolutionary Guard, whose leadership is considered to be intensely loyal to the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime. (One can safely presume that the “morals police” and “security police” are in that hardliner camp, too.)
The Basiji have been the most brutal and enthusiastic repressors. There are roughly half-a-million members of this state-backed militia, and members receive special privileges from the state. It is widely considered that about half the Basij members are “free riders,” members in title only, and the other half are effective fighters. Within that second group, there are hardliners, but there are also some signs of division and disagreement with the regime’s hard line response to the protests. Ahmadinejad is himself a veteran member of the Basij and part of his power is derived from the loyalty he commands among many of them.
On the other hand, the Iranian Armed Forces have so far refrained from repressing the protesters in the streets, and according to some reports, including by journalist Robert Fisk, the military has intervened in some rare instances to protect demonstrators from the Basiji or Revolutionary Guard.
A word of caution: In China’s 1989 Tienanmen Square conflict, the military had similarly remained above the fray until the final crackdown, when troops from far away rural zones – many who speak different languages than the protesters – were trucked in to execute the final bloody massacre and crackdown. In other words, while the Iranian citizen opposition takes heart in that its Army hasn’t so far acted against it, nor has the military declared that it will not do so if events spin out of the regime’s control.
But if – Latin America style – the Armed Forces were to at any point in this conflict decide to “turn its tanks around” and point them at the regime, the current order would instantly fall.
The conflict is now moving into a Second Phase, in which massive street protests show diminishing returns (it would be near impossible to keep them massive when communications are subject to such constant censorship and interference) and different sectors of the opposition – electoral, non-electoral, students, labor, religious, etcetera – have called for a General Strike, using varying words to describe it.
There are unconfirmed reports today that a national strike is underway already, including by Iran state television which has reported that today, Tuesday, thirty percent of workers in the country have not shown up on the job.
If state media is admitting 30 percent, it is a safe bet that adherence to the strike is larger than that. It would also be very impressive because the government has warned that any citizen that participates in a strike will be fired from his and her job, or lose his or her space in the public markets. Thirty percent compliance on what is only the first day a strike would also be heartening for the resistance because some sectors – specifically a call by the Grand Ayatollah and spiritual elder Montazeri for three days of mourning beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, have not kicked in yet.
An important sector in whether a National Strike can succeed is that of the Bazaari. As the name suggests, these are the merchants that control the public markets. They also include, significantly, the country’s bankers. Among this mercantile class, there is some resentment against the Basij militiamen and other beneficiaries of government bureaucracy and benefits.
This conglomeration of overlapping and competing institutions and networks frankly reminds me a lot of the situation in Bolivia, where three regimes were made to fall in recent years, and in fast succession, before President Evo Morales was thrust to power by citizen movements; “autonomies wrapped around other autonomies,” and a situation in which any one of these sectors – bazaari, clergy, labor, military, in particular – could shut down the system virtually by itself if it acted with unity and discipline.
The regime is thus not only defending itself on two major fronts: against the citizens in the streets and the dissident clergy above. It must also be acting around the clock to keep any single one of those “autonomous networks” from acting in a unified manner.
The regime is thus spread very thin as it is being nipped at from so many directions at once. The longer this dynamic continues, the less chance the regime has to remain in control. It’s finite resources cannot indefinitely defend on all those fronts at once.
If past civil resistance struggles across the planet under authoritarian regimes are prologue, once the street demonstrations calm down the regime will likely set about arresting (or assassinating) every movement leader it can find. Tyrants usually look to “decapitate the leadership,” perhaps quite literally under the Iranian system. The movement, thus, has to find a way to decentralize if it is going to prevail.
A prolonged or indefinite General Strike would be very difficult in any land, but particularly in a country like Iran with 40 percent unemployment: the well from which to draw “replacement workers” (read: scabs) is very deep.
In such situations, the resistance has to respond to the “low intensity warfare” of the regime with its own kind of “low intensity revolution” from below (think of the Zapatistas as an example, who burrowed into their territories successfully by forming autonomous zones and governments completely independent from the Mexican state). Attainable options might include that of civil resisters taking control of a secondary city outside of Tehran (as in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2006) which would force the state apparatus to spread its security troops even more thinly, depriving the regime of the troops it needs to repress explosions of dissent in other regions and cities. Another option would be a monthly or weekly general strike; more sustainable as it weakened the economic underpinnings of the regime. In the civil resistance playbook, there are literally hundreds of options for where the resistance could take this battle, as long as it can maintain its capacity for unity, planning and discipline.
Despite the international media's obsession with a "Twitter Revolution," there are clear limits to how the Internet can serve as a communications system for the resistance. Between 29 percent and 35 percent of Iranian citizens have Internet access even under the best of conditions (at those moments when the State is not censoring or slowing it down). For it to take on a greater communications role, that one-third of Iranian society would have to organize additional communications systems of old style community organizing: pamphlets, bullhorns, door-to-door and one-on-one organization, to organize the other two-thirds of the people. Again, this is going to be difficult as the State likely begins an operation to round up anybody that it views as a leader or organizer. And the flip side of the power of these technologies is it makes the location and capture of its users easier through state surveillance.
Another interesting dynamic is that those in charge of the regime lived through and were active in the 1978-79 revolution (as were those like Rafsanjani and Mousavi who are engaged in the power struggle up above against the regime). The moves made so far by the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime smack of a certain paranoia that 1979 could repeat itself, and seem designed to head it off at the pass. An example of that is how the families of the martyrs created over the past week – including that of the young woman named Neda who was assassinated by Basiji sniper fire and become a global cause celebre – have been ordered by state forces not to hold public funerals for their fallen sons and daughters (in 78-79, the funerals of martyrs became the loci of protest marches).
Likewise, the Mousavi electoral opposition, as well as other key sectors like students and labor, have very much echoed the slogans and tactics of 1978: “Allah O Akbar” and “Marg Bar Dictator” (“God is Great” and “Death to the Dictator” being the renovated slogans of that era).
But here’s where it gets interesting: about 75 percent of the Iranian citizenry today was born after 1979. While the elders of the resistance have the experience of having lived through and won a revolution, and their experience is very valuable to the opposition, the wild card in this thing is the young people. This is especially true when it comes to communications systems – Internet, cell phones, etcetera – in which the side that has the youth has the capacity to remain one step ahead of the regime in the speed at which it communicates among its ranks and to the rest of the Iranian population and to the world. (Just as most aging folks need a teenager to figure out how to work the remote on the DVD player, all revolutionaries need them to do the same on a societal scale.)
It is evident that the youth of Iran are overwhelmingly in favor of change and if one had to set Vegas odds on whether the regime can prevail, the odds would be stacked against it in large part because the nation’s youth have had it and are energized to sustain the “five act play,” if necessary, to win control of their lives and country.
Watch, listen and learn. What the Iranian resistance is accomplishing will, soon enough, apply to your country, too.
Update: From Iraj Omidvar:
A message on Rooyeh.com says that it has been shut down because the presidency's legal department has filed a complaint against the manager of the site and its workers (something to that effect; it's not very clear exactly what is wrong). The newest news item on the site is from Saturday:
Meeting Between Rafsanjani and Some High Ranking Clergy in Qom
According to a Rooyeh reporter, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Head of the Assembly of Experts, met with some of the high-ranking clergy of Qom and the plenipotentiary representative of Ayatollah Sistani.
An informed source in an interview with Rooyeh said, "Hashemi Rafsanjani in the meeting with the high ranking clergy recounted memories of the early revolution and the method of resolving problems by the great leader of the revolution.
This source who emphasized not to have his (?) name divulged added: "It seems half of the representatives of the Assembly of Experts are leaning towards forming a 'leadership council'."
He added: "What can be cited as a summary of these meetings is that the reasonable solution is the resignation of Mahmud Ahmadinejad."
He said: "Leader of the revolution is the father and leader of all people and not just of a special group. But it seems like he would like to be the father and leader of a special group."
In answer to the Rooyeh reporter's question of whether the Assembly of Experts will meet in Qom said, "Please permit me to be excused from answering this question. Be confident that the news of the meeting or not meeting [of the assembly] will be announced shortly."
Update II: This next item is also interesting because of the geopolitical strategic importance of the Kurd regions (see map) that stretch the Iran-Turkey border, since it is through that route that Iranian communications reach the rest of the world and vice versa. With the Kurds lined up with the resistance, it's going to become now even more difficult for the Iranian regime to shut down the information flow:
Iraj Omidvar translates and summarizes for The Field:
According to Gooya citing Rava News, the people of Iranian Kurdistan have begun a strike in support of the people's movement for freedom.
In response to calls for a one-day strike in Kurdistan by human rights organizations, student groups, unions, and political associations, today, Tuesday, the people of Kurdistan, in support of the people of Iran, have not gone to work.
The reporter of Rava News from Saghez, the second largest city of Kurdistan, reports that despite government warnings, 90% of the shops in the bazaar and other public places are closed, and there are plans for a calm civil protest in one of the city's main squares.
Add Kurdistan to the mounting problems of the Iranian regime: a state increasingly surrounded from all sides - ideologically and geographically - with long-afflicted and diverse forces converging to upturn it.