Iran: dialectic of revolution

Published on openDemocracy, by Hazem Saghieh, 23 June 2009.

Iran’s epic political conflict reflects a thirty-year arc of revolution now using state power to crush its own children, says Hazem Saghieh.

The Iranian revolution is discovering that, in its thirtieth year, it has grown old. The wave of street demonstrations following the presidential election of 12 June 2009 reveal its fruits: “two peoples” who announce themselves in huge sociological differences – of appearance, affiliation, body-language, political slogans. This goes far beyond even the conflict over the results of the election; it involves a clash over the nature of the regime and Iran’s future direction …

… If – that word again – the Iranians avoid the fate of their Chinese counterparts at Tiananmen Square in 1989, it will be in part because Iran has the capacity to reproduce a key element of the changes experienced by witnessed by the Soviet-bloc countries in the late 1980s-early 1990s. There, a parallel to the Iranian-Arab contrast operated: communist totalitarian states were after all capable of generating change from within (whereas their Nazi counterparts required war launched from the outside). 

The communist experience allowed for the appearance of leaders such as Imre Nagy (Hungary, 1956), Alexander Dubcek (Czechoslovakia, 1968), and Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet Union, 1985) – all of whom unleashed a process that was carried on and crowned by the people. True, these figures were destroyed or bypassed, but 1989 witnessed the cycle in full. Iran is a country where this pattern of alliance between reformist leaders and popular mobilisation is seen again and again.

A source of optimism here is that thirty years – notwithstanding Fred Halliday’s argument – constitute a long period for totalitarian regimes (see Fred Halliday, “Iran’s revolution in global history”. 2 March 2009). Nazism in Germany lasted only for twelve. Mao’s China was by 1979 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping turning towards economic freedom and a rejection of classic communism (if not yet in the political sphere). Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was offered the gift of expanded control by its defeat of the Nazis in 1947, which only postponed the ultimate reckoning.

Now, Ayatollah Khamenei and his “Revolutionary Guards” are facing the choice of whether and for how long they are prepared to crush those who are contesting their and their revolution’s legitimacy. Even if they are so determined, the Iranian people who have grown up under and around them may have ideas of their own about Iran’s future. (full text).

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