As Iran and the West resume their diplomatic dance, questions about Iran’s internal stability loom large.
To many, it appears that Iran has achieved an autocratic stability, with the mullahs having vanquished the once-popular Green Movement. The recent parliamentary elections are acclaimed by the theocracy and curiously welcomed by many in the international community who hope that a resurrected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, will now focus on mending ties with his global detractors.
Such a reading of Iran’s politics belies an understanding of its turbulent history. The postwar history of Iran reveals a perennial struggle between successive social movements seeking emancipation and accountability, and despotic governments uneasily resting their power on repression.
The dream of dictatorial stability has always eluded Iran’s rulers, whether monarchs or Islamists, as they have confronted a populace with an undaunted spirit of dissent. That spirit is bound to resurface, bedeviling Iran’s politics and complicating its diplomatic path.
The first manifestation of popular revolt that rocked Iran was the 1950s oil nationalization crisis. The notion of a malevolent America plotting against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh conceals more than it reveals. The National Front party that led the nationalization effort was actually a coalition of liberal reformers, the intelligentsia, elements of the clerical class, socialist activists and middle class professionals.
It is important to note that the demands of the National Front transcended the oil issue, as the party pressed for representative government with constitutional demarcations of power. The National Front government that briefly held power sought to improve public education and establish an accessible health care system. Its proposed judicial reforms were designed to ensure equality before law, while its efforts to broaden the prerogatives of local governments were intended to decentralize power. This was not just a movement to reclaim Iran’s resources, but a progressive alliance seeking to revamp Iranian society and government. The coup overthrowing Mossadegh may have ended the National Front’s reign in power, but it did not destroy Iran’s opposition politics.
In the 1960s, another crisis over foreign exploitation triggered yet another demand for democratic change. The measure that sparked the crisis was legislation proposed by the shah exempting the U.S. military presence from Iranian law. It was then that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stepped forth to lead a national coalition that quickly moved beyond Western encroachment and challenged the shah’s rule.
The themes of American interference and the shah’s dictatorial rule quickly merged, as democratic empowerment was seen as the true path to national sovereignty. This same coalition later forged the 1979 revolution, whose aspirations for democracy and the rule of law were usurped by agents of theocratic absolutism.
Like the dynasty it displaced, the Islamic Republic has been bedeviled by dissent. By the early 1990s, an eclectic group of politicians, seminary leaders, religious scholars and intellectuals undertook an imaginative reexamination of the role of public participation in an Islamic government.
The challenge of the reformers was to reconcile two competing demands: On the one side was Islam with its holistic pretensions; on the other side was political modernity with its democratic claims. In essence, the reformers claimed that these two realms were not incompatible in principle or practice.
This was a remarkable rebuke to totalitarian Islam, which was increasingly serving as the regime’s ideology. The odyssey of the reform movement is as familiar as it is tragic, as President Mohammad Khatami and his allies ultimately failed to adjust the parameters of Iran’s Islamist rule. However, the guardians of theocracy could not rest easily, as the reformers quickly gave way to an even more robust Green Movement.
In many ways, the Green Movement is a descendent and successor of all the previous political coalitions that have sought to liberalize Iran.
The regime, to be sure, has managed to regain control of the streets through brute force, show trials and repression. However, what is important is that the Green Movement severed the essential link between state and society.
For long, the Islamic Republic sought to present itself as different from typical Middle East autocracies, because its electoral procedures provided it with a veneer of legitimacy. That legitimacy, along with the republican pillar of the state, has evaporated.
For now, the Islamic Republic endures. The mixture of strident nationalism and Islamism that has guided its foreign policy for the past three decades remains intact.
But beneath the facade of order and stability the clerical state continues to face a deep crisis of legitimacy. It is impossible to predict whether the Green Movement will revive. But whatever its fate, history suggests that another social movement is lurking around the corner, ready to challenge the clerics.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.