Saturday, August 15, 2009

Quiet and Persistent

The seeming quiet in Tehran’s street deceives us into believing the uprising has been crushed. Yes, Ahmadinejad has been sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic for a second term, squelching the most obvious near-term goal of the opposition. But his inauguration was marked by both public snubs – in the form of many Majlis deputies and Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s absence – and by demonstrations in the street.

The show trial of dissidents arrested during the unrest following the June 12 election has proven to be a debacle. Accusations of rape have given way to heated rhetoric flying between supporters of the regime and the opposition: Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (not to be confused with former President Mohammed Khatami) declared such allegations to be a “total slander against the Islamic system.” Calls for the arrest and trial of Karroubi have resumed.

On the other hand, Reformist politicians sent a letter to the Assembly of Experts demanding that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, be investigated. The Assembly of Experts is the Iranian body that appoints the Supreme Leader – in theory, it also has the power to remove him, though this has never been tested. Ayatollah Rafsanjani is the head of the Assembly of Experts.


bbarrowm said...

For the sake of analytical clarity, it may be important to specify, a priori, the conditions under which you consider this particular movement to have failed. Any thoughts on what those conditions might entail?

On the other hand, you raise an interesting question of whether we should stop treating social movements as discrete events and try to explain them as historical processes. For example, I think all of the post-Soviet colored revolutions were preceded by "failed" protest movements. But is it really accurate to say those activists just stopped working? Was one set of actors replaced by another with different interests and strategies?

I think there are a couple of different (better?) ways to conceptualize this. The first would be an institutional adaptation model in which the same general set of opposition actors stayed in place and changed their political action strategies to fit the pressures imposed by the regime. The second is a more evolutionary approach in which the first movement "spawns" one or more successive movements which maintain some of the characteristics of the parent, but also incorporate new organizational, strategic, or tactical features. Eventually one of these "offspring" will be "fit" enough to topple the regime.

I suppose this is ultimately an empirical question, but if nothing else the Iran case should make us think more seriously about how we explain why some movements fail and some succeed.

Ben said...

You ask good questions and make an excellent point, Bret.

I haven't used the words success or failure much because I think those terms are really dependent on the goal or goals set by the people involved. If, for instance, the goal of the opposition forces - assuming, for the moment, they are cohesive enough to be discussed monolithically - was to prevent the re-inauguration of Ahmadinejad then they failed. If, on the other hand, the goal is to do away with the Islamic Republic, then I'd say it is too early to determine failure or success.

I do not think that the opposition to the June 12 election is either cohesive or monolithic. I think that continue agitation and action by persons that fit into the “opposition” camp indicate that the anger fueling the reaction to the June 12 elections has not be quenched, and the movement (for lack of a better term) not yet crushed.

I like your adaptational model but that lends itself, like you say, to evolutionary rather than revolutionary movements. I think this is an area ripe for greater research and scholarship – there may be a need to differentiate between social movements (evolutionary, say), revolutionary movements, and uprisings. But I haven’t thought enough about it yet.