The Islamic Republic is facing its most serious challenge since its birth in the 1979 revolution. Indeed, during and immediately after the election of June 2009, the mass demonstrations in Iran shocked the whole state apparatus in such a way that it has yet to recover. Just as the Iranian revolution of 1979 was impossible to anticipate, so was the protest movement in the wake of June 2009. However, this was not the first time the Islamic Republic had to face political crisis in the last 30 years--it had witnessed protests in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000; but the magnitude of the 2009 events was different: it brought millions of people onto the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran. Pandora's box was well and truly opened, with millions now daring to question the legitimacy and the role of Velayate Fagih, the most important and powerful constituent of the Islamic Republic.
For the first time, both from within and outside Iran, the echoes of another Iranian revolution were heard. The possibility arose that the Islamic Republic whose leaders espoused anti-imperialist rhetoric against the West could themselves be challenged. As a result, confusion and controversy over the nature of the causes of the movement led commentators to depict it variously as progressive, middle class, pro-American imperialism, and a Zionist plot. Whatever its nature, this movement has had the most profound long-lasting impact. The infighting between different factions with the Islamic Republic are in some ways reminiscent of the early 20th-century Constitutional Revolution (1), when the schism was so deep that a leading member of the clergy, Noori, was hanged for being openly against reform. Today's Islamic Republic's response has also been brutal, with the arrest and detention of thousands of opposition figures, some of whom held government posts under Rafsanjani and Khatami. The current leaders are determined, with support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), to exclude the reformist elements from power. In order to remain, they must accept and obey sets of conditions laid down by Khamenei and his cronies.
Whatever may be the outcome of this political manoeuvring, recent developments magnified the already existing differences between various groups within the Islamic Republic. Is this the beginning of the stripping off of the republican component from the system? Or is Iran moving towards governance by God, rather than by the people? If any of the new factions succeed, how would they be able to legitimise their rule in the 21st century? What if they fail? Will Iran move towards secular democracy? Would economic sanctions imposed by the USA and its allies have any impact on the democratic process in Iran? Is the opposition led by the Green Movement able to challenge the Islamic Republic system and call for the separation of the state from religion? This article will deconstruct the Islamic Republic, tracing it back to its birth in 1979 to show, firstly, how different ideas, not all necessarily Islamist, were influential in the establishment of the Islamic Republic; and secondly, that Islam is not a homogenous religion, but has always been presented in different ways, and thus that the current factional battle is historically based. In doing this, it will examine the ideological ambiguity of Islam, its populist message, its attempts to reconcile itself to the modern world, and its relations with social classes. It will reject the view that the current regime in Iran is a return to medieval Islam, or that it represents a progressive break from modern global capitalism. Rather, it will assess the causes and development of the post-election outcomes from a historical perspective, in order to provide an understanding of the political implications for both the Islamic Republic and the opposition, looking at the ongoing battle and debates within the ruling elites as well as the impact of the USA-led economic sanctions. Finally, we assess the strength of the opposition led by the Greens, the balance of forces and the possibility of change in Iran.
Religion, Islamic Republic and ideology
The 1979 Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic were not predicted--they came as a shock to the whole world. This apparent retreat from modernity and return to 'fundamentalism' or 'traditionalism' has posed a challenge to theoretical propositions ranging from traditional 'orientalism' to modernisation and dependency theory. The orientalist view of Islamic society and culture sees it as essentially distinct from Europe, with the West being presented as pluralistic, rational, secular and economically vibrant. On the other hand, the 'Orient' is described as being self-indulgent and economically undeveloped, traditional, particularistic and autocratic (Halpern, 1963). Therefore, the 'revival of Islam' is a triumphant return to essence or to the past, and it is this that has caused so much confusion, because it was believed that 'modernisation' post-World War II would inevitably lead to secularisation (Morady, 1994). Indeed, this revival is still debated, as different scholars are still postulating the view of the world's having become increasingly standardised and homogenised, and that technological advancement has now reshaped the world, and international trade and cultural synchronisation have turned the world into a small 'village' (Friedman, 2007). Others such as Francis Fukuyama (1992) have depicted the new era as 'the end of history' through which the 'liberal idea' triumphed, leading to a new global hegemony. Fukuyama went on to declare that the only route to modernity is the neoliberal democratic path under global capitalism. But in some Muslim countries such as Iran, modernisation, social restrictions and increasing state suppression of individual rights have co-existed. Indeed, since the June 2009 election, the Iranian state has used its brutal force to defeat those who defy the establishment, which forced some to associate the regime with totalitarianism. (2) This claim was made by the prominent French scholar of Islam Maxime Rodinson (1963), who called described such regimes as fascist or neo-Islamic totalitarianism. In examining Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, he calls them 'archaic fascism', which 'wish[es] to establish an authoritarian and totalitarian state whose political police would brutally enforce the moral and social order. It would at the same time impose conformity to religious tradition as interpreted in the most conservative light' (Rodinson, 1978). Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Said Amir Arjoman (1990) also pointed to the sociological similarities between Islamic movements and European fascism.
Other commentators argue the opposite, stressing that because the Islamic Republic rose to power through revolution, this means that the nature of the Iranian regime is essentially progressive, since it went against the imperialism of the USA and the West (which supported the Shah's regime until 1979). Immediately after the election, the prominent academic James Petras (2009) supported the Islamic Republic, blaming the neoliberals and radicals in the West for supporting protesters in Iran.
Subsequently, there has been much confusion over the nature of the Islamic Republic when faced by the current social movement. Terms such as 'Islamic fundamentalism' or 'political Islam' are loosely used in reference to the Islamic Republic because it is difficult to analyse 7th-century religion, ambiguous as it is, and supported by traditional forces and some poor groups in society. It is, however, naive to characterise Ahmadinejad and his supporters as inherently anti-modernist and totalitarian, as political power in Iran operates through the modern institutions of parliament and presidency, with limited or managed levels of democracy. As Zubaida points out,
Current Islamic movements and ideas are not the product of some essential continuity with the past, but are basically 'modern'. Even when they explicitly reject all modern political models as alien imports from a hostile West, their various political ideas, organisations and aspirations are implicitly premised upon the models and assumptions of modern nation-state politics. (Zubaida, 1989: ix)
Equally, according to Zubaida (1989), it is wrong to suggest that the Islamic Republic is 'progressive' or anti imperialist. What is missing in both approaches is the ability to locate the class character of modern Islamism, or to see its relationship to capital and the state (see Moaddel, 1993).
Religion is a social phenomenon and, as such, it does not exist independently of the outside world: rather, it has evolved and changed with regard to the transformation of social conditions that have occurred within every society. Religious institutions and ideas play a role in history, but this does not take place in isolation. Religion, with its institutions of hierarchy and clergy, arose from and interacts with society. Islam dates back to the 7th century in the Middle East, where it grew up in a trading community with a society organised on a tribal basis; yet today it is the official ideology of the modern capitalist state that is Iran.
Islam in general--and the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular--has survived because of its ability to adapt to differing class interests. It has had the financial support of tradesmen, the bazaari (3), landowners, industrialists and the bureaucrats of modern capitalismto consolidate its role through building seminaries and recruiting students. Equally, it has gained the support of the mass of the people by offering comfort to the poor and oppressed, and promising the exploited class a degree of protection. It is this flexibility that provides various interpretations and an appeal to different classes, especially in times of social revolt, even if these ideas are contradictory. This...