As a graduate student in political science preparing to write my dissertation, I have engaged Iranians and Iranian-Americans from all walks of life and attempted to understand their views on the recent electoral crisis in Iran. What struck me throughout the course of my many conversations was the quasi-conspiratorial ideas many individuals harbored, a seeming simulacrum of 9/11 deniers: Israeli and U.S. collusion; atavistic mullahs bent on nuclear destruction; U.S. and Iranian collusion?
This hit home for me for one big reason.
As a grad student studying democratization and Iranian politics, I tend to receive an enormous amount of criticism from Iranian-Americans but not Iranians. This criticism assumes the tried-and-true form of conflating the study of Iranian politics with the sanctioning of the regime. Iranian-Americans have used various terms to describe me, but it frequently is a variation of “nokar-e-akhund.” By studying the regime, you lend it credibility, the argument goes. I am apparently not alone. My committee chair, who is a famous Iranian-American academic, is often exposed to similar ripostes from the Iranian-American community. The regime is illegitimate in their eyes, thus de-legitimating any justification for examining its many paradoxes.
While I would agree that the regime has successfully transitioned from a hybrid authoritarian state to one that more closely resembles unmitigated totalitarianism, the regime remains inherently at odds with itself. The paradox of the state, its religious and republican elements, has ultimately hastened increased state fragmentation and lead to a crisis of identity. While the security apparatus of the state has undoubtedly expanded its grip on society, we are increasingly witness to fissures among elite politicians who disagree as to the best course forward.
Increased repression is a sign of weakness, not strength. The regime knows this and its futile attempt to silence internal political opposition with increasingly heavy-handed measures demonstrates its inherent vulnerability. Or at least what the regime perceives to be its greatest vulnerability-its own people. On that they are correct. But they have misjudged the diffidence of their own population, something with which they count on. Iranian voters were neither diffident nor cynical. And this is in the face of potentially lethal violence being perpetrated against them. But some Iranian-Americans ignore this complexity and choose the Manichaean world-view of us against them.
We should be hopeful. Hybrid authoritarian states, unlike their totalitarian brethren, offer more political space for the opposition. Totalitarian states cannot exist in an atmosphere which promotes even limited opposition. This is the case in Iran, since the system is self-perpetuating in that the promotion of democratic ideals is part of the system and constitution. Resorting to extra-legal measures simply de-legitimizes the regime, not the opposition. It also highlights the supreme paradox of the state and demonstrates that this contradiction cannot be sustained. The small yet perceptible creep towards military rule, or some odd amalgam of theocratic democracy and military dictatorship, is even more unsustainable, since among all regimes in existence in the 20th century, military dictatorships lasted, on average, only seven years. While this may not even be relevant to Iran because the structure of the state is so unique, it certainly does not bode well for the regime.
As for the difference between Iranians and Iranian-Americans, the latter remain seemingly detached, diffident, and hyper-cynical about politics in Iran, while the former must contend with the political realities that shape their lives. Iranians do not call me the “servant of religious authority.” It should be noted that young Iranian-Americans have almost never attacked my intentions or called me names. That has unfortunately been reserved for the older generations. It is to be expected. They suffered and witnessed the disintegration of their Iran. They seemingly have no ownership of the regime. Indeed, we must take ownership of the regime if we are to engage one another in an honest discussion.
I recently received a fellowship from the U.S. government to study in Iran. But the government, having already offered me the fellowship, stated that I could not go to Iran. This was a month before the seminal moment of June 12. I switched my destination to Turkey. But it’s not the same here. I will have to go to Iran on my own dime, which allows me a real sense of freedom anyway, something that would have been unattainable otherwise. Caution should be heeded. But never diffident.