NIAC Memo: Has Iran Reached a Breaking Point?

As protesters poured into the streets of Iran in the biggest and bloodiest demonstrations since June, Trita and Rouzbeh Parsi say this time could be thebreaking point. Plus, view our gallery of the protests below and watch new video from Iran.

With the government growing increasingly desperate—and violent—the new clashes onthe streets in Iran may very well prove to be the breaking point of the regime.If so, it shows that the Iranian theocracy ultimately fell on its own sword. Itdidn’t come to an end due to the efforts of exiled opposition groups or theregime-change schemes of Washington’s neoconservatives. Rather, the Iranianpeople are the main characters in this drama, using the very same symbols thatbrought the Islamic republic into being to close this chapter in a century-oldstruggle for democracy.

Protestsflared up again because of Ashura, the climax of a month of mourning in theShiite religious calendar. It is a day of sadness for the death of the ProphetMuhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain, who was martyred in 680. And this year thecommemoration coincided with the seventh day after the death of dissident GrandAyatollah Ali Montazeri, adding to the significance of the day. Ashura is alsoa reminder that the eternal value of justice must be defended regardless of theodds of success. This has provided the relentless Green movement with yetanother opportunity to outmaneuver the Iranian government by co-opting itssymbols and challenge its legitimacy through the language of religion. Atprotests Sunday, at least 10 demonstrators were killed by police.

Thisbattle cry for justice in all its simplicity is where most politicalconflagrations start. It is the deafness of the powers that be that often makethem the kernel of something larger and more earth shattering. It is testimonyto the arrogance of power that a simple and rather modest call foraccountability and justice is beaten down only to return, demanding more, andless willing to compromise and accommodate.

Andit wouldn’t be the first time. In 1906, the call for a house of justice wentunheeded and was followed by demonstrations, and eventually transformed into ademand for a written constitution. Similarly, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, inhis imperial ineptitude, brought on himself an increasingly anti-monarchicalcoalition, ranging from liberals and communists, to the victorious Islamistswho forged the Islamic republic in 1979.

Ashura,with its story of perseverance and martyrdom in the face of overwhelming forceof oppression, was a perfectly stylized allegory for the struggle between themighty state of the shah and the revolutionaries at the end of the 1970s. The Shiite mourning rituals, with their revisiting of the dead on the 3rd, 7th and 40th day of death, provided the demonstrators then, as well as now, with the opportunity to both remember those who died for the cause as well asre-iterating their opposition and condemnation of that state repression. This played an important role in bringing the simmering political discontent to aboiling point and wearing down what was perceived as the all-powerful Pahlavi state in 1977-78.

Itis even more important this time around because there is no extensive leadership structure that steers the opposition. The ability to bring outcrowds for important days of the calendar, religious and revolutionary ones, reminds everyone that they are not alone in their opposition to the current government.

Noone can predict a revolution nor say with certainty when an authoritarian state loses its footing if not its grip. For it is not necessarily its ability or will to repress that will falter as much as ordinary people’s unwillingness to allow themselves to be cowed and intimidated. It is a battle of wills where, on the one hand, the constant mobilization and tension pervading a discontentedand rebellious society tests the state machinery’s ability to endure as theytry to perform their functions (including repression). Weighing in on the otherside of the balance is the patience and capacity to stomach pain and sufferingby the protesters and their sympathizers in all quarters of society.

Today a significant number of the original revolutionaries of 1979 are imprisoned orbeing harassed by shadowy groups from the borderlands of state authority. Theconstituency of the Islamic republic is becoming increasingly alienated as the hard-line faction ruling Tehran demands loyalty to an increasingly surreal understanding of, and vision for, Iranian society. Not much is left of the dynamism and visions that fuelled the revolution of 1979—but having learned from that experience, the demands of the reformist movement today are much more sophisticated and their abstention from violence so much more promising for the future.

The state’s ability to use the language of religion to repress these developments is failing. Again and again, religion has proven itself to be much better suited as a language of resistance than governance. This became increasingly clear to Khomeini himself after the success of the revolution. In the constant bickering within the revolutionary elite, Khomeini increasingly invoked reasonsof state for justifying actions, demoting religion to the role of ideological veneer. By the end of his life, he stated that the state could abrogate the basic principles of Islam if it deemed necessary for the survival of theIslamic republic.

Instead of a system where religious thinking controlled and wielded state power, he ended up with an arrangement where the state utilized religion for its ownpurposes, emptying religion and its language of substance, discarding it on thegrowing heap of unfulfilled promises of the revolution.

Ashura, the commemoration and the principle it invokes, proves to be relevant yet again, as those who hold the reins of power in Tehran unleash violence againsttheir own people. Undoubtedly the people of Iran will persevere in their questfor greater freedom and justice through their nonviolent transformation of thesystem from within. It will indeed be ironic if the Iranian theocracy begins tocrumble on the most important religious day of the Shiite calendar.

Rouzbeh Parsi is research fellow at the European Institute for Security Studies. Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

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