Brewing Iranian conundrum

The seeds of dissent and resistance that germinated long ago are now sprouting in full bloom. The more the regime resorts to repression, the more it would expedite its demise

The beginning of the year 2018 seems tumultuous both for the Middle East and South Asia. The last week of 2017 witnessed the triggering of anomic, anti-regime demonstrations beginning in the city of Mashhad in Iran that spread swiftly to other cities like Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz including other remote cities and towns within five days. So far, the international media has reported that 22 people have been killed and about 450 arrested during the protest.

The current uprising has elements of surprise, an anomic movement apparently without a popular leadership. Thus, it is too early to predict which course the uprising may take and what would be its immediate and long term political consequences for Iran’s theocratic regime and broader repercussions for the region. However, some of its contours may help draw some inferences.

The protest triggered by the ever increasing economic worries, where poverty engulfs with every passing year, took a sharp political dimension. The slogans and anger of the protesters indicate the accumulated seething political frustrations, deprivations and sense of oppression with the hands of the repressive theocratic regime that was so far selling only religious ideological glory and regional ambitious strategic fantasies.

Perhaps, for the first time after the 1979 revolution, Khamenei is the prime target of the protesters publicly chanting slogans against him of ‘death to the dictator’, a term implying death to Khamenei.

After nearly four decades of tests and trials, the Iranians were forced to go through hard introspection. And the possible retrospection is that the theocratic revolution proved more ominous for Iranians exacerbating the economic and political stagnation supplemented by social suffocation and international isolation.

Iranians also tasted the bitter medicine of curing political and economic ills caused by the Shah regime by using the cover of religion. The Iranian left and democratic forces paid the cost of using the religious cover by working with Mullahs to dethrone the Shah. The mullahs out maneuvered the left and progressive immediately after entering the power corridor by decimating them physically like the associates of Shah’s regime.

Perhaps the Iranians would also forgive the repressive regime of the Shah as compared to the religious totalitarian regime of the mullahs which not only imposed political but also social repression in the name of religious order

Perhaps the Iranians would also forgive the repressive regime of the Shah as compared to the religious totalitarian regime of the mullahs which not only imposed political but also social repression in the name of religious order. Thus, the mullahs, instead of giving better alternative to the people of Iran, further multiplied and aggravated their socio-political and economic miseries.

Internally, the four decade long rule of the clerics led by the supreme clergy revolves around internal suppression causing social and political suffocation, economic deterioration due to regional war and by positing Iran as a regional and international bully for getting legitimacy and relevance. However, the power of hunger and deprivation supersedes political, ideological or strategic considerations. Religious ideology can fight a prolong war but not hunger.

The Iranian experience also calibrates that the political use of religious sentiments can prove a fatal destabilisation tool to topple a specific political order. But in the absence of an economic program, it hardly ever proved a stabilising force in the long run to ensure bread and butter for the majority.

The Iranian case also accentuates that hybrid controlled democracy cannot be a substitute for genuine functional and sovereign democracy. The Iranian democratic institutions are subordinate to the veto power of guardianship council headed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Thus, controlled democracy is neither responsive nor capable to articulate aspirations and requirements of the disillusioned Iranian without religious ideological strings. In spite of the Shia theocratic Iran banking on proxies, a democratic, peaceful and economically powerful Iran taking pride in its civilisational and cultural roots would be more influential in regional and international politics.

A democratic Shia Iran minus the clerics can be more acceptable to the world, particularly to the western world. Without the cleric regime bias, the western world considers Shia Islam not a threat to western civilisation as compared to the Wahabi Salafi version.

With the passage of time, the Wahabi version grew more radical and intolerant by eliminating its moderate strands by closing the doors of enlightened interpretation of Sunni Islam. While Wahabism became the bedrock of the current monarchies of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, both Wahabism and monarchical regimes became immune to reforms. Now neither Wahabism nor the monarchies can survive without each other but also, notwithstanding the current Trump-MBS bonhomie in its existing form, they are not acceptable to the world in the long term.

If the Shah’s totalitarian secularism were replaced by progressive representative democracy, instead of totalitarian Shia theocracy, not only Iran would now be a regional model and powerhouse but the Shia minority in other countries will not be as vulnerable as it is today. The Khamenei lead clergy not only politically radicalised its majority Shia population but also Shias living as minorities in other Muslim countries. They were rendered suspicious in the eyes of host states and instead of protecting them, ended up being vulnerable.

The homogeneity character insulates Iran from foreign intervention but the theocratic clergy’s totalitarianism resulted in growing political frustration, economic deprivation, further deteriorated by socio-political repression making it as unpopular and vulnerable as the Shah’s regime.

The seeds of dissent and resistance that germinated long ago are now sprouting in full bloom. The more the regime resorts to power and repression, the more it would expedite its demise. The regime can suppress this wave of uprising but cannot eliminate the thrust for change. The sagacity of Iranian people would be to bring and manage the change themselves without any direct external intervention to avoid anarchy and chaos that would spoil the fruits of their struggle. Pakistan’s security establishment should also learn its lesson that hybrid democracy topped with religious extremism has its own inherited danger of explosion.

The writer is a political analyst hailing from Swat. Tweets @MirSwat

Published in Daily Times, January 4th 2018.