Notes from Tehran (a Green Movement after the Arab Spring?)

“Notes from Tehran” is a series of reflections written during the summer of 2011 in Tehran, Iran. Two years after what has emerged as a “Green Movement”, it is the author’s critical understanding of the movement, its historical significance and the threat posed to it by what is characterized as its liberal and secularist articulations. The piece draws on critical reflections on conceptions of “religion” and “secularism” and argues for a historical understanding of such concepts in making sense of Iranian modern politics. The author pays attention to the history and the arrangement of various political and intellectual forces in Iran and identifies the lack of intellectual and political organization of the Iranian left as one of the most significant threats to the Green Movement. Finally, and in light of the “Arab Spring”, it asks what it means to think about ethics and politics in contemporary Iran – and perhaps beyond – when life appears stuck within the calculative cacophony of global capitalism, empire, and its reactionary and repressive local compliments, and what it means to think empire through the prism of Iran.

—Introduction by Milad Faraz and Jaleh Mansoor


To get here you’d witness the twisted distribution of wealth and signs of epidemic of addiction to opium which are some of the most visible marks of development of this metropolis. Young mothers with babies on their shoulder holding their hand out, old men selling washing clothes, and young boys selling flowers, their charm, innocence and haunting gaze are features of many intersections of this city. Those sober enough to walk navigate between traffic and knock on windows of imported luxury vehicles with market price of well over three times their equivalent in the US import market – “support of national auto industry”. Not principally opposed to such a policy, you might wonder about the threefold price of the domestically produced Nissan or alternatively you might wonder how this price has not deterred a long wait-list to acquire one, nor has it allowed the manufacturer to pay millions of dollars it owes to the national bank.

Incongruity here appears as the first principle. “Hichi to in mamlekat hesab ketab nadare,” literally: “nothing in this country is subject to any accounting or book-keeping” has been a familiar turn of phrase since at least the end of the war (Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988). Its constant repetition expresses the uneasy filiations symptomatic of this city’s topography. Not limited to the realm of the visible, it perhaps best expresses the everyday discontent symptomatic of my parents’ generation. Inheritor’s of the great Iranian modernization project under Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944), this generation was to be thrown into and give rise to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In their constant and repetitive gestures of unease, the generation of the Revolution expresses its ambivalent relationship to this event and the historical discontents it “failed” to address. But this cliché continues to mark contemporary Iranian life and its historical conditions of possibility – or impossibility. Similar feelings – that it will pass – have certainly extended to my generation: those of us who grew up during the war and remember the sound of ajir-e ghermez (“Red Siren”) of air-raids, and are marked by loss, moves and separations – and perhaps some envy and guilt. Despite the Revolution, the end of the war, and even despite the emergence of facebook connections, historical ties are not easy to de-friend. They constitute the condition of possibility of different Iranian regimes and continue to produce an uneasy and impatient relation to the values celebrated during the Revolution and the war. Thanks to the post-war instrumentalization of these values by and for the State, the third generation of the revolution now in their teen and early twenties has an ambivalent relation to any value. Where moral values have their designated State organized security force and check points, all too often open to abuse and bribery, value as such has become a cliché.

As I am writing these lines and while my cell-phone text message inbox is filled with jokes whose butt is the Islamic State and probably qualify for “Conspiring Against the State”, a charge on an unparalleled rise over the last two years, I get an auto-generated text message from the national provider of phone service telling me who is leading tomorrow’s Friday Prayers in Tehran. All other Iranian cell subscribers have received a similar message. “Text-the-Imam” is new! It wasn’t around two years ago, when precisely a week after the June 2009 presidential election during Tehran’s Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian Supreme Leader, endorsed the hastily announced election results declaring Mahmood Ahmadinejad as the rightfully elected president. More importantly on that day, however, Khamenei’s grand stand rendered discontent and mistrust of millions of Iranian with the voting result and procedures unjustified and subject to violent suppression of State’s legal and extra-legal security apparatus. Exuberant, highly disciplined, and for the most part self-organized street mobilizations prior to the elections had promised a high turnout. According to the official results the voter turnout was at 85%. Thus, the supreme leader’s sermon for the faithful that Friday started with a celebratory and congratulatory note. The high turnout, surpassing all Iranian elections except the vote shortly after the Revolution marking the birth of the “Islamic Republic” (IR), was to be framed as the expression of the commitment of the third generations of the Revolution to the “nezam moghadase jomhoriye eslami” (“The holy system of Islamic Republic”).  “This is no small achievement”, Khamenei declared; while the commitment to the Revolution and the war by earlier generations was partially driven by emotions generated by these respective events, the new generation, according to Khamenei, demonstrated commitments, responsibility and enthusiasm without the influence of such spirits. Apparently it was time for Iranian politics to be secularized and for Khameni’s sovereign judgment to end the disruptive presence of the multitude.

Khamenei’s betrayal of the spirit of the Revolution and the war is telling. His framing was a direct counter to the concerns that Mir Housein Mossavi had offered for re-emerging in the political scene after 20 years of absence. An Islamic revolutionary with leftist commitments and sensibilities, Mousavi had led the Iranian government as the (last) prime minster during the eight long years of the war. Dubbed “Imam’s Prime Minster”, Mousavi was close to Ayatollah Khomeni, the founding leader of the Islamic Republic who publically and politically favored him over Khomeini, the president at the time. Mousavi had declared he has sensed danger with the direction of the Islamic Republic and took the incumbent president Ahmadinejad – his style, rhetoric and policies – as symptoms of a divergence from the ideals of the Revolution. According to Mousavi foreign intervention, disintegration along ethnic lines and reduction of religion to the State’s doctrine were among such rising threats. (These remain concerns of many observant Iranians today.) Mousavi offered his faithfulness to the Revolution and the “shahid” (martyrs and witnesses) of the war as the ethical and motivational grounds of his political intervention in order to address such threats. Various critics with liberal and “forward looking” sensibilities voiced concerns over such a “return” to the Revolution and its principles. Even Mohsen Rezaee, a socially conservative and economically liberal candidate close to the establishment challenged Mousavi on these grounds. Taking the liberal orientation of IR’s post war economic policy as an undisputed principle, Rezaee questioned Mousavi’s affinity for interventionist and State-centered economic policies which he had successfully pursued during the war in one of the telling – albeit neglected – televised debates. However, Mousavi’s success in generating wide support and revolutionary mobilization across generational and political divides quenched criticism of such a “return to principles.” The spirit, once again, overshadowed “the debate”.

The struggle over the framing of contemporary Iranian political struggles signals the necessity of presenting a more historical view of the relations of various forces and demonstrates the significance of the history and memory of the Revolution and the war in making sense of the current situation. The streets of Tehran, and other Iranian cities, are not only the grounds of uneven development, income disparities and epidemic of addictions; neither only a “place of business and commute, subject to infiltration of agitators and terrorist”, as Khamenei characterized them in that June Friday in order to justify the suppression of mass-mobilization against the elections. These streets – and its inhabitants – are marked by various images and ideals of the Revolution and the war which despite State’s best effort to appropriate them, retain an element beyond such an instrumentalization. They are animated by the ghosts of the Revolution and the ever-presence of the shahids; presences that are made manifest in moments of disruption and revolutionary mobilization similar to those after the June election. Nothing is more telling of such a presence than protester’s chant articulating the “real basijis” by invoking emblematic shahids of the war, Hemat and Bakeri, against the government’s extra-legal security force, also known as the basij which was mobilized extensively after Khamenei’s sermon in order to violently crush the peaceful protesters. Despite the success of government’s techniques in suppression of the mass-mobilization, which are now reportedly being exported to suppress Syrian protests, the ability of the protest movement and its domestic leaders to reclaim and mobilize this presence has been one of its most significant achievements and has served as a significant blow to the IR’s ruling elite’s claim to sovereignty. For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic an alternative Islamic revolutionary account of the Revolution and the war that has not been appropriated to conserve and extend the ruling establishment has found popular expression in what has emerged as the “Green Movement”. Although the Green Movement cannot be reduced to an Islamic revolutionary movement, a significant danger to it is its short-sighted liberal and secularist renderings which forfeits the history of Revolution and the war to the ruling establishment and thus loses much ground for political intervention.

State’s designation and regulation of proper religiosity and instrumentalization of religion for the purpose of articulation of government and governance over the course of the Islamic Republic has put limits on public and political imagination of religion within contemporary Iranian society. Despite Shia Islam’s non-Statist and revolutionary characteristics, demonstrated in movement against British Imperial collusion with the Iranian monarchy late nineteenth century (Tobacco Protest, 1880) and then again mid twentieth century (nationalization of Oil), or in the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself, Iranian contemporary political movements critical of the State are particularly impatient in hearing religious critiques and claims against the State.  For example, the religious elements within The Green Movement appear on the defensive. In light of the exclusivist claim of the Islamic Republic on Islam, over the course of IR and increasingly after the war, religion has been valorized as an ideological construction and a divisive instrument of rule. A political figure of the Islamic Republic who is now part of the opposition camp expressed that Islam could provide the basis for articulation of values such autonomy, freedom, and Islamic-republicanism – values expressed in the most celebrated slogan of the 1979 Revolution – she nonetheless expressed doubts about the political possibility of Islamic claims upon the State today. [1]  Her concerns reflect the conditions of instrumentalization of religion. To the extent that such values, or articulation of rights, for example, are not based on traditionally liberal economic relations, religious articulation of such values have acquired significance in Iranian modern history. Furthermore, understanding political articulation of Shia Islam is significant because despite all the secular and secularizing features of the Islamic Republic, which are characteristic of the disciplinary regimes of modern nation-states, IR’s claim to sovereignty rests on a non-secular, theological basis. Dominant understanding of sovereignty and secularism, driven from history of Christian secularization that reconcile sovereignty of the modern State with doctrine of secularism by making religion a private affair, are inadequate to understand – and counter – sovereignty of the Iranian State. In the absence of economic basis for political rights, such as those articulated within liberal-democratic frameworks, it appears that secularist political claims upon the State in Iran rest on unstable grounds.

I just got another text. This time from Nike: a 30% Off Sale just started. I don’t think there is an Iranian do-not-text list –yet.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war (1988) brought about what is known as the “Reconstruction Era” under the presidency of the Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. By then, the left leaning Islamists, including Mousavi who had centrally planned the economic and military affairs of the State since the inception of the IR appeared stale. During this time, marked by collusion of Iran’s neighbors with the US and European powers on the one hand, and Khomeni and his allies on the other, the structures and direction of the emerging regime was solidified and alternative visions of the Revolution, including those of the independent and the secular left, were successfully and violently eliminated by the State. The monotony which was solidified by this political silence imposed by the
war still haunts and immobilizes Iranian politics.
The Green Movement today, for example, suffers from the absence of analytical and political force of the left that was eliminated during this time. Moreover, the emerging articulation of the Revolution and narrative of the war, as well as what was to constitute “Islam”, were accounts only subservient to the Islamic Republic. Alternative narratives, which are necessary for cultural and political identification and mobilization, have been severely limited; it is as if masses of Iranians who do not identify with the regime are denied their history and a basis for social and political existence.

The limited project of liberalization, under the title of “privatization” which has been unfolding since the “Reconstruction Era” continues to be unchallenged and under-theorized. With the elimination of the left’s ability to articulate—and resist—the unfolding domestic privatization within a global framework of imperial capitalism, space for critical analysis of the State was also severely limited. The State reliance on oil revenues has been the basis for its political unaccountability and elimination of all critical political and economic institutions and organizations. Not surprisingly, and symptomatic to rentier States, this liberal economic trend, including privatization of government services, and a focus on short-term investment and heavy imports of manufactured goods, has been limited to particular political circles and is marked by a high degree of corruption. During Rafsanjani, privatization of government service started by encouraging government officials to become investors and business owners in the emerging private sector. Government officials’ control of government contracts has been a mark of the privatization trend ever since its inception.  Even though the ensuing corruption has been the basis of claims of the two later governments, including Ahmadinejad who successfully ran against the corrupt legacy of Rafsanjani’s period, based on the same economical foundation, the system continues to reproduce itself. Challenging the one group of political economic elite, Ahmadinejad has economically and politically mobilized the State security apparatus during his presidency. Today, the security apparatus is deeply involved in economic and political activity. High ranking members of the armed forces frequently assume otherwise civil positions within the regime. Despite political criticism of such militarization of economic and civil affairs, the absence of the intellectual and political force of the left, leaves this state of the affairs conceptually and structurally unchallenged. In the absence of resistance to this singular economic paradigm, control over capital accumulation and distribution passes hands among different powerful actors but remains fundamentally unchallenged.

It is true that the three post war government of Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad have had different allegiances and constituencies and significant differences. For example, despite the political suppression of the last two years, the “Reform Era’s” focuses on civil rights and political and social freedoms on the one hand and normalization of foreign relations on the other, has had significant and lasting impact on the Iranian political discourse. The demands and ideals of the Green Movement are unimaginable without the legacy of the “unsuccessful” reforms. Alternatively, the threat of foreign intervention during the first years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency and the mismanagement of the country’s rightful claim to nuclear energy are unimaginable within the two earlier governments. Furthermore, the current militarization of Iranian economy and politics might structurally alter the system. However, close attention to these changes as well as articulation of resistance to enduring historical and economic trends are severely limited in contemporary political landscape. Such a limitation is manifested in the absence of clear political-economical orientation of the Green Movement. To say this is not to oversee the achievement of the emergence of the 2009 mobilization that subsumed political and economical differences in its oppositional stance against the government. It is, however, to pay attention to the limitation of a movement that is articulated in purely reactive terms. If the Green Movement is to address the economic disparities which are the target of Ahmadinejad’s deceptive rhetoric, it needs to be able to address the plight of masses of poor Iranians and articulate a political-economical vision of its own.

The picture that emerges from this description of Iranian political landscape and the challenges of the Green Movement is a pessimistic one. History, it appears, continues to engender and crush aspirations and hopes of generations of Iranians. In the space of betrayal of the Revolution, revolution is easy to betray. Where loss, sacrifice and national mobilization become the instrument of State making and political domination, struggle too, is easy to betray. Contemporary Iranian political life, stuck within conserving and calculative cacophony of global capitalism, empire, and its reactionary and repressive local compliment, acquires a melancholic, still, quality. However, it is the confrontation with this political and existential suspension that constitutes the significance of June 2009 mass mobilization. With a simple claim to their vote, ordinary Iranians disrupted this suspension and claimed their social and political existence. In doing so, they have enabled the emergence of alternative accounts of their history and engendered a multi-faceted social movement that has been able to address long lasting divisions brought about by the divisive and traumatic history of the Islamic Republic.  Addressing the shortcomings that I have recounted earlier, particularly the plight of economically disenfranchised masses is only possible by inhabiting the lively space of such a movement.

It is not easy to remain faithful to the disruptive quality constitutive of the Green Movement – and beyond Iran, of the “Arab Spring” – when ordinary citizens begin to experience imprisonment, pain, torture, and death. In our rush to celebrate the achievements and prospects of such movements or to offer an analysis, we betray coming to terms with the singularity of the confrontation with pain and destruction as well as the practices and desires animated in such a confrontation. Shortsighted celebration of the self-serving individual, endemic to liberal and liberal-democratic articulations, is incapable of reckoning such queer feelings and desires constitutive of modern subjectivity. Secularist sensibilities prevent a coming to terms with imaginative and affective practices that are animated across the resistance movements in the Middle East today.  It is also not easy to accept that the Green Movement and alike themselves emerge and cohere by the way of instrumentalization of the actions of ordinary individuals toward destruction. In order to remain faithful to this constitutive quality and thus to the possibility of a movement, however, it is imperative to bear witness to these acts in their singularity. It is this singularity that expresses rejection of a suspended life that appears historical in the modern Middle East. In order to understand the emergence of this singularity, we need to reckon with the historical particularities of the Green Movement—their political and theological imaginary as well as their affective and bodily sensibilities.

Before singular actions of ordinary Iranians and citizens across the Middle East are instrumentalized in the name of “democracy” or “human rights”, they are a confrontation with a falsified life saturated and bored with cliché.  If such ideals, flags of imperial ventures and neocolonial wars, are to acquire any meaning beyond their instrumental renditions, it is in the singularity of actions that resist reduction to any calculus, even that of democratic, human rights, movements. Reckoning with this singularity requires those looking from the outside to come to terms with limits of their understanding and imagination – and thus engage in an act of imagining themselves. To bear witness to transformation expressed in the Green Movement and other movements in the Middle East requires a transformation of vision. To understand liberation as articulated in these movements we need to reckon with the prophetic gesture that unphased by death and destruction engenders an image of life and community beyond instrumentalization. Inhabiting the articulation of life and a community at the margins of death, although not easy, appears as the only space from which a new departure can emerge. However pessimistic of this departure, this is the call of many in Iran and across the Middle East who remind us of a life worthy of its name.


[1] Interview with the author.