The American attention span for foreign crises is notoriously short. In the two weeks since Iran’s disputed election and the ensuing protests and violence, Michael Jackson died, Sarah Palin resigned, and news from Iran slipped below the fold and into the inside pages of most daily newspapers.
In this case, however, American editors and readers are not solely to blame. The Iranian authorities had an interest in making this story disappear, and they have done a very effective job. They expelled all foreign reporters, imprisoned most active local ones (according to Reporters Without Borders, forty-one Iranian journalists have been imprisoned since June 12th), and let local stringers for foreign media organizations know that their options included prison, silence, and exile. The inner circles of the opposition candidates, and the independent analysts and civil-society leaders who aggregate and interpret information for the press, are also in prison, or, at the very least, unable to communicate freely by e-mail or phone. Very few unofficial sources of information remain accessible—mainly anonymous, frightened informants on the ground.
The less we hear from Iran, the easier it is to presume that the regime’s strong-arm tactics have succeeded in putting down the protest movement. But the silence we hear is only our own. The protest movement that exploded into Iran’s streets in June was not a momentary flash of anger. It would not have been so heart-stopping if it were. Rather, for the segment of the populace engaged in the protests, it was the culmination of decades of frustrated hopes and indignities. Among the protesters were those who had placed their trust in the reform movement, which had promised evolutionary change through legal means; these people were already bitterly disappointed by the end of the Khatami years, in 2005, and had, with some difficulty, mustered the will and the optimism to participate in the electoral process once again. What propelled them to the streets was the long, slow burn of accumulated grievance, and there is little reason to believe that their fury has so swiftly expended itself.
Iran’s broad middle class has entered into open revolt against its government. The reformists, who once sought to triangulate between these forces and the theocracy, have by and large chosen the side of the protesters. This is a confrontation to be measured not in days but in months, or even years. Among analysts of Iran, debates rage over the relative demographic, political, and economic strength of the opposition coalition. We’ll know it by its failure or its success, and not in the immediate short term.
One fascinating question to emerge in the past two weeks is whether the clergy sides with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or with the leading opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi. Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri has issued a fatwa that essentially dismisses Khamenei as the country’s Supreme Leader, on the ground that an unjust leader has no legitimacy. Ayatollah Yusuf Saneei has condemned the attacking of protesters as a sin, and Ayatollah Bayat Zanjani has issued a fatwa against coöperating with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. Then, too, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom Seminary declared the election illegitimate.
But Montazeri, who was supposed to succeed the leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, until he issued an open letter condemning the mass murder of political prisoners in 1988, has been in more or less frank opposition to Khamenei for decades. He has endured house arrest in the upper floor of his home for six years; he has repeatedly denounced Ahmadinejad’s nuclear and even economic policies; he was one of very few public figures to support the student protesters who were beaten and put down in 1999; and he has even defended the rights of Iran’s most persecuted minority, the Bahai. Saneei, too, has long held positions far more progressive than those of the ruling establishment, and the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom Seminary, which was founded to support former President Mohammad Khatami, consists largely of mid-ranking clerics.
Mehdi Khalaji, an analyst at the Washington Institute who trained as a cleric for fourteen years in Qom, is confident that the clerical establishment supports Khamenei, and that those who dissent are neither politically powerful nor influential within the ulema itself. The silence of the top conservative ayatollahs, he suggests, should be read not as dissent but as approval. After all, the clerical establishment depends on the Islamic Republic for its very existence, financially and otherwise.
What may be most interesting in all of this, for the outside observer, is the illustration of a more diverse Iranian religious establishment than we often credit. In fact, Qom has long housed reformist and independent strains of religious thought. But these voices have been increasingly marginalized. Back in 2007, when I was researching the rise of the most hard-core fundamentalists in Qom, the reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar told me that such clerics had become increasingly powerful “because they stop every independent voice and current in Qom seminary or Najaf seminary, every city. So we have many clergies, many mujtaheds who are now silent because they cannot do anything. When they are not active in the society, it is obvious that these fundamentalists increase their power, and they have a lot of opportunities.”
One question raised by recent events is whether the conflict has driven a consequential wedge between the part of the clergy that wields power and those who see the clergy as independent—and, as at previous points in Iranian history, as a defender of the people against the excesses of autocrats. Clerics like Montazeri and Saneei may not wield much political power, but their moral authority and spiritual following are large, and probably growing.
Irancove @ July 17, 2009