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Talking about a revolution: What's really happening in Iran?

The Middle East has long been at the centre of international affairs due to the region's political, religious, strategic and economic importance.

The recent violent unrest in Iran, culminating so far in accusations of electoral fraud, mass protest and bloodshed, offers a revealing glimpse into a complex society at odds with itself, its Arab neighbours and the West since its Royal ruler, the Shah, was ousted in the 1979 popular uprising led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iran's domestic troubles have significance for the world because of its revolutionary legacy, hardline opposition to Israel and growing concern over its nuclear ambitions.

Dr Kamran Matin, an expert on Iranian politics who lectures in International Relations at the University of Sussex, is researching a book into the history and global significance of the Iranian revolution.

Here, Dr Matin considers some of the complexities of the Iranian crisis as he reflects on the events of the last few weeks: who are the opposing factions, what are they fighting about, why does it matter to us, what happens next? And can People Power Iranian-style really win the day?

Q. Does the continuing protest in Iran against hardliner President Ahamadinejad stand any chance of bringing about change?

The protest movement has already changed the political landscape of Iran. It has deepened the already existing rift within the ruling elite, radicalised the popular demands for social and democratic freedoms, and has severely undermined the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, which in the long-run may be the most important effect of these protests. But the occurrence of concrete change in the short run largely depends on two key interrelated factors: the size and continuation of the protests, and the tactics adopted by the 'reformist' leadership.

Q.  Is this people power, revolution or factional politics at work?

All of these are at work. The deepening of factional politics has opened a window of political opportunity for a large part of Iranian society to express their discontent with the social, political and economic status quo. And the more this popular discontent is suppressed, the more radical the demands of the people will become. And this can lead the movement towards adopting revolutionary, rather than reformist, slogans and demands, which go beyond the election result and challenge the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic. A shift in this direction can already be seen in popular slogans against the Supreme Leader Khamenei; something that was unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

Q.  Is religion, a generation clash or a class conflict at the heart of the crisis?

It has to do with all these factors. The Islamic Republic has, from its inception in 1979, had a fundamental tension within it between its religious (Islamic) and republican aspects. This tension has, on several occasions including the current unrest, burst into political crises in post-revolutionary Iran.

Iran's population is extremely young and highly educated. This creates a tremendous, albeit latent, political energy that if not properly channelled is bound to explode. Iranian youth seek a relaxation of various restrictions in public life, more job opportunities and greater participation in politics. Ahamadinejad's government has resolved none of these problems. In fact, the social restrictions were greatly reinforced and extended over the last few years while the problem of unemployment and a general sense of pessimism and hopelessness among the youth have been exacerbated.

Finally, even before the start of the current unrest, there were numerous instances of workers' protests against widespread and arbitrary lay-offs, low wages, often unpaid for months, lack of job security and appropriate insurance. If the workers get involved in the current protest movement in a nationwide and organised manner, this will have extremely important consequences for the movement and the regime. Let's not forget the general strike by the oil workers in 1979 was instrumental in toppling the Shah.

Q. Who is the Supreme Leader, and what are his politics? Why does he support Mr Ahmadinejad?

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was an associate of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s president from 1981 to 1989. At the time he was a middle-ranking cleric holding the title of ‘Hojjatol-Islam’, which is one rank below Ayatollah. The Iranian constitution stipulates that the Supreme Leader must be an Ayatollah and a ‘marja-e taqlid’ (source of emulation), which is a Shi'i institution. Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini the Assembly of Experts chose Khamenei as Supreme Leader despite his deficient theological credentials.

Ironically in appointing Khamenei as Supreme Leader the Assembly of Experts was persuaded by Ayatollah Rafsanjani a close aid to, and confidant of, Ayatollah Khomeini. It is widely believed that Rafsanjani thought that with a weak Supreme Leader such as Khamenei he could have held the real power. And indeed during his two terms as president from 1989 to 1997, Rafsanjani assumed enormous power and wealth. But Khamenei carefully utilised the constitutional power of Supreme Leader and gradually but systematically built up his own power-base, particularly among the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).

From 1997 onwards Khamenei has sought to undermine Rafsanjani in various ways and it is not accidental that during the recent presidential election campaign Rafsanjani and his family and supporters were the target of Ahmadinejad’s accusation of corruption, despite the fact that Rafsanjani is widely believed to have been the closest confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic. This could have not taken place without the approval of Khamenei.

Forced to compensate for his lack of religious authority, Khamenei, therefore, has increasingly come to rely on the IRGC. They in turn have used their links with Khamenei to dominate the Iranian economy and (under Ahamadinejad) politics. Many observers argue that what we are witnessing now is the unexpected outcome of a plan by this alliance to purge their rivals, especially but not only the reformists such as Mohammad Khatami (the reformist president, 1997-2005) and Mir Hossein Moussavi, from all positions of power and influence and solidify their monopoly over the state and economy. There are many reports that suggest that the IRGC and Khamenei already control one third of Iran's economy.

Q. Why, according to Khamenei, is the British Government evil?


Using the notion that Iran's problems are created by western powers, Britain in particular, has always been a weapon of choice for the Iranian statesmen in dealing with their opponents. For example the Shah also accused the BBC for inciting the revolution. Now, similar allegations are being made by the Iranian government. The reason is that in the past Britain has played a key role in supporting or bringing to power repressive rulers such as Reza Shah in 1921 and his son Mohammad Reza Shah in 1953. The Iranian government uses this history to discredit its opponents in the public eye by linking them with Britain.

More specifically, very recently the British government froze approximately $1.5 billion of Iran’s assets as part of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council in relation to Iran’s nuclear project. There are rumours that much of this sum was in bank accounts in the name of one of Khamenei’s son. Trying not to completely block the path of a rapprochement with the US, which is of much more strategic importance than relations with Britain, Iranian leaders have singled out Britain for their strongest condemnations.

Q. What are the policies of the opposition leaders?

Mir Hossein Moussavi, currently the main opposition leader, is considered to be a reformist belonging to a new stratum of public intellectuals in Iran widely known as 'modern religious intellectuals'. They try to provide a new reading of Islam more in line with the requirements of modern politics and society but still grounded in Islamic cosmology and ethics. For instance, in his campaign, Moussavi promised to abolish the so-called 'morality police' and introduce legislation that would secure equal rights for women in family, penal and inheritance law. These proposals won him a lot of support among the youth and women. Politically, Moussavi wants to reinforce the republican element in the Islamic republic, implement the social and political freedoms already stated in Iran's constitution but never fully implemented, and regenerate the economy via improved relations with the West.

So far, he has formulated all these demands with reference to the existing constitution. But the more radical reformists believe that the existing constitution is in fact the root of the problem and has to be revised. As the protests and violent reaction from the regime continue and popular demands are further radicalised, Moussavi's constitutional opposition is likely to become less tenable.

Q. How important is student power?

Students, and especially university students, have always played a key role in Iran's modern political history. Universities have often been the starting point for major protests and political movements and university students have supplied much of the leadership of revolutionary movements and organisations. Given the hugely expanded higher education system in Iran after the 1979 revolution, university students can and do play an important role in the current protest movement.

Q. What might happen next?

Hard to say. If Moussavi and other reformist leaders do not compromise, the popular movement shows little sign of exhaustion and can continue for some time. The longer the protests continue the less effective the suppression. In fact in all likelihoods it will increasingly backfire. But a sudden concession from the Supreme Leader is not impossible especially given the reports about a rift within the IRGC’s senior command regarding suppression of the protests. A conciliatory move by Khamenei would temporarily calm down the situation but is unlikely to resolve the crisis permanently.

Q. If the protest is ended, is that the end of opposition in Iran?

No. The end of the current protests won't necessarily be the end of popular demands for democratic change in Iran. Democratic demands will inevitably resurface again in the future and given the political taboos which this time have been broken, this is much more likely to happen sooner rather than later.

Q. What are the consequences of internal strife in Iran for the Western powers?

In the short term the Ahamdinejad government may resort to some military adventure in the region to divert attention from the internal crisis. A military manoeuvre has recently started in the Persian Gulf where there is a large concentration of US and French navy forces. Any conflict with the US can provide a pretext for much harsher suppression of the internal opposition. But in the long term both Ahamadinejad and Moussavi appear to be equally willing to negotiate and normalise relations with the US. But arguably the West would be more comfortable dealing with a reformist such as Moussavi.


Q. And how is the strife viewed in other Middle Eastern countries?

The governments and ruling elites in most Middle Eastern countries (except for Iran's regional allies such Syria and Lebanese Hizbollah) would be happy to see the back of Ahamdinejad. But at the same time they are also concerned about the way in which this seems to be happening, i.e., through popular pressure from below. Most of these countries are secular dictatorships with few genuinely democratic institutions and practices. Any political change achieved through popular mobilisation could inspire similar action in other Middle Eastern countries - something which worries their rulers.


Q. What role has new technology played in this story?

Modern communication technology such as satellite TV, internet and especially social networking web-sites such as Facebook and Twitter have played an incredibly important role in making the voice of the protesters heard around the world. The images of police brutality broadcast on TV screens around the globe have mobilised international public opinion in support of Iran’s protest movement. This in turn forces western governments to pressurise the Iranian regime to end the violence and respect popular demands. Facebook and Twitter web sites and blogs have also played a major role in coordination and organisation of the protests within Iran itself.


Notes for Editors


Dr Matin is available for interview. For further details, please contact the University of Sussex Press office.


Last updated: Friday, 10 July 2009