The Descent into Violence: Critique and Crisis in Contemporary Iran

Milad Odabaei

On 15 November 2019, after a surprise announcement on Iranian state television that there would be a three-fold increase in fuel prices, a series of protests emerged across several cities. The Islamic Republic responded in part with an unprecedented campaign to control information and communication. It temporarily shut-down the internet and intensified its control of domestic and international media. As a result, all facts about the event remain in question and subject to appropriation by the Iranian state and its domestic and international critics.

In a rare recognition of the scope of the challenge the protests posed, a high-ranking military official acknowledged that they were more widespread than both the last round of nationwide protests in 2017–18 and in the 2009 Green Movement. The little we know from the state response confirms this assessment and demonstrates an unprecedented campaign of violence against protesters. Amnesty International reports that the death toll is at least 304. The numbers of those injured and arrested are in the thousands.

Notwithstanding current limitations on information, preliminary studies have attributed the protests to the confluence of economic grievances with other sociopolitical trends such as popular dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic’s electoral politics, highlighting also the role of gender and age in the public expressions of discontent. Vocal voices on the left, however, have narrowly drawn on the analytics of “neoliberalism” and “class” in conceptualizing the protests and the state’s violent response. In the name of international solidarity and a common future across geopolitical divides, they have abstracted the protests from their concrete unfolding by way of the secular language of a cosmopolitan left. This use of critical discourses vis-à-vis Iran, however, is provincial, eliding the historical specificities of Iranian politics and the descent into violence therein. At the time of the 1979 Revolution, leftist and anti-imperialist activists were surprised by the political force of the Islamic tradition and the popular authority of the Shi’i clerics. Four decades after the Revolution, contemporary left and liberal voices are reenacting a similar shortsightedness, paying little to no attention to the specific entanglements of Islam and Iranian politics.

Some commentators correctly identify the unfolding of a “crisis of representation.” However, they narrowly construct this crisis by articulating it as a gap between the socioeconomic aspiration of the working classes and the discourse of a neoliberal elite. In so doing, left critics respond to neoliberal fantasies of a liberated global economy with their own fantasies of emancipation across spheres of historical and political difference. In so far as the ongoing crisis of representation is specific to Iran and the entanglement of Islam and national politics, it eludes their analyses. Indeed, taking for granted the secular categories of political economy and the nation-state, including “the people,” “elite,” and “neoliberalism,” leftist analyses of the events do not evade, but enact, the crisis.

A more fundamental crisis of representation with a long and unique history in modern Iran is underway. This crisis concerns the legibility of the Islamic tradition and its antinomies vis-à-vis the development of law and statecraft in modern Iran. As a manifestation of this crisis, the present protests bear witness to the limitations of the discourses of Islamic revolution and reform of the last four decades. Specifically, the protests point to the exhaustion of the schism between “the reformists” and “hardliners,” the two factions that came to dominate politics after the Revolution and the war with Iraq (1980-88). While the politics of reform is withering away, no political discourse is readily available to mediate between longstanding sociopolitical aspirations of the population and the theatre of national politics. It is unclear if anything but violence can hold together the politics of the Islamic Republic in this political conjuncture.

Attending to the historical significance of the current protests makes clear the limitations of critical methods of analyses that are beholden to the ruptures and transformations that constitute European secularization and the emergence of left and liberal perspectives on politics therein. However critical, such perspectives assume and perpetuate the reconciliation of religious and political authority paradigmatic of the modern European form of the nation-state, its secular ideational and ideological apparatus, and its colonial global expansions. As a result, they are unable to relate to the specificity of Islam and national politics in Iran and illuminate its ongoing crisis of representation. That the discourse around the protests by the Iranian state and its critics is predominantly blind to the specific historical nature of the crisis underway is symptomatically captured in the present descent into violence.

Revolution and Reform: A Game Over

The Islamic Republic emerged in large part by monopolizing power during the tumultuous aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. During the eight years of war with Iraq, immediately following the Revolution, a small group of Islamic revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini took control of national politics through the violent exclusion of competing religious and political visions. The end of the war and the emergence of relative stability permitted a discourse of economic development and political dissent but only among a small group of insiders. The limited instances of political competition occurred as a debate on the significance and the future of the Islamic Revolution and the idea of a representative Islamic government. Under the leadership of Mohammad Khatami, a “reformist” faction emerged with the aim of reviving the Revolution’s democratic aspirations and of realizing what the reformists imagined as a democratic Islamic government. Those who championed the status quo as the manifestation of Islam’s revolutionary ideals became known as “hardliners.” 

For the three decades following the war, reformists and hardliners monopolized conversations over the fate of the Revolution. They set the agenda for Iran’s domestic and international policies, along the way attributing the state’s shortcomings to one another and to foreign enemies. The struggle between the two factions did not represent the diverse socioeconomic, religious, or political aspirations of the population. It nonetheless captured popular attention and produced a discourse of national politics. The reformists who challenged the status quo were able to mobilize the electorate, however limited the scope of electoral options may have been.

The politics of reform reached a turning point in 2009. Critical of the direction of the Islamic Republic, Mir Hussein Mousavi, a former Islamic revolutionary and the prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War, ran against incumbent Mahmood Ahmadinejad. In his ascent to his first term in office, Ahmadinejad had successfully characterized the reformists as out-of-touch with the grave socioeconomic condition of the population and too narrowly focused on civil and political rights and recognitions. His populist campaign against reformists had drawn the support of hardliners and further exacerbated the post-revolutionary schism of the Islamic Republic. When the state announced Ahmadinejad as the winner in 2009, Mousavi and fellow dissenting candidate Mehdi Karroubi rejected the results and took to the streets along with their supporters. What came to be known as the Green Movement was the most significant challenge to the politics of the Islamic Republic until then. While gaining widespread support, the Movement was importantly enabled and cultivated by insiders of the Islamic Republic, Mousavi and Karroubi, and their reformist campaigns.

The Green Movement was crushed by violence. Mousavi and Karroubi were put under a state of house arrest that continues to this day. Ahmadinejad served a second term. Emboldened, he disregarded domestic and international hierarchies of power and became a liability for his establishment supporters. This created space for a political campaign predicated on reconciliation between reformists and hardliners. Hassan Rouhani assumed the office of the presidency under these circumstances. His presidential run drew national support to mitigate domestic and international schisms and ward off violence through “moderation.”

Now in its second term, Rouhani’s presidential effort is failing disastrously. Domestically, he has failed to undo the marginalization of reformists and manage the hardliner’s sociopolitical agenda. He has also failed to deliver on economic promises that were narrowly anchored on the lifting of international sanctions and Iran’s (re)integration into the global political economy. Politically obsolete, today the moderate president finds himself complicit in the most violent crackdown on political protests in the history of the Islamic Republic. His response to the protests is not entirely unlike that of the hardliners. In the face of popular discontent and foreign adversity, the space of domestic disputation is fast shrinking and insiders are once again moving toward a unified front.

The rejection of the constitutive ‘game’ of post-revolutionary politics… expresses the reality that the vocabularies and grammars of limited political representation and the state distribution of wealth have exhausted themselves.

But in the 2017-2018 protests, when Iranians took to the streets of various cities to protest socioeconomic conditions, they declared an end to the schism of post-revolutionary politics. They chanted “eslahtalab usulgara digar tamoom shod majara”(“reformists, hardliners, the game is over”). Their slogan, along with chants in favor of a return to the Pahlavi State deposed by the Revolution, announced the exhaustion of a schism that, however inadequately, had come to mediate the sociopolitical demands of the population and the theatre of national politics.

The rejection of the constitutive “game” of post-revolutionary politics by the protesters does not indicate a desire to return to despotism. Rather, it expresses the reality that the vocabularies and grammars of limited political representation and the state distribution of wealth have exhausted themselves. It recognizes the limits of the debates over Islamic revolution and reform as championed by Iranian politicians. While the two-party game is expiring, no new discourse is readily available to replace it. Consequently, the sociopolitical needs of a discontented population are untranslatable to the vocabularies and grammars of national politics. It is unclear if in this situation anything other than unmediated violence can maintain Iran’s political coherence. 

The Secular Politics of Recognition

The European struggles for, and perspectives on, political representation and emancipation are couched within the history of secularization and the emergence of liberal and secular paradigms of democratic politics. Secular, in this context, does not denote non-religious. Rather, it denotes the particular forms of and the relation between political and religious belonging that culminated in the formation of European nation-states. Secular politics, as well as the critical analyses of it, are beholden to the experiences and expectations that emerge in the longue durée of European developments and the modulations of Christianity therein. In a critique of the limits of political emancipation within the emerging liberal-democratic state form, the young Karl Marx was critically aware of the specifically Christian transcendence of religious difference that characterizes European secular politics. It is difficult to apply concepts such as “religion” and the “nation-state,” and a whole host of related concepts including “political economy,” all of which are central to debates about the constitution of European modernity, in order to make sense of Iran’s modern experience.

Yet the dominant discourse of left internationalism continues to rely on these very categories even if dismissively. “Religion,” like all that is solid, is thought to have melted into the air. “Islam” is imagined according to a liberal paradigm of religious pluralism as one religion among others. As such, “Islam” can only denote parochialism or sectarianism. As a “religion,” it is thought to have no possible relation to the genesis of universal paradigms of civil and political rights and recognitions or to the sphere we recognize as “the economy” and its specific ideologies. It can only be a personal belief at best, at worst, a placating illusion.

While mobilizing conceptions of geopolitical asymmetries, left internationalists dismiss the particularities of national belonging through a generic criticism of nationalism. They assume, but do not explain, the globalization of the nation-state form. As a result, the particular travails of national politics escape their analyses. Iranians, they claim, are protesting global neoliberalism just like their brothers and sisters in Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Hong Kong, and France. The particular historical experiences of these nations that include, for example, the colonial devastation of indigenous traditions in the Americas and the revolutionary invention of liberal and republican virtues in France, are occluded in their perspective on politics. Instead, the fate of specific protests is tied to that of global capitalism. In the hopes for a global revolution, left politics becomes more melancholic and apocalyptic, less strategic and cunning. Put otherwise, with the loss of historical specificity, also lost are the possibilities of tangible outcomes, negotiations, disputation, statecraft, and politics more generally.

The difficulty of thinking across spheres of historical and political difference lies in the perspectival nature of thinking and the geopolitics of translation. Secular representations of politics, economy, society and psychology through the concepts and methods of European human and social sciences do not merely describe but enact a particular form of historical experience. Twentieth-century Iranian voices of Islamic revolution and reform such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Ali Shariati, and Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as their contemporary interlocutors, have been questioning the representations of Iran in terms of modern European sciences. Their efforts have culminated in a “Cultural Revolution” (enghelab-e farhangi) and an ongoing project for the “Islamization” (Islami-sazi) and “vernacularization” (boomi-sazi) of the secular sciences of man and society. Distributed in a network that includes the Iranian academy, Shi’i seminaries, and private spaces of teaching and learning, they envision the creation of “Islamic human sciences” and “Islamic social sciences” that can enable a renewed Islamic politics. While these projects are sustained by the exclusionary force of the state, and while they often reproduce European categories and methods in an “Islamic” garb, they nonetheless bear witness to a historical consciousness of a gap between constitutive representations of Europe and Iran that often eludes dominant forms of left and liberal analyses.

Drawing attention to this gap, I am not suggesting that the Islamic politics of revolution and reform need to be taken at face-value as the counterpoint of European thought, as they have been by European critical theorists (Euben 1999; Buck-Morss 2003) and historically unattuned commentators on Iran. The task of critique vis-à-vis Iran is not to bring Islamic reformers and revolutionaries into the canon of European political thought. Nor is it to engage the practices and projects of revolutionaries and reformers at the sociological level to simply provincialize liberal and secular assumption of European politics. Such intellectual projects, and the forms of political solidarity they engender, are one-sided. They concede universality to the political-theological sources of European modernity as they appear in their secular transformations in the perspective of modern social theory, over and above that of other historical traditions. Instead, I am highlighting the limitation of any discourse that proceeds by extending the debates that constitute “Europe” onto other histories. A critical understanding of Iranian politics requires attention to the specific yet transnational conditions of the enactment of “Iran” and the failures of representation therein.

Translation as Critical Historiography

We live amid the simultaneity of distinct traditions, a simultaneity enabled in part through the circulation of capital and desire across borders of legibility as well as modern technologies of communication. In this context, secular European and Islamic politics cannot be conceptualized simply in terms of an opposition. Contemporary Islamic politics demonstrate a long history of the uptake and translation of European political vocabularies and aspirations. Partisans of Islamic politics share with secular leftists, and those who demand civil and political rights and recognition from the Islamic Republic, the translation of European vocabularies and models in their own self-fashioning. Modern Iran’s political history can be conceived as a contested terrain of translation, formed at the intersection of Islamic legal and philosophical discourses, Iranian literary and political traditions, and currents of European thinking. In this historiographic frame, an afterlife of European thinking animates Iranian politics, just as Islamic discourses are animated by Greek philosophy and European ones by the Islamic translation of Greek discourses. The nature of the ongoing crisis of representation lies in the continuities, breaks, and the discordant simultaneities of these traditions that, in translation, produce Iran as a space of experience and a horizon of expectation.

A central facet of the ongoing crisis resides in the present discords of the Islamic tradition and the formulation of national politics in the very formulation of the “Islamic Republic.” The nineteenth century witnessed the exhaustion of despotism and subsequent changes in the relationship between the transnational Shi’i clerical establishment and the Royal Court in Iran, the sheikhs and shahs. Popular discontent and attempts at religious and political renewal culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Novel clerical debates surrounding the Revolution attempted to carve out a space for the legal and the institutional authority of the modern state outside the revealed authority of the Islamic tradition, to engender what can be described as a “limited Islamic government.”

The subsequent failures of constitutionalism, hand-in-hand with the twentieth century interpellation of Iran into the global political economy, suspended the development of a new paradigm for religious and political representation. Instead, in the decades leading to the Revolution, Islam was refashioned as an anti-Western discourse and emerged as a national weapon for the domestic and international battles of revolutionary Iran. In contrast to clerical attempts to disentangle the political authority of the state and the authority of the Shi’i clerics at the time of the Constitutional Revolution, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic came to conflate religious and political authority. The institutionalization of Ayatollah Khomeini’s authority as “the guardian jurist” (vali-ye faqih) in the Islamic Republic invested one cleric with unprecedented political authority over clerics of similar ranks. In so doing, it not only limited the distribution of democratic representation, but also institutionalized a new political hierarchy into the folds of clerical authority and shrunk the space of debate and disputation within Shi’i traditions.

The Iran-Iraq war that followed the Revolution deflected national attention from the Islamic Republic’s religious and political limitations vis-à-vis earlier theories of limited Islamic government or other political possibilities. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the war became an instrument of state-making. The post-war “game” between the reformists and conservatives can be seen as an attempt to address the unsettled relation between religious authority and political representation. The exhaustion of this game is a return to the scene of a crisis of representation, a crisis whose history predates the Islamic Revolution as far back as the nineteenth century. Prior to the Revolution, the authority of Shi’i clerics, including that of Ayatollah Khomeini himself, posed a counterpoint to the unpopular authority of the monarch. It could be politicized in the service of a popular revolt. Today, the clerical establishment is radically silent in the face of the suppression of popular resistance by Iran’s clerical statesmen. The clerics are still politicized. This time, however, their politics increasingly stand against a predominantly unrepresented population.

The Contractions of International Relations

The deterioration of Iran’s domestic politics and the one-sidedness of critical responses coincide with a dangerous moment in regional and global political trends, leaving little hope for the renewal of political discourse. After a disastrous war with Iraq, the United States is reeling from Iran’s central role in the post-war formation of Iraqi politics. Following an exceptional effort for a diplomatic resolution of hostilities by the Obama Administration, Donald Trump has restored and intensified the long-term American policy of pressure on Iran. Contemplating a regime change, the US actively supports the fringe Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Israel regularly attacks Iranian military assets in Syria. As the Iran Nuclear Deal collapses, dumfounded European signatories are unable to interfere with regional degeneration, a degeneration from negotiations and power-sharing to unmediated violence and war. The unprecedented attack on the Saudi oil fields, largely attributed to Iran and its proxies, reflects the gravity of the political situation.

The Islamic Republic has used international hostilities to crush domestic dissent and unify the nation in the past. In the context of post-revolutionary contestations over power, Ayatollah Khomeini used the war with Iraq, as well as US and European support for Iraq during the war, to declare his domestic critics allies of Iranian enemies and exclude them from the space of politics. A decade ago, during the Green Movement, the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei drew the attention of the nation to the rise of sectarianism in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan under American occupations and described dissidents as agents of a seditionist plot (fitna).

Today, the Islamic Republic uses the examples of Syria and Iraq in reference to real and phantasmic fears of sectarianism and civil war, and to justify its own domestic and international campaigns. The direct victims of this situation are of course not only the population of Iran, who are subjected to severe economic sanctions among other restrictions that will surely preempt their long-term aspirations for viable democratic politics. They are also the populations of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria whose livelihoods are caught in ongoing geopolitical struggles and whose political future lie in the stabilization of power and sovereignty in the region. The lack of stability will surely advance the ongoing trends of Islamic militancy and statelessness in the Middle East and their reverberation in terms of the Islamophobic and xenophobic politics of right-wing nationalism, military intervention, and inhospitality towards migrants in Europe and North America.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic is justifying its own use of violence by attributing the responsibility for the loss of life and the destruction of public and private property to the work of hooligans and thugs. In the state narrative, criminal types and agents of Iranian enemies have taken advantage of the unpopular hike in the price of gas to foment destruction and discord. Swiftly deflecting the sociopolitical grievances of its citizenry, it is identifying the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Israel as the true sources of unrest. The American role in destabilizing violence in states that challenge its hegemony (Iraq and Syria) and in material support of authoritarianism in states that support it (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) provides the Iranian state an expedient justification for the use of violence. It allows it to elide its inability to cohere as a representation of an Islamic politics and to attribute its ever-increasing use of violence to the work of “the enemies.” The convergence of domestic and international trends, and the gap between the Iranian crisis of representation and contemporary critical discourses, leaves little hope for lucidity or an exit. It also calls for humble, yet urgent critical attention.

Image: Iranians protesting the hike in fuel prices. Image from Fars News via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted on Jadaliyya December 16, 2109

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