Iran: Freedom-Lovers Win a Round
Iran: Freedom-Lovers Win a Round
As the uprising in Iran enters its fourth week speculation about its future is rife.
Participants insist that they are on the path to victory, achieving regime change. They cite a number of reasons.
To start with this is the first time that a national uprising isn’t about any particular grievance that could be rectified by the regime; what is at stake is total rejection of a system.
Next, there is the fact that the regime has been unable to regain control of the public space with the speed and efficiency it did on other occasions since 1979.
Adversaries of the uprising, regime apologists or those concerned about socio-political disintegration believe that though the massive rejection of the regime by so many Iranians, if not the majority, is bound to cause permanent damage to it, straight regime change is not yet in the cards.
To back their analysis they, too, offer arguments.
To start with, despite losses in its support base, both in the better-off strata and the mass of the poor, the regime still manages to tempt remaining supporters with a mixture of bribes, in the form of raises in public sector salaries, private sector wages, pensions and subsidies
The regime has also started a background music about a post-Khamenei future with the subtext that the demise of the octogenarian "Supreme Guide" would offer opportunities for long-overdue reforms.
Finally, like all scoundrels who wrap themselves in patriotic colors, the regime is manipulating the bogey of secessionism.
A closer look at what has happened in the past month, however, may offer a different vista on what is a crucial moment in Iran’s checkered contemporary history.
What we witnessed in those weeks, and continue to witness, is a gigantic clash between a vertical power structure and a horizontal popular movement.
In the vertical power structure, all individual or group positions are determined by their distance from the top of the pyramid which, in the Islamic Republic, is the "House of the Leader" (Beit-e-Rahbar), the real power-house that employs over 11,000 people under the "Supreme Guide".
It is there that all key civilian, military, academic, cultural, media, business and theological functionaries are picked and appointed. It is also there that all major and medium decisions are made and perks and favors are distributed.
Based on terror and greed, vertical power has the advantage of acting quickly and harmoniously in advancing its goals and crushing opponents.
However, vertical power also has its Achilles’ heel. It is enough that one level of the pyramid becomes shaky for the rest of it to feel unstable.
Worse still, vertical power could find itself challenged by a horizontal society in a state of rebellion as it is happening in Iran now.
Since 1979, the Khomeinist regime, a vertical power, has faced equally oppositions with vertical leadership structures and demands, making it easier to calm or crush them.
That kind of opposition could be weakened by vilifying or even murdering its leaders.
During the past 43 years, the Islamic Republic has assassinated 117 leaders of many different groups abroad and executed countless others inside Iran.
Dealing with a vertical opposition, the regime could also offer concessions or dangle the carrot of "negotiations" as it did with Kurdish autonomists before murdering their leaders in Vienna and Berlin.
Another disadvantage of a vertical opposition is that it brings ideological political and even personal grudges, jealousies and ambitions to the fore, thus weakening the whole.
When the current uprising started, the "House of the Leader" believed that it was facing another vertical opposition that could be bullied, bribed or browbeaten into submission. It tried to sow dissension by singling out a host of known figures among exile activists or even semi-detached former officials and apologists of the regime as leaders of the uprising.
Soon, however, it became clear that the current uprising has a horizontal structure emanating from its spontaneous nature. But it was not until two weeks had passed that the brigadier-general in charge of Islamic Security Hussein Ashtari noted that "this thing has numerous field leaders." Even the arrest of almost 2,000 people didn’t succeed in calming things.
Unable to understand what was going on, vertical power played its classical tune.
As usual the "Supreme Guide" remained in purdah to reappear once the uprising was crushed as quickly as he hoped. This time that didn’t happen. Khamenei’s silence for 16 days meant that vertical power couldn’t use the advantages if verticality, that is to say speedy decision-making and quick action.
The various parts if the repressive machine didn’t know what do. In the city of Sari, for example, they arrested 786 people in one day before they realized they had nowhere to keep them.
In Zahedan, Islamic Security used live bullets, claiming over 100 lives.
In Bushehr, the same security allowed protesters to occupy official buildings.
In Khuzestan, the governor ordered a closure if schools ostensibly because of dust-storms, but to prevent protests.
A nervous commander in Tehran sent a heavily armed unit to Bandar Abbas to quell protests in the island of Qishm. But by the time it arrived Qishm was quiet and gunmen went shopping.
Horizontality helped the protesters in several ways.
They could quickly move from one neighborhood to another in an endless hide-and-seek with Islamic Security that was hampered by moving around and parking their armored cars and motorcycles.
In terms of rhythm and tempo, vertical power was at a disadvantage dealing with a horizontal society. It was as if the picture had become too big for its frame.
Unlike supporters of the regime mostly of older generations, who gain self-esteem from bestowed but easily withdrawable privilege, the mostly young activists of horizontal society, regard themselves as being "somebody" even if only because they have the mandatory 5,000 followers on the Facebook. They want to be subjects in their own life-story, not objects in someone else’s dystopian dream.
Are we getting close to the crux of the matter?
The Khomeinist system was exposed as a colossus with a foot of clay.
History shows that horizontal movements could win tactical victories, but might not achieve strategic victory without adopting a measure of verticality that is to say developing a central leadership structure and the broad outline of a political project.
In 1848 horizontal revolutionary movements tactically won across Western Europe but strategic victory went to old reactionary forces.
In 1917 horizontal movement toppled the Tsarist Empire yet strategic victory didn’t go to Kerensky, but to Lenin who offered the verticality needed at the time.
More recently the "Arab Spring" toppled vertical power structures but ended up with their return in different ways.
Iranian freedom-lovers have won a decisive round victory, but much remains to be done before they secure final victory.