Friday, June 19, 2009

Regime Change in Iran?

Will street protests topple the Iranian theocracy? Probably not, according to most informed observers. It is even unlikely that the clerical authorities will reverse the results of the fixed election that started the protests going. The reason why even that much democracy is unlikely is the same as why genuine regime change is – because there is no political force in Iran today capable of leading it. The contestants for power in the last election were all, by design, theocrats themselves; none of them – Mir-Hossein Mousavi, least of all –have any quarrel with the regime in place. And there are no other political forces or charismatic leaders outside the electoral arena for the Iranian masses to rally around. The ruling clerisy is apparently divided, even at its highest levels, but it remains united in wanting to maintain its power. Thus the prospects for change are bleak.

There is hope, however – just not very much. Even in a theocracy, the people, once mobilized and energized, can change conditions fundamentally. In this instance, it seems that they are mobilized only by disgust with the status quo; not with a positive vision of a radically better alternative. That too impedes regime change. But, alas, in Iran as wherever else Abrahamic religions flourish, acquiescence is among the wages of “faith.” The Divinity has a way of seeing to it that the center holds. But illusions are not invincible. So long as the people, the demos, remain politically active, nothing is entirely out of the question.

This is why the political struggle we are witnessing in Iran is an inspiration; notwithstanding the sorry fact that it is, for the time being and, very likely, for the foreseeable future, a struggle among reactionary theocrats. Too bad that, in this respect, Americans are so un-Iranian! We surely have as much reason for disgust as the people now on the streets in Iran. But eight years of the Cheney/Bush torture regime couldn’t even produce a militant anti-war movement. Now, with Obamamania still flourishing despite all the betrayals of “change we can believe in,” the people are even farther from power – not just from seizing it, which is out of the question in the Home of the Brave, but even from affecting its operation significantly.

Until a few days ago, the punditocracy in this country was confident that the demonstrations in Iran would either wither away after a few days or be crushed – Tienanmin style. They expected a replay of the crackdown on the massive student demonstrations of 1999. But, unlike ten years ago, what is happening now seems to involve all sectors of the population, not just students; and it seems to be going on in many, if not all, parts of the country, not just in Tehran and other large cities. It is therefore not clear that a Tienanmin reaction is even possible.

But this doesn’t mean that the people are bound to win. Iran’s theocrats are wily – like the best bourgeois politicians. They seem to have assimilated the lesson of Charles DeGaulle in 1968. DeGaulle was the consummate counter-revolutionary strategist. He realized that to win, he had to remain aloof, doing as little as possible to encourage the popular movement, while insuring behind the scenes that the military and the rest of the state’s repressive apparatus would remain loyal to the regime. Then, without a political leadership willing and able to transform the regime fundamentally, popular unrest would eventually subside to a degree that “the forces of order” would be able safely to reestablish control. DeGaulle’s strategy worked -- thanks mainly to the debility of the French Communist Party and the impotence of the far Left. The Iranian people today don’t have even that much going for them; how could they after living for thirty years in the grip of retrograde clerics!

Nevertheless, what is happening now is bound to change the political atmosphere in Iran and the world, especially if Ahmadinejad’s electoral “victory” stands. Thanks to the past week’s events, and to events to follow, the Iranian government will have had the wind taken out of its sails. That’s good news for Obama, who has so far played his cards wisely. At least in this matter, he has resisted the temptation to go “bipartisan” – by compromising with bellicose neocons and other self-styled “Wilsonians.” It’s also bad news for Netanyahu and the Israeli Right (and “center” and “moderate” “left”). No doubt, in Jerusalem’s darkest recesses, they are fretting mightily over the prospect of losing an “existential threat.” Should it come to that, expect them to conjure up what they will call “anti-Semitism” wherever and whenever they can. If they’re to keep on going as they are, they can’t do without it.

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