There is a phase in the early days of most popular uprisings when expectations soar far beyond any real chance for change in a regime.
So I keep wondering where to set the “real chance” marker when assessing the prospects for change resulting from this week’s dramatic protests on the streets of Iran.
News reports abound with evidence that the protests are growing in momentum and undermining the legitimacy of Iran’s current government.
Still, that “real chance” question keeps nagging.
So I asked some of our local Iranians to help sort through the realities and the prospects.
First an update on the latest developments.
In his sermon at Friday prayers today Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanded an end to street protests that have shaken the country since the disputed presidential election a week ago and said any bloodshed would be their leaders’ fault, Reuters reported.
Khamenei defended incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the rightful winner of the vote, denied any possibility it had been rigged and denounced what he called interference by foreign powers.
“The result of the election comes from the ballot box, not from the street,” the white-bearded cleric told huge crowds thronging Tehran University and surrounding streets for Friday prayers. “Today the Iranian nation needs calm.”
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Iranians and their supporters have scheduled a demonstration for 10 a.m. Sunday at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union.
Now for our reality check.
Khalil “Haji” Dokhanchi, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior:
“This is not a call for democracy. This is merely a challenge to the results of an election. . . . Many people who are protesting may have reform in mind but the more immediate idea is that people want to make sure their votes are counted. . . . Whether there is a bigger agenda is yet to be decided.”
It’s important to keep in mind that reform efforts have a dismal track record in Iran, he said.
“We had a reform candidate in the past, Mohammad Khatami. He was elected [president], and under his administration a lot of things were passed. However, given Iran’s political system, not only does Parliament have to pass this but the Guardian Council also has to pass certain things. And the Guardian Council eventually declared a lot of [Khatami’s reforms] as un-Islamic.”
That is not to say Dokhanchi expects Iran to emerge unchanged from this crisis.
“For the last 30 years we have had elected officials and a Supreme Leader. Usually the Supreme Leader was the final arbiter. What we are seeing now, for the first time, is that people are actually openly questioning the Supreme Leader. Whatever the result of this particular episode may be, the position he used to dominate is no longer as sacred. . . . By going into the streets the people have said the voice of the Supreme Leader is no longer the voice they will abide by.
“Whatever happens, this is going to have long term implications for political development in Iran and for its political institutions. I don’t think the existing structure is going to be able to function. You may oppress the people and maintain the system for a little bit more but I think the cracks are beginning to appear. And these are fundamental issues. They are not small details.”
Cyrus Bina, professor of economics and management at the University of Minnesota Morris:
Comparisons some people are making with the Chinese government’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 are not apt, Bina said.
“The question here — of tampering with results of the election — triggered something which has been accumulating since years ago, particularly 10 years ago when there was a student uprising in Iran.
In Iran today, he said, protestors are looking to hold their government accountable, not to overthrow it.
“The demand of the people is that this regime operates based on their own principles…. The people generally are looking forward to following the constitution of the Islamic republic even though so many people are defiant against it. This regime has violated time and again its own constitution. That’s very important. This is the key and this is different from what the situation in China was many years ago.”
Economics are another triggering factor in this uprising, he said, and that is one area where change could be forced by popular protest without rocking the government as a whole. So could the tone of Iran’s approach to the world.
“The economy was grossly mismanaged by Ahmadinejad and his entourage. Secondly, from a standpoint of foreign policy, he has been engaging in rhetoric without substance from the very beginning. . . . His political base mostly comes from the rural areas, where people are less educated, less worldly, more conservative. . . . So the simplistic rhetoric would work on them. He used it and he embarrassed the entire regime.”
Amirhossein Kiani, University of Minnesota computer science student:
“Almost none of the students who go back and forth to Iran are expecting a revolution or a major change in the government. . . . We are sure that there has been fraud in the election, so at least a re-election should happen.
“We don’t want other governments to interfere with this process. What we want is for them to clearly say they do not recognize Ahmadinejad as president.”
They also want an end to the violence, he said. There is ample anecdotal evidence that protesters have been killed, but their numbers are not easy to verify with the government cracking down on the flow of information.
“We are extremely concerned about government attacks on students and unarmed people. Students have always been an influential part of political movements in Iran from the revolution to now. . . . They are the bright minds of our future.”
The religious leaders have the power to step in and stop violence against students, he said. And they should do so.
Iraj Bashiri, University of Minnesota professor specializing in Islamic intellectual history:
One mystery behind this week’s mass demonstrations is the question of is who is coordinating them. Some suspect it may be prominent clerics, The New York Times reported.
“The clerics and their thousands of pupils, concentrated in the holy city of Qum, are a generally conservative lot who have been known to jump into the political fray en masse only when a clear winner starts to emerge,” the Times said. “In the past when clerics weighed in, however, they tended to dominate, with the creation of the Islamic republic in 1979 the prime example.”
So much of the suspense over Iran’s next steps rides on what various clerics will do.
There are deep historical roots for the clerics’ roles in Iran’s governmental institutions. But there also is precedence for diminishing that role. Understanding the history is critical to assessing the potential for change now.
So I asked Bashiri to help explain.
“In Islam, religion and politics are not separate. Furthermore, the clerics have a long-standing claim to the rulership of Iran.”
One reason observers are watching Qum now is that its political signals have been important over the centuries, he said.
“Qum is one of the two important holy places in Iran. Meshed is the other. Almost all the clerics who are significant have attended the theological centers in Qum or are teachers there. The Iranian public has always looked to Qum for guidance in major crises such as the one today.”
The position of the supreme leader as it stands today is a modern innovation, created in connection with the 1979 revolution. However the idea that a religious leader should rule alongside an elected official is not new, Bashiri said.
“In Shi’ite Islam, after the death of the Prophet [AD 632], the rulership of the community is deemed to be in the House of the Prophet.”
But Iran was not always under Shi’ite control, and for centuries some imams were denied the right, he said.
“In the 16th century, Iran became Shi’ite and the rulership of Iran became a joint responsibility. The Qajar dynasty [1796-1925], in an attempt to modernize Iran, deemphasized the role of religion and the Pahlavi dynasty [1925-1979] that followed tried to make Iran as secular and modern as possible.
“The reaction to rapid modernization was one of the major factors that brought about the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In other words, the clerics gained the right to what they had claimed all along to have been theirs.”
So fundamental questions today are where the clerics stand on the issues dividing Iran and where Iran stands on the role of the clerics in government.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.