Saturday, June 27, 2009

William O. Beeman--Iran’s Ongoing Revolution - New America Media

Iran’s Ongoing Revolution - NAM

Iran’s Ongoing Revolution

New America Media, News analysis, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jun 26, 2009

Additional Commentary from William O. Beeman: I wrote the piece below on Tuesday, June 23. I now think that the prediction of the Iranian leadership's demise is somewhat precipitous. The Iranian government has launced an unprecedented crackdown on protestors of the election, which has quieted the protest. We learn from China and other places that such measures can definitely be effective in quelling resistance. (please see my earlier commments on this below). However, I stand by my feeling that the Iranian government has created a breach with its own citizens. Eventually, this event will live in memory, and will form the basis for govenmental change. I stand behind my characterization of the course of an ongoing resistance, and suggest that observers continue to note the culturally potent symbolic elements of resistance that characterize Iranian political, social and religious life. Today Roya Hakakian admonished all of us not to make predicting the Iranian Revolution our chief occupation. Prediction is hard, but it is a sure bet that change will come to Iran over the next 5-10 years--if the world will let Iranians do their own work and not interfere.

Iran’s most visible leaders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i are on the brink of losing their respective offices in the wake of the controversial presidential election in Iran June 12. It may not happen immediately, but it is a likely outcome over the long term.

Should this happen, many sectors of the American punditocracy will be thoroughly embarrassed. Having built these two figures up to mythic status, they will now have to face Iran as it really is, not as they would like to style it. It is, and has been for many years, not a calcified theocracy controlled by old mullahs. It is rather a nation on the brink of change as a new generation assumes power, and as the influence of women in the society rockets to the forefront.

Ayatollah Khamene’i has now been denounced by name in the streets — an unprecedented event. Furthermore, it is rumored that his rival, former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the powerful Guardian Council and the Iranian Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the authority of the Spiritual Leader, is lobbying the bodies he heads to replace the Spiritual Leader.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been accused of rigging the election along with the son of Ayatollah Khamene’i, Mojtaba, and key members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij strike force. Statistical analyses of the official vote published in the Washington Post a few days after the election suggest that the numbers are artificial. Documents from the Ministry of the Interior showing the “real” vote tall--in which Mr. Moussavi was the clear winner--are in wide circulation.

However, it is now clear that the presidential election has become irrelevant in Iranian political life going forward. The Iranian president is relatively powerless in any case. What is more important is that the people feel that they have been violated by the power elite of the country and are now bent on changing the very foundation of their government.

If sea change is truly in the works in Iran, how will it proceed?

People can only imagine what they can imagine. In Iran today both the people and the establishment have only one model for social and governmental change, and that is the original Islamic revolution of 1978-79. Because both sides are working with the same vocabulary of symbolism, they are groping to command those potent images that will galvanize public support in their favor.

The master vocabulary of revolution in Iran is the historical martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed on the plains of Karbala in present day Iraq in 680. Imam Hossein is the central figure in Shi’a Islam, and his death is commemorated perpetually in Iranian life.

President Ahmadinejad’s chief rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi, co-opted the symbolism of the Karbala tragedy early on. For his campaign, he adopted the color green, the color most associated with Islam itself, with descendants of the Prophet, and with the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. After the election, he declared himself “ready for martyrdom,” and his supporters appeared in the streets shouting “Ya Hossein,” echoing the cries shouted by groups of mourners in the annual commemoration of Imam Hoseein’s death. As a religious cry, it could not be faulted by the police and security forces. They have also taken to shouting “Allahu Akbar—God is Great,” which is both a symbolic cry in favor of change, but also a subtle reminder that change--even revolutionary change--is always in the hands of God.

Not to be outdone, the clerical establishment countered the idea of martyrdom in the election with the Iranian soldier-martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

The original revolution fed on occasions for public assembly, notably the three-, seven-, and 40-day mourning ceremonies for the dead. This created a cycle of martyrdom as protesters against the Pahlavi government assembled, were killed by the Shah’s forces, and were in turn mourned in an ongoing fashion. The entire Revolution took more than a year to complete before the Shah finally gave up and left. The world can expect a long and drawn-out process of resistance in this action as well—a point made by Dr. Gary Sick of Columbia University in an article printed on The Daily Beast. Dr. Sick served as a military intelligence officer during the earlier Revolution

The original revolution was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from his exile in France. He used the technology of the day--long distance telephone and tape cassettes--to spread his revolutionary message.

In today’s resistance a remarkably appropriate figure may be poised to likewise lead from abroad--Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi who finds herself in Europe at this time. The technology of today--the Internet and the cell phone may be the organizing force that drives this current force for change.

Those who think that change will bring an end to Islamic influence in Iran are dead wrong. Neither side in the current conflict has denounced the Islamic Republic. However the current opposition wants to change the basis for Islamic government. At the core is the controversial doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih, the Rule of the Chief Jurisprudent, in which the Spiritual Leader rules in place of the Hidden 12th Imam of Shi’a Islam, who has been in hiding since the 9th Century.

Only Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers supported this doctrine. All other Shi’a Grand Ayatollahs rejected it, or had serious reservations. Chief among the objectors today is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian, and serves as the chief religious authority in Najaf, Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani has more followers than any other Shi’a leader.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani would reportedly replace Ayatollah Khamene’i with a triumvirate of knowledgeable clerics, of which he might be one. There is currently no willing successor to Ayatollah Khamene’i, so this problem was going to have to be addressed in the future anyway.

It is likely that the Guardian Council, which vets political candidates and approves laws passed by parliament, would also have its powers curtailed.

Iran watchers are looking carefully to see how successful the opposition organization has become and whether it will be able to sustain itself and develop a potent ideology and leadership for the long haul. It will also be important to see how the cycle of demonstrations, strikes and confrontations plays itself out over time.

One thing is certain, change has once again begun in Iran, and however it plays out, it will leave the nation in a very different state than it is in today.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research on Iran for more than 30 years, and lived through the Revolution of 1978-79. He is the author of "The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Iranian Turmoil--latest thinking--William O. Beeman

I recognize a real social movement when I see one, and the Iranian turmoil is likely to have long-term consequences. Eventually, I believe those agitating for governmental change are going to prevail and revise the constitution, but it will take better organization and a long time to come to fruition.

On the other hand, I recognize several things about the current regime:

1. Ahmadinejad's supporters, the Abadgaran, Isargaran, etc. had a large component of Iraq war veterans. They complained bitterly that they didn't get enough power when AN was elected, and he responded by giving many of them very important posts throughout his administration, where he had the authority. They are now dependent on his retaining is office for them to stay in power. I wrote about this in the last chapter of the Great Satan book. These folks are real power-mongers. They want to maintain their status at any cost.

2. As Neil MacFarquhar noted in today's NYT, Ayatollah Khamene'i also has a coterie of folks dependent on him. If he goes, so do they. Same deal, patron-client relations mean that they will fight fiercely to make sure he stays in his post. Thus for both AN and AK, they are shored up by people whose very lives and fortunes depend on their staying in office, and they will go to ruthless measures to see that this is accomplished.

3. The Iranian regime has saddled up to both China and Russia, and has seen how useful their models for government are--placate the people with electronic toys and slightly improved living conditions and crack down ruthlessly on dissent. I think this is what they have decided to do.

4. Russia and China have a very important stake in keeping things as they are. They have good energy and trade deals with Iran, and these relations are a counter to the United States and Europe. I would not be surprised if they have a heavy hand in this. There are confusing reports of soldiers who don't speak Persian breaking heads in Tehran and elsewhere.

William O. Beeman

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Crisis in Iran Is Just Beginning - The Daily Beast

The Crisis in Iran Is Just Beginning - The Daily Beast

The Crisis in Iran Is Just Beginning
by Gary Sick
June 22, 2009 | 11:28pm
AP Photo Gary Sick, the key White House official during the 1979 hostage crisis, says this revolution may be more of a marathon than a sprint, with no clear winner or loser. The watchwords for Obama: Do no harm.

Commentary by William O. Beeman: Gary Sick's analysis below reflects both wisdom and experience. Having personally lived through the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 I can verify what he says about the long-term nature of social change. His statement that Iranians prefer chess to football is only partially true. They like football a lot, but only as punctuation for the greater long game. It is also important to note that this was predictable. I have been writing for a number of years that a generational turnover was about to happen in Iran that would precipitate social change. Added to this is the extraordinary rise of female power in Iran. Added to this is the fact that there is no clear successor to Ayatollah Khamene'i. The core principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the "velayat-e faqih" or "regency of the chief jurisprudent," where the chief religious figure of the nation rules in place of the "hidden" 12th Imam of Shi'ism, is under fire. Only Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers subscribed to this principle. The other Grand Ayatollahs of the Shi'a world were opposed, claiming that clerical participation in politics would lead to corruption. Well, the corruption is now palpable and real, and exposed for all to see. The Iranian Presidency is now a side issue in the greater game of control of the nation.

As I set forth on a long vacation trip, here are a few observations about the situation in Iran based on my own experience of watching the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis from the White House 30 years ago.

Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978, and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.

The Iranians prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face.
There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if they conclude that it is a no-win situation, they could settle for a compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed behind a great public show of unity.

Leadership is the key. Ayatollah Khamenei, the rahbar or leader, has chosen—again probably unwisely—to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is clearly speaking for the ultraconservative leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.

On the other side is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the erstwhile colleague and now principal antagonist of the rahbar. He has chosen, as he usually does, to stay behind the scenes as a master strategist, leaving the public field to Mir Hossein Mousavi and the other disappointed candidates and their followers.

The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic republic that they created with such grandiose expectations is lost on no one. The important subtext, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all-out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.

Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.

For the United States, the watchwords should be: Do no harm. The situation in Iran is being exploited for short-term domestic political purposes by those who have been looking for an opening to attack the Obama administration. Wouldn’t it feel good to give full-throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so—but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.

The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders. There is no need to conceal our belief in freedom of speech and assembly and our support for the resolution of political disputes without bloodshed. But we should not be stampeded by domestic political concerns into pretending that our intervention in this crisis could be anything but pernicious.

Can President Obama play chess as well as he plays basketball?

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations. Mr. Sick has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, where he is senior research scholar, adjunct professor of international affairs and former director of the Middle East Institute (2000-2003).

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Note: The article below has been modified from the original.


New America Media, News Analysis, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jun 18, 2009

The Iranian presidential election is over, and while the world focuses on
whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected fairly, or whether his
rival Mir Hussein Moussavi was the winner, the most serious issue for Iran
and the rest of the world is the role of the Iranian government in
conducting the election.

Government officials made many mistakes both before and after the election
that will cost them their public support. Erosion of public confidence in
the government -- already shaky before the election -- will lead to
instability, and instability in Iran means instability throughout the

The most significant mistake was to unilaterally and uncritically back the
highly controversial President Ahmadinejad. He had significant support in
rural areas and among pensioners and some members of the traditional
classes, as well as the more fervently conservative sectors of the military.
But even clerical leaders expressed wariness with his grandstanding
extremist rhetoric, and his short-term giveaway economic policies that
ignored the need for infrastructure and new employment. The middle and upper
classes viewed with dismay the erosion in civil liberties under his
administration, and cringed at his millenarian personal beliefs.

If Mr. Moussavi prevailed, relatively little would have changed in Iran, but
the establishment would have retained some thread of contact with his
supporters. The establishment powers needed much more wiggle room in this
controversial election.

It may well be that Ahmadinejad actually won the election. He garnered about
the same percentage of votes, approximately 62 percent, as he had in the
runoff election in 2005. However, the way in which his victory was presented
to the public showed absolute disdain for both the Iranian people and the
electoral process. One wonders what official decided to announce that he had
won before the prescribed three-day waiting period had expired.

It made the world wonder how such a declaration was logistically possible
given the number of votes that had to be counted by hand.

Then President Ahmadinejad himself showed a cocky disdain for those who
questioned the election, likening them to disgruntled soccer fans, and
referring to them as "dust." The large-scale street protests were met with
force, and the government tried to crack down, unsuccessfully, on
transmission of information about the civil unrest.

One could see the fabric of Iran ripping and tearing with Ahmadinejad's
words and the government's subsequent deeds.

Authority in Iran depends on the existence of a social contract between
subordinate and super-ordinate powers. The super-ordinate figures are
paradoxically the most fragile in their position. They must attend to the
needs of subordinates, or risk being toppled from power -- or at the very
least undermined. Every Iranian working in a bureaucratic office knows that
the bad boss is eventually done in by his employees who lose things,
misroute files, and steal -- or in extreme cases, launch embarrassing
protests. Then they claim their subordinate status as an excuse.

In this regard, the Iranian government conduct vis-a-vis the protestors and
street demonstrators in the wake of the elections is the telling event. By
sanctioning the beating of women and young people, house arrests and
crackdowns, the authorities in Iran essentially are breaking their contract
with the people. Social order begins to fray. Ayatollah Khamene'i must
re-establish his credentials with the public if he hopes to keep the power
structure intact, and it may now be too late.

This was the lesson Ayatollah Khomeini was able to teach the nation when the
authority of his religious-based movement was challenged by other actors in
the revolution of 1978-79. He co-opted and outflanked his enemies by
adopting their radical agenda and garnering the support of the public.

As Iranian analysts have been pointing out for years, demography is playing
a huge role in this social drama. The majority of the voting population
(even with an arbitrary raising of the voting age to 18 to curtail youth
power) was bound to tip the scales in this or the next election. The tip
appears to have happened sooner than later. The power of women has also
grown to be enormous and they are very angry.

It is also telling that those being affected by the government's
heavy-handed treatment are a broad spectrum of the population, just as in
the original revolution of 1978-79. The restrictions on the foreign press
are also significant.

Who knows why the Iranian government acted in this reckless manner?

Certainly paranoia about Western interference in Iranian internal affairs
has been growing in Iran in recent years. CIA and Mossad operatives are
known to be operating in Iran. "Color" revolutions in the former Soviet
Union supported by the United States increased this anxiety. When
Ahmadinejad's chief opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi, appeared with a "green"
color theme, this may have set off alarms and lack of caution.

The next 10 days will be very significant to see how this series of events
plays out. The large difference between 1978-79 and today is the extremely
complex power structures ensconced in the Iranian constitution. Toppling a
single figure or small group of figures will not automatically result in
governmental change, despite the loss of the public contract with authority.
Time will certainly tell.


William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology
at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has lived and worked in Iran
for more than 30 years. His most recent book is "The 'Great Satan' vs. the
'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other,"
(University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Beeman--Elections and Governmental Structure in Iran

In 2005, I wrote an article for the Brown Journal of World Affairs laying out the structure of Iranian government and election procedures that are followed in Iran. The article has proved to be very popular and sturdy, and was incorporated into my book, The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Greenwood Press, 2005; 2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2008). The article can be found here:

The article is in PDF format, and you may have to register with the Brown Journal of World Affairs before you can access it. It will explain in brief how Iranian governmental bodies are elected or selected, and how elections proceed.

The election this Friday, June 12, which pits front-runners Mir-Hossein Mousavi and existing president Ahmadinejad is especially interesting because a near majority of eligible voters are young people who do not remember the revolution of 1978-79.

Turnout will be essential in this election, and the participation of women absolutely crucial to victory for any candidate. The election was advanced by one year, presumably because of dissatisfaction with President Ahmadinejad.