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Iran Analysis: The Regime's Pyrrhic Victory

Pyrrhic Victory (noun): A victory won at too great a cost (after Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who suffered staggering losses in defeating the Romans)

Mr Verde writes a guest analysis for EA:

This year’s 22 Bahman anniversary must have been the most widely discussed since the 1979 Revolution, but with disruption of communications in Iran, the flow of information about the events was always going to be slow. So, reserving comment about the actual events for a later date when more information is available, here's a look at the “big picture” for the Islamic Republic.

The regime has demonstrated that, as with other occasions, it can bus in people, or entice them with free food or fear of their government jobs, for the setpiece event. It has also demonstrated that, again as with previous occasions, its security forces are very capable of beating peaceful protestors and dispersing them.

And here comes the problem: this year’s events were less like celebrating a Revolution that freed the country from tyranny and dictatorship and more like a tyrannical dictatorship celebrating its continued survival.

The more one pays attention to the words and actions of the officials of the Islamic Republic, the more it becomes apparent that there is something wrong. From the start of the post-election protests, the regime has been adamant that the protestors are few in number and do not have a real agenda except causing chaos and mayhem. (There were exception when officials, desperate to explain specific situations, talked about millions being on the streets in June, but these were single officials trying to explain away a difficult fact.) If the protestors are so few in number and so insignificant, there is no reason for such heavy security presence. How to resolve this contradiction? Either the regime knows that opposition is widespread or we are witnessing a totalitarian regime in action.

The protests have been ongoing for eight months. This period from June to February has covered almost all of the Islamic Republic’s official occasions where it has traditionally encouraged the population to take part in public events and used them as proof of its popularity and stability. But since 12 June, during each one of these events the regime has had to resort to naked violence to keep people off the streets. There are only two such days left in this year's Islamic Republic calendar that have not been tarnished yet by clashes on the streets: the anniversaries of Khomeini’s death (4 June) and the 15 Khordaad uprising (5 June).

The Islamic Republic is a regime that is built upon ideological symbols and heavily depends on them. Friday prayers are supposed to be weekly affirmation of the public’s support for the regime (both in a religious and a political context). Qods Day in September is to celebrate Islamic Republic’s support for oppressed Palestinians. 13 Aban (4 November this year) was meant to commemorate the killing of schoolchildren by the Shah’s security forces and, perhaps more importantly, the start of the US Embassy hostage crisis (referred to by Khomeini as the second revolution and the Islamic Republic’s proof that it stood up to superpowers). 16 Azar (7 December) is supposed to be the commemoration of student movements that stood up to the Shah’s regime. Ashura (27 December) is to commemorate the uprising by Imam Hossein (the third Shi'a Imam) against tyranny and his martyrdom. 22 Bahman is to mark the victory of the Revolution that brought about the Islamic Republic.

All of these events are now remembered not for their original symbolic importance, but for the fact that the security forces of the Islamic Republic have on every occasion beaten and at times killed peaceful Iranian demonstrators.

Beyond this public demonstration, the regime has managed to discredit many of its notable officials and personalities. Many of the Islamic Republic’s former leading figures are in prison on charges of sedition or acting against national security. Some very senior politicians and activists are treated as the enemy these days. On the eve of Ashura, government thugs disrupted a speech by former President Mohammad Khatami, in in no less a place than the home of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Prime Minister during most of the eight-year war with Iraq, and Mehdi Karoubi --- revolutionary cleric during the Shah’s regime, former head of the Martyrs’ Foundation, former Speaker of Parliament --- are insulted by regime officials on a daily basis, prevented from taking part in official commemorations and at times shot at with tear gas and beaten.

The problem is not just that the current leadership of Islamic Republic owes all it has to such people. The real problem is that, only eight months ago, two of them (Mousavi and Karoubi) were both passed through the formidable filter of the Council of Guardians as Presidential candidates. The regime is now calling them leaders of sedition.

The question for the regime is: have these people, who have impeccable revolutionary credentials, always been leading an insurrection? If so, how is it that for 30 years the Islamic Republic’s many intelligence organizations and intelligence officials missed this? Or could it be that the state of affairs of the Islamic Republic is such that even loyal servants are forced to protest? No enemy would have been able to undermine the ideological symbols and tarnish the reputation of the Islamic Republic with such efficiency.

The regime is fast losing any claim of being Islamic, popular, just, or merciful. And its showpiece events have become occasions on which its forces are mobilized to attack its own citizens, even as it pours resources into a show for TV cameras so that it --- and some foreign media with superficial view of the events --- can call it a “victory”.

So a Pyrrhic hypothesis: For any regime, especially one that claims to be a popular republic based on Islam, pointing TV cameras at the right-looking crowd while beating the “wrong crowd” with all its might, especially on the anniversary of its formation, is not a victory.

Reader Comments (7)

Look at this article in"le Figaro" in France, use your dictionary as I do everyday with english articles on EA and elesewhere ; there is only 7 lines about AN and all the other part is about emphasing iranian people, their courage, how was AN whistled in Azadi sq , and how was our brave people repressed and suppressed . All the Media in France have the same tone:

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterange paris

Thank you for posting this, Ange. Good to know that at least somewhere they don't have nuclear sand in their eyes!

And thank you Mr. Verde for your assessment of yesterdays events from the angle of this regime's legitimation, which obviously has vanished in the hay a long time ago.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaleene

Great article. Thank you.

EA again manages to give an accurate analysis of the events in Iran.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoe Lassie

Carrying over from my response to Scott's wrapup piece, I have to say that I'm just finding myself wondering how much popular legitimacy means to Ahmadi and Co. Although this piece is excellent, it does proceed from the assumption that these folks in power still care a lot about that. Do they, or do they just care about staying in power? Or at best, do they just care about maintaining some sort of ideological purity?

"Khamenei ... had announced that for the advancement and development of Islam and the development of the revolution no-one could be more effective than Mr. Ahmadinejad. Therefore the order came that Mr Khamenei has him in mind, that Mr Khamenei has Mr Ahmadinejad in mind for the presidency and so he must be announced as the winner. It's he who is best suited to this revolution, order and Velayat Faqih"

If you think what the basij said to Channel 4 about the runup to the election even *might* be true, then you have to at least give credence to the idea that this regime does not have popular support or approval as their primary goal. It may be secondary, tertiary, or even unimportant. Therefore, they might not really care all that much that they lost some more of it keeping the protesters at bay, because they kept their authoritarian regime in place to see another day ..

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Scott

Kevin - for the regime, staying in power does require them to be able to claim popular legitimacy (at the very least for prevailing apathy and passivity among the population to allow them to claim legitimacy without this being seriously challenged, which is how I would say things largely were before June). Applying the 'hard power' of authoritarian repression to maintain control may be sufficient to keep power in the short term, but without a convincing claim to legitimacy it will bring diminishing returns, we are seeing this already as protests continue. In the medium to long term the loss of legitimacy will increasingly erode the authority of the state as people become less willing to submit to coercion. Most important is the need for the rank and file of the security forces etc. themselves to perceive the regime as legitimate, and they are not isolated from the prevailing attitudes in the society around them, nor can they be completely oblivious to the increasing disconnection between ideology and reality.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermukharbish

[...] they did on February 11 — although the regime’s declared victory on that occasion is a Pyrrhic one. Such bumps in the road present opportunities for the movement to do some critical self-reflection [...]

[...] from it. It was, as Mr. Verde from Enduring America correctly put, a pyrrhic victory. A quote from his piece is still very relevant: So a Pyrrhic hypothesis: For any regime, especially [...]

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