Iran Election Guide

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Iran Comment Reloaded: The Power of the Gradual (8 June 2010)

I originally posted this on EA on 8 June 2010, just before the first anniversary of the disputed Presidential election. 

I re-post it today in connection with today's formal book launch of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future (see separate entry for details of time and place). The volume, which includes this analysis, is a collection of essays, opinions, and thinkpieces by those who went through and observed the post-election conflict in all its hope, anxiety, joy, fear, disappointment, and determination.

On 12 June 2009, I was enjoying a night out in London. My wife, who patiently puts up with the daily demands of my website on international affairs, had asked if I could risk trading an evening with Iran's Presidential election for dinner and the theatre. I assured her that it was clear that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi would move to a second round of voting.

At 7:30 the next morning, the BBC rang to ask for an urgent comment: Ahmadinejad had won in the initial ballot with 63% of the vote. After I gave them a remark based more on surprise than insight, I realised two things: 1) I would be covering this story every day until there was a resolution; 2) to do so, I would have to become a student, seeking a variety of teachers to give me a crash course on the dynamics of Iranian politics, economics, religion, and society.

It is a year later. There is no resolution, and I am still learning.

I had had the good fortune, in the years before the 2009 election, to be introduced to Iran. I had worked with Iranian colleagues and students, and eventually --- despite my US passport --- had been able to visit the country to teach, participate in seminars, and give interviews to the Iranian media. I had even become an Adjunct Professor at a leading Iranian university.

Those opportunities had given me a glimpse of an Iran which was one of the most political environments I had ever encountered. There was constant discussion --- even as there were limits on that discussion --- of what the country was and what it might become. There was consideration, beyond the simplicities of the US v. Iran, of Tehran's role in the region and in the world, there were concerns about an economy facing both internal challenges and external restrictions, and there were glimpses of debates on social and cultural issues. Inevitably, given that I was working with students, there was much attention to the “Third Generation” that had grown up after the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. I was told often --- by both critics and defenders of the Government --- that 30 years after the 1979 introduction of an Islamic Republic, this was a “Gradual Revolution”.

In the weeks before and after the 2009 election, however, change did not seem “gradual”. Even watching from a distance, I was swept up in the excitement that surrounded a campaign which, with its televised debates as well as its well-attended speeches, appeared to offer a louder political voice to Iran's people. That fervour continued after the election when President Ahmadinejad's victory speech, with its description of opponents as “dust and tumbleweeds”, was met by millions on the streets of Tehran. It crackled when the Supreme Leader's Friday Prayer vindicating the vote encountered more demonstrations of anger, tragedy, and hope. It would be resurgent when there were more public encounters: in mid-July after former President Hashemi Rafsanjani's Friday Prayer, on Qods Day in September, from 13 Aban (4 November) to 16 Azar (7 December) to the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri to the commemoration of Ashura on 27 December.

These were dramatic, still vivid events, yet I wonder if they misled us into forgetting about the “gradual”. Narratives were written as if a knockout blow would be landed either by the Green Movement or by the defenders of President Ahmadinejad. Predictions were uttered about the imminent fall or unshakeable permanence of the Islamic Republic. Each public occasion, while important, was given the aura of the defining incident that would finally conclude the inconclusive outcome of 12 June 2009.

Prize fights are settled within 15 rounds of 3 minutes each; the quest for civil rights is not. The election, after all, was just the public apex of a larger, ongoing climb for political, economic, and social recognition, respect, and justice. The Green Movement, as significant as it would become, did not displace the movements for women's rights, student rights, labour rights, legal rights, economic rights, religious rights, and the rights of Iran's many ethnic groups. (Indeed, one of the ongoing, “deeper” issues of this past year has been how the Green Movement --- if it is more than a symbolic entity --- interacts with the activism of these other movements.)

This post-election contest, which rested upon years of discussion and challenge within the Islamic Republic, was always destined to be a marathon and not a sprint.

But marathons are hard to cover. And, in the immediate aftermath of 12 June, that coverage --- at least by “mainstream” media --- would be complicated as Iranian authorities cracked down on domestic and foreign correspondents. The “mainstream” non-Iranian press was effectively blinded within weeks as reporters were expelled or fled because of intimidation and threats of detention, camera crews were restricted to offices and hotel rooms, and bureaus were shut. Iranian journalists persisted, but many of them --- eventually more than 100 --- would wind up in jail. By September, even the most prominent reformist newspapers and websites were being shut down, their offices raided and ransacked, their editors behind bars.

Unsurprisingly, some non-Iranian outlets --- deprived of their “normal” capacity for effective reporting --- would thus look for the big event rather than the gradual shifts. There would be weeks of silence or muted coverage of internal events, often as headlines were devoted to Iran's nuclear programme, and then a sudden burst of attention to a gathering such as the Ashura demonstration or the rallies on 11 February, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Then, when that high-profile event did not produce a clean, final “victory”, the mainstream media might retreat into somnolence, sometimes after a benediction that the Green Movement had been vanquished.

Well, here's the paradox: amidst and even beyond these big events, the “gradual” has triumphed in media as well as politics.

Ultimately, it is not the speed of technology that --- despite the repression of the Iranian Government and despite the retreat of the “mainstream” media --- has ensured that Iran's post-election story is still ongoing in June 2010. Rather, it is the “gradual” efforts of those who, each day, often at risk to themselves, have persisted in telling their tales or passing on the information from others.

They are not the international correspondents with news programmes named after them, they are not the anchormen and anchorwomen with weekly talk shows to define the news, they do not even have by-lines. Sometimes their names are not even their own but are the pseudonyms and usernames that have to be adopted to ensure that they can report again.

However, it is they who remove our blindness by giving us a glimpse of the day-to-day. It is they who break up the deafening noise of State propaganda and pronouncements with sounds of what has occurred in their neighbourhoods. It is they who give form to the meaning --- not in the abstract, but in the real --- of “rights” and “justice”.

Ironically and somewhat sadly, I write this --- four days before the anniversary of the election --- as yet another set of articles by analysts tries to define all that we have experienced. One headline blares, “The Green Movement was a historic success. Too bad no one was watching.” (No. We are still watching, still writing, still learning.) A commentator proclaims, "Getting the real story out of Iran today is virtually impossible." (Difficult, yes. Impossible, no --- thanks to those whom the commentator, focused on mainstream media, never notices.) A journalist declares, “There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” (No, but that was never the issue. Twitter is a tool, a powerful tool that allows us to ensure that the “gradual” does not disappear --- we are still reporting, still writing, still learning --- as those in power try to shut down information into and out of Iran.)

[An important caveat: the collection also includes a redemptive piece by Nazila Fathi which avoids the dismissive generalisations and assesses, "Despite those all the obstacles put in its way, the media has done a remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year's events. The Green Movement has, indeed, shaken the very core of the Islamic Republic. The country is polarized and the regime's legitimacy has been compromised. All of this, the Western media -- at least, those of us who had any real experience covering Iran -- got largely right."

My one suggestion is that Fathi's "media" be considered as not only "Western media" but many Iranian journalists and Iranians who report even if they do not carry official press credentials.]

But, as I write this, irony rebounds and sadness turns back to hope. For I read these edicts from those analysts and journalists who try to define, once and for all, what has happened. Then I read the contributions of others, contributions which come not from anointed experts or the by-lined professionals, and I realise that the story of “what has happened” is in these essays.

And it is not just “what has happened” but “what may happen”. There are no proclamations of the final outcome in these contributions, no ringing of the bell to say that all is complete. Instead, the victory is in the process, the pursuit of the “gradual”. As long as the search for rights is persistent in these words of sorrow or hope, then rights cannot be denied. As long as the vision of fairness is offered in these reflections, then others have not succeeding in making us --- inside or outside Iran --- blind.

The power of the vote may have been taken away on 12 June 2009. Some may try to pronounce that Iranians --- repressed by their Government, bedazzled by false hopes of Twitter --- are reduced to the powerless. But Aa long as the power to express is put in the simple but effective phrases by these authors, then the power of expression remains.

A marathon, not a sprint.

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