Rediscovering Iran

Depending on who you read, or who you believe, the post-election turmoil in Iran has either, 1) faded into a more repressive version of the status quo ante, with a more central role for the Revolutionary Guard and a resigned opposition that no longer credits the regime with any legitimacy; or 2) gone into hibernation mode, with a number of compromise (i.e., political) solutions still possible and/or the revolutionary fervor still roiling under the surface. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor are the two clauses of the second option, for that matter.

That highlights the fact that in addition to weapons and communications (i.e., an organizational network), the other crucial element to any real “seizure” of power that the opposition lacks is a credible leader. The opposition, which has for simplicity’s sake been reduced to a unitary whole, is in fact made up of disparate constituencies with varying grievances, varying levels of commitment and varying threshholds of persistence. By most accounts, these have surpassed those of Moussavi, who has subsequently scrambled to keep up with “his” movement. It’s not certain that any one leader can faithfully represent what the events of the past two weeks have unleashed. Of more practical concern is whether any one leader can channel it.

That brings me to this text by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, which has apparently been circulating since last week, but which I just ran across translated into French in Le Monde over the weekend. In discussing the ways in which the West’s preferred outcome has led it to reduce the confrontation into a clear Moussavi-led, liberal, reformist movement versus a repressive Islamic extremist establishment, Zizek writes:

What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolutioncannot be reduced to a hardline Islamist takeover — it was much more.Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the firstyear after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion ofpolitical and social creativity, organizational experiments and debatesamong students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosionhad to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary openingthat unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment inwhich “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closingthrough the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment.To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return ofthe repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

That really does describe the alchemy of revolutions, which by their nature require such a broad coalescence of violent and disparate forces in order to achieve exit velocity, that they often result in equally violent post-revolutionary “purges” to return all of the “exteriorized” socio-psychological content back into its societally manageable repressed state.

But even once it’s been successfully re-repressed, that content can never be entirely eliminated. It inevitably finds its way back to the surface. All of which is to say that what’s happening in Iran is as revealing to Iranians as it is to the West. If Zizek is correct, what began as an effort by Moussavi to return to the purity of the Islamic Revolution has created an outpouring by which the “failed revolutionaries” of 1979 have reclaimed their voice.

In both cases, though, I suspect it involves an Iran that, due to the profoundly hostile relations we’ve had since the original revolution, we have yet to truly discover.

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