Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Mullahs and the Machine Guns

As I write this, the sun has set in Iran. Chants of "Allahu Akbar" ring out across the rooftops in conscious imitation of the 1979 revolution. The bloodlusting basij re dragging people from their homes, beating them, killing some, kidnapping others to prisons and dungeons. it is not yet clear if the climactic moment has passed, if the protests has been subdued, or if tomorrow promises further action. The thugs apparently were fought to a standstill today, but that is not predictive of how it will turn out.

Of course, I do not actually know what is happening. To do a little pos and neg credentialing ... I am not an expert on Iran. I have read extensively about the Elamites, the Achaemenids, the Sasanids, the Safavids, and the coursing of Islam across Persia in the first Islamic centuries. My doctoral (Cal, 1998) research concerned premodern Malay Muslim manuscripture, and I have read widely in Islamic and Central Asian history. But not an expert in the modern Iranian state.

We hear little from actual experts. We hear a lot of self-credentialing from Twitter, and certainly Twitter has been a key source of information from inside Iran. I see no evidence that it has played a role in the events other than, perhaps, to embolden people to action knowing that the whole world knows. Most of the Twitter posts simply repeat in one form or another how important Twitter is; some of the posts propound rumors, and these posts are often retweeted; a few of the posts point to web footage or photos or analysis.

But nowhere have I seen a lot of analysis of the key issue at stake ... what is the state of the Iranian state, and how does its present composition portend for current events and future possibilities?

So, let me start by proposing a series of deductions, assumptions, and evident or apparent facts; I will try to credential them as I go along.

I would propose that there are five broad categories of actors in the current state, two in power, one contested, and two out of power. Those are the mullahs, the military and paramilitary forces, the Presidency, the legislative branch, and the people. None of these are simple or without contradiction.

The mullahs are actually a broad layer of society that crosses class, region, economics, ethnicity, political outlook, and involvement. It is an error to assume that the mullahs are supportive of or even corporately linked to the Guardian Council. I believe it is also an error to assume without proof in the events that the Guardian Council or Khamanei is in control of events.

The military, or as I will call them, the agencies of repression, are actually at least four forces: the army, the police, the Revolutionary Guard, and the basij. How they cooperate and by whom each are led is not clear to any of us on the outside. I think the key issues all come back to these facts.

The Presidency is obviously what is at issue. But we should note that Ahmadinejad is evidently not a toady of the mullahs. I do no think that is proven. There is good evidence that he represents a turn in the state towards the primacy of the repressive instruments and away from the primacy of the clerics, notwithstanding that often all of them at least on the surface appear to have the same interests.

The legislative branch is impotent and deeply divided and, if history is a guide, cowardly. But at any ripe moment it could begin to play a role.

The people, as always in history, are a cipher, everything and nothing by turns.

I believe that the state is increasingly dominated by a competition among agencies of repression acting largely independently, if also interdependently ... in other words they have some kind of communication and coordination of action, but their interests are not identical and they each reserve the right to independent initiative.

The one thing that mullahs, agencies of repression, and presidency share is that in this situation they want a return to the status quo ante, even though the status quo is obviously in flux irrespective of the popular movement that challenges all of them.

Who runs the army, and who makes the decisions? I suspect that the army is the most afraid of the current movement because its soldiery is representative of the population that is getting very tired of the slow militarization of society. There are numerous reports of troops refusing to fire, none confirmed. But in any revolutionary situation, the attitude of the troops is key ... look at how the troops slaughtered their innocent brothers and sisters in Burma and the movement was crushed.

Does Khamenei actually control the Revolutionary Guard, or is he slowly becoming a monarch in palace captivity? If Ahmadinejad indeed represents a turn to the military organizations, then curiously Khamenei could actually benefit from championing Moussavi who is an old ally; if he managed to trump the agencies of repression, he could establish himself as a Caesar figure, transcending and overshadowing competing class and political forces. But his pitiful speech at Friday prayers showed no inkling of any independent basis of action. He almost begged for everybody to return to the Iran of a week previous, and to forget all the unfortunate stuff. Sure, he threatened repercussions, but what specifically did he threaten? Which of the agencies of repression can he actually command? He can certainly order any of them to do what they already want to do. But can he rein any of them in? Can he coordinate them? Can he expertly craft a middle path? I don't think so.

I think he is a captive of the Revolutionary Guard and the Guard's more extremist supporters among the high-ranking mullahs, and I think they could topple him in a thrice. I have no actual evidence ... but history is filled with late dynasty monarchs who live at the pleasure of their imperial guard and the guard's allies in the bureau. Theocracy is always short lived ... the guys with the swords, or in the modern world the machine guns, eventually assume power for themselves.

Think of the Revolutionary Guard as the SS (from Nazi times) and think of the basij as the SA, the brownshirts, the semi-organized, anarchistic thugs, young underemployed males lusting to break heads in favor of an idea greater than them but beyond their ability to fully grok. Who actually controls the basij? More to the point, does anyone have the ability to rein them in? In the case of the Nazis, when it came time for the state to be in indubitable central control, Hitler unleashed the Night of the Long Knives, and slaughtered the SA without mercy.

No one in Iran, I would assert, has the power to slaughter the basij. And yet they are capable of independently determining the course of events right now. What is the coordination between the Revolutionary Guard and the basij? Who determines where they strike and who they beat up or kill and who they bust? Will it occur at some point that the Revolutionary Guard will have had their fill of these thugs?

Most importantly, if the popular movement overcomes the brutality now being unleashed, and if they manage to overturn the election, how does a revitalized legislative side deal with a self-entitled militia of thugs and killers?

Just to close the circle, I think the police are followers and not leaders. The dynamics of repressions play out among the army, the Revolutionary Guard, and the basij. The cops can hurt people, but I do not think they decide the issue.

The next days will probably see a lot of blood. But if the movement presses forward in a mass and peaceful manner, I think there is a possibility that the army pulls back from the brink. That is the only way that this does not turn into a colossal bloodbath. At that point, however, the captive palace (Khamenei and his band of mullah toadies) and the captors (the Revolutionary Guard and the overtly fascist wing of the mullahs) are threatened, and they have common cause with the basij. In that event, there is a real challenge to the status quo.

Remember that Moussavi is not a revolutionary. If Ahmadinejad represents a movement in the direction of a consolidated, statified militarism, Moussavi represents only a state which seeks to rule in its own name. The goals of the popular movement appear to be nothing more than the promise of the state as described by the constitution. But such a movement presents intolerable contradictions among the agencies of repression who operate with impunity and apparently independently of the authorized state agencies. So defeat will occur only in an epochal bloodbath, but victory promises another bloodbath of uncertain characteristics.

It is not a pretty picture. None of it portends the end of the world's most notorious theocracy. None of it portends freedom of the individual. Iran has decades of suffering to free itself from the curse of its modern history and ancient, martyr-obsessed and bloody religion.

All that said, every lover of freedom the world around admires and yearns for the success of these noble men and women who have stared vicious brutality in the face and said no to repression, yes to freedom.

Photos from around the web, but especially the Tehran Bureau which has excellent coverage, and which has an excellent collection of truly heart-rending photos.

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