Between pragmatism and identity in Iran

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The results of the 2009 Iranian presidential election did not only surprise the world, they also surprised the Iranians.

For years, reform forces within Iran have broken their backs in an attempt to gain political power and influence, and it appeared that 2009 would be the year this group would receive the social and political rewards for their years of hard and risky work.

It was expected that Mir Hossein Mousavi would emerge victorious solely based on the vast dissatisfaction with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s domestic and foreign policies. And not only was Ahmadinejad faltering in performance and popularity, but reform forces also offered credible and pragmatic solutions that would improve Iran’s political, social and economic future.

Certainly, what emerged from the June elections was beyond victory for one man or one party.

It is a continuation of political loss and embarrassment that has been falling on the reformist camp for over a decade, and while the reformists suffer this ongoing loss, the power of the traditional conservative establishment remains as strong as ever.

In a much broader context, however, the ongoing losses of the reformists are not unique to the post-revolutionary environment; the dichotomous battle between reformist and conservative forces dates farther back than 1979 Tehran.

A rift between progressive and conservative forces has dictated the political environment of Iran in modern age, and perhaps the question isn’t about who can place bread on the table, but rather who should shape the overall identity of the state.

Although it may seem like old history, it is not pointless to review the political dynamics of Iran’s Qajar Dynasty, for this period eerily reflects the current situation in modern Iran. During the 19th century, the struggle between modernising, progressive camps with conservative forces was as intense as the struggle we witness in Iran today.

Under King Naser Al Din Shah Qajar, prime minister Amir Kabir galvanised reforms and initiated many modernisation programmes, but not all were pleased with his actions. Because these steps threatened the power and identity of the royalty, Kabir was thrown into exile and eventually murdered.

The death in this ancient conflict presents an interesting allusion to the political turmoil in Iran now (although perhaps with a little less classical drama): two forces are hard at work to control the social and political discourse of the state, and these discourses ultimately define the singular identity of the state.

Today, one side risks eroding Iran’s established identity while the other side will never give up on the ideals of the 1979 revolution.

As long as political contestation is dominated by the conservative political forces’ definition of the state identity, it seems the reform forces may find it more difficult than expected to gain political power and may have to change the way they approach the next election.

Jordan Times, 18 June 2009

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