Monday, October 31, 2022

10/21 Azadeh Moaveni in the LRB. The last 6 of  22 graphs  

A month and a half into the protests, the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures are in disarray. Setting the official tone on 3 October, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mentioned Mahsa Amini’s death as though it were a sad but distant event. ‘In the accident that happened, a young woman passed away,’ he told a gathering of army cadets, ‘which also pained us.’ But the riots, he insisted, were the design of Iran’s enemies, the United States and Israel. A few days later, President Raisi, visiting a women’s university, recited a poem that likened the protesters to flies. Students heckled him and told him to ‘get lost.’ The head of the judiciary declared himself ready for dialogue with any groups or individuals who had ‘questions, criticism, uncertainties or protests’, but three days later ordered judges to hand down stiff sentences to those arrested.

Looming over all these responses is the possibility that the supreme leader might not have much longer to live. Khamenei is 83 and rumoured to be unwell. Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament and a member of a prominent clerical family, gave a lengthy magazine interview recently in which he said that dress codes were out of touch with Iranian society and it wasn’t the state’s place, either religiously or politically, to regulate social behaviour. He wasn’t only contradicting Khamenei’s depiction of the protests but offering up an alternative mode of governance. It was a bit of a campaign speech, although it was so long and theologically ponderous, laced with references to the fall of Andalusia and tolerant ayatollahs, that it was easy to miss the implication that the supreme leader was becoming a bit Salafist in his outlook, too wrapped up in a reactionary Islam of laws and security.

To an extent, the Islamic Republic has boxed itself in. It has purged the reformists who once served as a useful distraction at such moments, allowing the highest authorities to claim the system was pushing back against over rapid change. In exchange for being admitted into politics, the reformists refrained from making the most telling criticisms: that Iran’s democratic theocracy was unworkable, that a system could not simultaneously be accountable to God and the people. Now that there are no reformists in politics any more, the Islamic Republic has no useful opposition and is finally on its own, aware of being in a moment of acute existential crisis, but unable to take any steps to save itself. As a former mayor of Tehran recently pointed out on state television, the government can’t have it both ways: it can’t claim millions of young women as loyal citizens when they turn out for the funeral of a Revolutionary Guard commander, as they did for Qasem Soleimani in 2020, but disown them as deviants and law-breakers when they show up on the streets now. 

Television is the only outlet to the outside world now that the internet is down. There isn’t a Persian-language news sphere so much as a grand theatre for the geopolitical contest between the Islamic Republic and its opponents in the region and the West. As well as the state broadcaster there are channels loyal to the absentee royal family, and one run by the terrorist cult Mujaheddin e Khalq, whose presenters speak in the stentorian tones of the 1970s and transmit messages from their long-dead leader. Iran International, set up in London with Saudi money, broadcasts a steady stream of breathless ‘no-context revolution’ videos and occasional disinformation, and explores scenarios for a post-Islamic Republic future. One of the presenters from the channel recently addressed the subcommittee on human rights at the European Parliament. The investment in this media infrastructure by opponents of the Islamic Republic has proven especially useful at moments of crisis, giving platforms to terrorist groups and advancing the narrative that Iran is riven by sectarian divisions and on the brink of fragmentation. The result is that the lines between spirited reporting, disinformation and propaganda are often blurred.

These media outlets had a remarkable effect on my relatives when they were holed up at home during the pandemic. They came out on the other side not simply derisive of the Islamic Republic, as they’d been before, but programmed with demonstrably false lines of information and an impassioned new and formulaic way of speaking about key enemies (usually diaspora journalists or organisations). Propaganda works. Last week, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards paused before starting a military drill in north-west Iran to speak to the Saudis directly: ‘Watch your behaviour and control these media; otherwise you will pay the price.’ Iran’s own conduct has helped produce the security problem it now faces: by putting a generation of journalists out of work through censorship and intimidation, it has created a talented and eager pool of labour for its opponents’ networks.

I asked one young activist what he thought of these channels and the dissidents who appear on them, some of whom claim to be leading events on the ground, even as the protesters celebrate their leaderlessness. ‘Of course they urge people to come out,’ he said, ‘promising the day after collapse will be better, a utopia, although we know the day after is when everything is broken, and when the problems start. They know how to seduce people with trickery and showmanship. But there’s also no doubt that the country is being destroyed, and that reform is dead.’ 

The choices are no change, transformation, and collapse. It's obvious things have changed, and if transformation is reform, it's obvious also reform isn't dead. 

" was easy to miss the implication that the supreme leader was becoming a bit Salafist in his outlook". US and Israel's Salafist ally Saudi Arabia just sentenced a US citizen to 16 years, for tweeting.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is enabled.