Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran on the brink?

Mark Levine is a musician with a degree in Comparative Religion who also happens to be a Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine. As a rock guitarist he has performed with Mick Jagger, Chuck D, Michael Franti and Doctor John. He is also fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, Italian, French and German. Someone really needs to tell this guy that no one likes a show off!!!

Anyway, Levine has a piece right now over at Al-Jazeera online in which he poses the musical question: will the current turmoil in Iran turn out to be more like Czechoslovakia in 1968, or more like Czechoslovakia in 1989??

But since this blog is largely focused on classical Paganism, and on ancient Pagan philosophy in particular, let me zero in on one particular aspect of what Levine has to say:

It seems that the Iranian elite has been caught similarly off-guard, and is still trying to read its own society to understand how broad is the societal discontent reflected in the mass protests.

This calculus is crucial - in some ways more so than whether the results are legitimate or, as some claim, electoral fraud.

It will determine whether the Iranian power elite - that is, the political-religious-military-security leadership who control the levers of state violence - moves towards negotiation and reconciliation between the increasingly distant sides, or moves to crush the mounting opposition with large-scale violence.

A lot depends on what the elite thinks is actually happening on the ground, and why the alleged fraud unfolded as it did....

What seems evident as the crisis deepens is that Ayatollah Khamenei, who most commentators have long assumed holds near absolute power in the country as Supreme Leader, is in a weaker position than previously believed. The collective religious and military leadership, along with the Revolutionary Guard, will likely have a lot of input into determining what course the government takes.

And it is certainly questionable whether these factions have shared core interests during this crisis, as the Revolutionary Guard - from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad emerged - is both culturally more conservative and economically more populist than much of the political and religious leadership.

The religious establishment is itself split into hard-line, moderate and more progressive factions, each of whose members are tied to factions within the economic, political and security elite, producing a complex and potentially volatile set of competing and contradictory loyalties and interests.

Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's decisions in the coming days will be telling.

In other words, it appears that Iran might be experiencing (possibly in the very beginning stages) the classic precondition for revolutionary change: a split in the ruling class. Plato first pointed out the crucial role of divisions within the ruling class in Book VIII of his Republic:
Clearly, all political changes originate in divisions of the actual governing power; a government which is united, however small, cannot be moved.
In this section of the Republic, Plato is especially critical of oligarchy, "a form of government which teems with evils". Plato considers oligarchy to be the form of government natural for those who "honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man." Plato says (or, more precisely, he writes in the Republic that Socrates said) that choosing political leaders based on wealth is as stupid as choosing the captain of a ship on a similar basis, while "a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?" The inevitable result for such a ship is shipwreck, and even more so is the case for a society that picks its rulers in such a way, for
such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another.
If anything, "oligarchy" describes the United States of America at least as well as Iran! The two main differences, however, are that in the USA the people don't care (or are at least complacent), and the rulers are united.

[All pictures are from Mark Levine's extremely excellent flickr photostream.]

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