The Duck of Minerva

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Elite cohesion faltering in Iran.. or just kubuki theater?

June 15, 2009

Today Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered an investigation into allegations of vote fraud in the presidential election as “tens of thousands” of pro-Mousavi protesters took to the streets in a so-far peaceful march. The march suggests that despite the government’s extensive attempts to disrupt counter-regime mobilization, opposition leaders and ordinary people are making headway in coordinating their activities.

I still believe that events in Iran throw cold-water on network-mobilization optimism, insofar as they demonstrate that governments still enjoy, ceteris paribus, fundamental advantages over social movements, and that these advantages will often carry the day if the government chooses to put them into practice.

But the latter is the key issue. If Khamenei’s decision reflects an growing increasingly intense rupture among various power-holders and power-centers in the Iranian regime, then the opposition has real cause for optimism. But if this is just kabuki theater, designed to de-mobilize the opposition and reinforce the legitimacy of the election among those loyal to Ahmadinejad, then it is far from clear whether that will ultimately take the wind out of the oppositions sails, or embolden them by showing the they’ve managed to scare the regime. It’s also far from clear whether a certification of the election results by the Guardian Council will help push any fence-sitters away from the opposition or, instead, further undermine the legitimacy of another part of the establishment. And this decision is sure to play into speculation that Ahmadinejad and his allies are attempting to carry out a shadow coup against the old guard, including Khamenei.

Unfortunately, I’m not an Iran expert, so I really have no idea. But that also reflects the underlying unpredictability of revolutionary processes. More on that theme, if time permits, later.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I think the way I wrote this may be a bit misleading. In many respects, what’s happening in Iran is an inter-elite squabble; the issue is whether the various power-centers in the regime completely fracture or enough of them hold the line to, among other things, ensure Ahmadinejad holds onto the Presidency.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.