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Iran and the Limits of "Raising Awareness"
"Awareness" without context and understanding is meaningless.
For the second time in less than a year, the ideals and values that we supposedly champion - individual freedoms and liberties, political freedoms, and human rights - are under the microscope with the uprising in Iran. But there is one salient distinction; in Iran these are mere concepts, not reality. When Ukraine was invaded, for the third time in less than a decade, in February by Putin’s Russia, the Russian military met head-on with the fury of entire nation mobilised to defend their sovereignty: men, women, anyone of service age. While Russia-apologists, particularly on the toxic American Right, attempted to portray Ukraine as an oligarchic state, the truth is that based on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) score, Ukraine was in the top 10 democratising nations over the past decade. Ironically, America is now officially scored as a nation moving to autocracy, the only Western nation other than Greece with a declining LDI over the past decade; a nation undergoing “democratic-backsliding”, to use the euphemism.
This is why the situation in Iran is so fundamentally different to Ukraine; although an imperfect democracy-in-progress, the Ukrainian nation has been able to mount a response through the autonomy and independence of its government and people. It is both a top-down response, led by its democratically elected government and supported by the international community not only with words, but with guns; and it is a bottom-up response, with Ukrainians who celebrated last Christmas as civilians now fighting to restore their sovereignty and territorial integrity. This combination of top-down and bottom-up coordination is crucial; although the romanticised version of revolutions is that of “by the people”, no revolution is successful without elements of top-down support for the grassroots uprising. This is another historical lesson that must be borne in mind when considering the current popular revolt in Iran.
Like Ukraine, or any of the social convulsions since 2020, for those of us in the West, the situation in Iran plays out on our screens, a torrent of sharing under the rallying cry of “raising awareness”. And there is no doubt some importance to sharing footage, imagery, and information on these events, particularly for a nation with State-control of media and internet access that is able to suppress the flow of information to the wider world. This isn’t an argument against sharing information and highlighting the brutality of what people in Iran are facing by confronting the apparatus of a repressive theocracy. But watching the situation in Iran unfold has, at least for me, demonstrated just how limited this idea of “raising awareness” is when that “awareness” comes with such detachment from reality or any desire for meaningful understanding of a situation. This typifies Western progressives, who as usual appear to be looking for little more than to apply their own mantras to the situation, as if the entire movement in Iran can be distilled down to a hijab-based version of “my body, my choice”.
It is one thing to “raise awareness”; it is another when that awareness comes devoid of context, detached from any meaningful engagement with understanding the reality of a situation. And much of this “awareness” is detached from reality, a constellation of the usual empty, vacuous platitudes of Western liberals (“this is what bravery looks like!”) offered up on social media while a 16-year old girl is beaten to death for refusing to sing a pro-Islamic Republic song. When I’ve raised my discomfort with this uncomfortable dichotomy with Western liberals, it is met with the same pithy justification: “they’re raising awareness”. Oh, my mistake. But while hell hath no fury like White Girls of Instagram (WGI+) taking offence on behalf of the oppressed, forgive my skepticism for thinking that Ali Khamenei hopping on Instagram Reels to the sight of Western progressives trimming the split-ends off their hair will make the Supreme Leader shake in his Islamist boots.
I wonder how long we can continue with the “raising awareness” trope when the realities of the situation are so grave and consequential for the people involved on the ground. When the “raising awareness” occurs without any regard or desire for understanding the issues in more detail. The failure of the Arab Spring provides a more likely prediction for how this ends; the suppression of the progressive uprisings and retrenchment of repressive, autocratic regimes. A combination of the destabilising effects of America’s misguided and mismanaged invasion of Iraq, and wider regional failing states, has provided a catalyst for Iran to cement itself as a regional hegemon, funding proxy wars through militias in Iraq (Shiite militias), Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria (direct military and financial support to Assad), and Yemen (the Houthis).
Scholar Karim Sadjadpour has highlighted the deft ways in which the Islamic Republic deploys a mix of anti-imperialism (primarily directed against the U.S. and Israel), Iranian nationalism, and Shiite sectarianism, as it deems appropriate. Iran cultivates Shiite loyalty to the Islamic Republic, which reaches into Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, whereas in contrast, Sunni paramilitaries such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State were non-state actors that aimed to topple Arab governments. Nevertheless, the regimes ideological pragmatism finds expression in support for Sunni Hamas. In cultivating its regional role, Iran has become little more than what Sadjadpour termed “king of the rubble”. But this is a rubble from which the U.S has largely withdrawn, in which Europe is powerless, and in which Iran’s domestic theocratic alignment has recently cemented with the “election” of Ebrahim Raisi as president.
For the current moment of domestic uprising, it is this political alignment that is of most concern. To understand why, it is important to grasp that Iran’s political setup is characterised by what Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar termed “the parallel state”; on the one hand is the president of Iran at the head of the elected government, and on the other hand is the supreme leader (whom the West refer to as “the Ayatollah”), and “parallel state” institutions that preside over the theocracy of Iranian society. A tension has long existed between the theocratic parallel state and the government, with presidential elections serving as the primary hope for reform within Iran. Indeed, up until the 2021 presidential election, previous presidents - Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani in particular - started out with reformist hopes, but these were deemed to be too secular, liberal, and anti-revolutionary by the parallel state, and quashed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the behest of the Supreme Leader. The most recent wave of protests prior to the current uprising occurred in 2009 at the reelection of Ahmadinejad; these were violently suppressed by the IRGC.
The lesson which the parallel state internalised over the past two decades was that any movement within Iranian society for reform - or indeed to dethrone the parallel state as the primary social force - would come through the presidency and government. Consequently, it ensured the success of the current president Ebrahim Raisi as a loyal hardliner for the Islamic Republic. Thus, for the first time, the president and government are ideologically aligned with the parallel state, given the Supreme Leader primacy with the full backing of the IRGC and security forces. The consequences for the present uprising are grave, because while the discontent may have popular support, it is fragmented, lacks leadership and organisation, and has no coherent outcome goals. Such a movement is no match for the theocratic State, when military and security forces are loyal to the supreme leader. There is also no consensus either in U.S. policies or within the “liberal international order” for how to deal with Iran, either. To quote Tabaar:
“The Islamic Republic has proved too rigid to bend and too ruthless to break.”
It is this grim reality that makes me struggle with the pointless platitudes, while also acknowledging the importance that what is happening is brought to light and known. I’m dumbfounded by the sheer incuriousness of Western liberals for any understanding of the state apparatus of the Islamic Republic, the political alignments, or really anything of substance pertaining to this moment, in favour of the usual slogan-based empty rhetoric. But then again, after the past few years of social upheavals, this is also unsurprising; Western liberals are defined by a seeming commitment to ignorance and aloofness in their emptiness. For most Western progressives, it is the performance that is itself the outcome. There is a conspicuous absence of any principles, replaced as they have been by a series of ideological mantras about the world and the nature of reality that make their responses to events like those in Iran seem even more absurd.
We have, for example, a culture of total self-immolation among Western liberals, particularly in the U.S., for the entire project of “the West”, i.e., of Enlightenment values, democracy, liberalism, individual freedoms and social tolerance. Their pastime is little more than eviscerating these concepts with the usual vapid slogans of “imperialism” etc., until events like those in Ukraine or Iran occur, and suddenly they are performing to the tune of free societies and self-determination. The hypocrisy is rank, what Leila Al Shami called “the ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots”, which places grand narratives that suit Western liberals over the lived realities of people under oppressive regimes. Of course, part of this absurdity is that Western liberals have tried to portray our own societies as the most oppressive “power structures” in existence. Particularly in the nuthouses of American universities, we’ve had to listen to liberals trying to convince us that places like Yale are epicentres of oppression, demanding “safe spaces” to shield from the “harm” caused by inanimate objects, and the “violence” of words. So when real violence is inflicted on people in real repressive societies for whom there is no “safe space” from the apparatus of a persecutory State, it lays bare the pathetic self-absorption of Western liberals that could ever conflate these concepts.
Our societies are imperfect, but these ideals are the only method of organising societies that, because of the core institutional concepts of separation of powers, freedom of assembly and expression, have allowed for the progressive evolution of rights over time. None more so than rights of women. Yet Western liberals will no longer even define what “woman” means, with the most extreme end of this faction denying the materiality of womanhood and replacing it with a construct that amounts to little more than feelings and cosplay. So when Western liberals cry “this is about woman everywhere!”, it begs the question of who exactly, according to their prevailing dogma, is being beaten, murdered, and disappeared in Iran right now. Yet everything that is happening in Iran reflects the materiality of women in Iran, their relegation to second-class citizens is sex-based, not construct-based. Typical of the myopic liberal obsession with language, we are now being told to drop the word ‘protest’ in favour of ‘revolution’, as if the choice of word changes the material reality of on the ground or the prognosis for the success of the civil unrest - as if we can ‘manifest’ regime change. But then again, Western progressives quite literally believe that words do alter material reality, so this is another unsurprising absurdity in their response to Iran.
Protest. Revolution. Uprising. Unrest. Whatever. The words do not matter. The reality on the ground is not changed by words. Regime change is not ‘manifested’. And because Iran has incubated itself against the world, no outside help is coming, unlike for Ukraine. The end of the Islamic Republic will require elements of the parallel state to align with the protesters, to provide some top-down support for the bottom-up grassroots unrest and desire for change. Absent this, it is more likely that, like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic decays to the point of dissolving, possible catalysed by the death of Khamenei (who is 83). And while we watch, helpless, Western liberals could do worse than tone down the self-immolating rhetoric and realise that if they live in a society where they have so much freedom they can invent their own oppression, and are so safe that they can feel threatened by a statute or the name of a building, then they sound like pathetic fools when a repressive theocracy rears its forces to inflict violence and murder on women for no more reason than being a woman.