(Tehran Bureau) | February 21, 2010

A specter is haunting Iran — the specter of democracy.

The events of the last eight months in Iran have occasioned — one might even say inspired — an array of interpretations and formulations. Many attempts have been made to categorize and explain the nature of the upheaval. In the heady, early days and weeks following the June election, Slavoj Žižek characterized what was unfolding in Iran as “a great emancipatory event.” Hamid Dabashi described the situation as “something quite extraordinary, perhaps even a social revolution”; Dabashi is best known for arguing that the Green wave amounts to a civil-rights movement, which, he adds, “does not mean that the Islamic republic may not, or should not, fall.” One commentator for a Marxist newspaper rhapsodically declares that what is happening heralds “a new reality,” something “so unique and new” that it could “transform not just Iran but the entire Middle East, indeed the whole world.”

So is it reform or revolution? Is it perhaps some amalgam of the two, or a gray area in between, as captured in Timothy Garton Ash’s coinage “refolution”? Are we witnessing the metamorphosis of what began as a program of reform into something else, something more radical and ambitious?

I tend to agree with Iranian political scientist Hossein Bashiriyeh that this is a “potentially revolutionary situation” that, depending on several variables, “may well turn into a thoroughly revolutionary situation.” Will it turn into one? Of course, we have no way of knowing. Following Charles Kurzman, we might describe the present situation as “unthinkable”. How events will turn out, even what direction they’re moving in, is simply impossible to determine.

What I think we can say, however, is that something very profound has taken place, and is taking place, in Iran today — something of enormous significance for Iran and its future. Whatever concrete outcome emerges, or fails to emerge, from the events unfolding, something very important has already happened. As Nader Hashemi has argued, “the Green Movement has already won an overwhelming ideological victory against the regime. In the realm of political ideas, the battle is over and Iran’s clerical oligarchs know it — liberal democratic ideas have triumphed.”

Read the full piece in Tehran Bureau.