On Tuesday evening at the New York Public Library, Professor Saïd Amir Arjomand held forth before a sizable and attentive audience on the narrative history and socio-political structures of post-revolutionary Iran. Arjomand is the author of, most recently, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors, with which he aspires to provide not only a study of the “long shadow” cast by Khomeini’s legacy over Iranian politics—a shadow, he argues, that has begun to lift only this year, three decades after the Revolution—but, in addition, a social-theoretical framework for the analysis of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics in the Iranian context.
Arjomand explains the revolutionary process in terms of, first, an explosive mass-mobilization and dismantling of regnant power structures, invariably followed by the solidification of a new political class and, therefore, a “rolling back” of the initial upheaval. The governing class that emerged in Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution has been tested since the beginning by contentious divisions between its clerical and lay elements. Its capacity to govern effectively, to the extent that it could, was for the first ten years of post-revolutionary Iran sustained by the centrality and charisma of Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
Following his death in 1989, the governance of Iran was left in the hands of the Children of the Revolution, for whom the condition sine qua non of political action remained reference to Khomeini’s vision of the Islamic Republic and thus to the three principles he had outlined as the basis of revolutionary politics: republicanism, social justice, and theocracy. However inchoate that sequence may sound, it was only in reference to some combination thereof, argued Arjomand, that any political initiative whatsoever could be legitimately undertaken.
It is this knot, wound around the absent figure of the first Ayatollah and the principles he embodied in the eyes of his “children,” that has begun to come undone in recent months. The leaders of Iran’s reformist contingent, whose defeat in last year’s election led to the unrest that has sent tremors through the streets of Tehran and beyond, remain bound, ultimately, to the formative experience of their political lives and thus to Khomeini’s nebulous and, it seems clear, impracticable vision of a theocratic republic. However, the movement they have created, argued Arjomand, has exceeded their capacity to effectively control it and to contain its aspirations, making for a high degree of uncertainty with respect to Iran’s future.
Does that mean that another revolution, one justified in direct opposition to that of 1979, is imminent? Hardly, said Arjomand. The leaders of the Green Movement have, at least publicly, disavowed any revolutionary intentions. And the amorphous body of the movement itself, while increasingly critical of the very notion of theocracy, lacks the cohesiveness and organizational structure—such as was once provided by predominant presence of Ayatollah Khomeini—to effect lasting structural change. “But,” he added with a grin, “who wants another charismatic leader?”