BOOK REVIEW: How the first generation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard became its most important source of reform
Days after the vote but before Iran’s Supreme Leader sanctioned the results of the disputed 2009 presidential elections and unleashed the full weight of the state against millions of demonstrators, Mohammad Ahmadi was already on his third protest march, committed to participating in the Green Movement for the duration.
For Ahmadi, one of several veterans featured in Narges Bajoghli’s marvelous debut book, “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic,” the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came as a devastating blow. He hailed from the wartime generation of Basij, a jonbaz, or wounded veteran, bound to a wheelchair by the loss of both of his legs and three fingers to an explosive device. An established filmmaker whose productions regularly appeared in state media, he had nonetheless been heavily active in the campaign to defeat the president. In its aftermath, Ahmadi turned his anger and disappointment into direct action, participating with his family in peaceful demonstrations, determined to use his status as a visible war veteran as his witness.
That same visibility made him a target. Bajoghli describes how on the third day of protests in Tehran, plainclothes paramilitaries purposefully attacked Ahmadi and his family, pulling them from the crowd. Ahmadi watched helplessly as young Basijis beat his adult son in front of him and his wife, before turning their attack on him, viciously pummeling the veteran then tossing him out of his wheelchair. Piety and pedigree had not only failed to provide protection for Ahmadi and his family, it invited violence from a system that viewed men like Ahmadi as a mortal threat because of their righteousness.
Ahmadi shared with countless Basijis the same measure of loss, of friends killed in battle, of their own bodies, the limbs lost to the battlefield. The violent suppression of the Green Movement presented him with a new and unexpected agony, the loss of faith in a political system he had sworn to defend. “Though this beating was nothing in comparison to the wounds he had experienced at the war front,” writes Bajoghli, “Mr. Ahmadi sobbed uncontrollably that night…unable to believe that men in the Basij, the same organization that he had fought for throughout his youth, had beaten his mangled body.”
Conciliation not coercion
Regime stalwarts being beaten in the streets and squares of Tehran by paramilitary thugs is hardly the storyline we’ve come to expect from Iran, a country where accounts of the marginalization and repression of regime outsiders, its gheyr-e khodiha, is de rigueur for reporters. Less noticed by academics and the international press has been the struggle and suppression of the khodi, the internal critic who supports the system but who advocates for new approaches to dealing with political differences within Iran.
It is this overlooked figure who animates Bajoghli’s masterful study of the cultural politics of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its associated paramilitary groups, the Basij and Ansar Hezbollah. While the variability of politics in Iran has long been noted by researchers, many studies tend to focus either on the rise of a youthful and increasingly secularized public as it runs headlong into an implacable theocracy, or of a hopelessly factionalized elite, fragmented by petty rivalries and disagreements over how to implement the Khomeinist vision of Islamic government.
Bajoghli deftly weaves the two strands of analysis together in “Iran Reframed,” guided by nearly ten years of participant-observation and archival research inside of Iran, which allowed her unprecedented access to a wide variety of ordinary members and decision makers within the country’s security apparatus. She dispenses with the well-worn convention in Iranian studies of organizing her research subjects along a spectrum of hard and fast ideological categories. There are no easy typologies here, no claque of hardliners set against heroic reformers struggling against impossible odds to bring down the Islamic state and its praetorian guard.
Bajoghli instead stays close to the generational seams within the IRGC and Basij, populating her narrative with the true believer, young and old, ex-warriors who have become cultural producers, their swords exchanged for avid editors and digital cameras, the teleplay and radio program. It is here, along the creases separating cohorts, that God and juggernaut come undone.
“Iran Reframed” unravels the notion that the IRGC is the tip of the spear of an ascendant security state, a monolith of military men poised to take the reins of government away from Iran’s religious authorities. Bajoghli’s research demonstrates that not only is a military takeover unlikely in Iran, but, in what is likely to be its most enduring and singular contribution, explains how reconciliation between state and a youthful civil society in Iran is contingent on the conciliation of differences within its security forces over how best to regain the affection of an increasingly dissatisfied and restless public. The Green Movement was a wakeup call, a warning that the outsized ideational and material resources possessed by the IRGC and its many proxies are rendered impotent unless the leadership can develop a coherent cultural message, suited to the needs and preferences of younger Iranians.
A question of generations
As it turns out, the call to innovate and to change with the times emanates most urgently from the oldest generation of Guards and Basij, that first generation who fought as teenagers in the war and who now find themselves straining against the inertia of an ideological state that they helped establish. Detailed ethnographies of their behind-the-scenes battles with a rising generation of leaders, the nearly frantic pleas that the regime change course and produce cultural output that is berooz, in effect, “cool,” comprise the book’s most informative and engaging passages.
While Bajoghli’s interlocutors share the same imperative to preserve the system or nezam, they differ over how best to extend that devotion to the public at large, to convince their fellow citizens that the revolution belongs to all Iranians. Concealment and a “return” to nationalism emerge as the preferred tactics for regaining the cultural terrain. Produce the official message in an entertaining way but remove the regime’s fingerprints from film, radio, and television programs, director Morteza Payehshenas explains; otherwise the public will reject them out of hand. “I don’t want the viewer to know we made the film,” he says, meaning the regime, his use of the collective pronoun an accidental confession. As Bajoghli notes, for general audiences in Iran, a film produced by the authorities or the regime’s cultural centers is almost always seen as propaganda.
One wonders, however, at what point concealment becomes capitulation. An ideology that has to be disguised in order to be accepted is, by definition, already compromised, a deviation from the original plan. Like James C. Scott’s dissembling peasant, masks worn by the state to appease an unwilling public become, with time, skins. The message transforms, taking on the very qualities of the society that media producers are trying to change, as happened when regime cultural centers organized ad hoc festivals on holidays across the country, complete with free food, drinks, and emcees, an enticing prelude to public screenings of propaganda films in town squares. Designed to draw in young people, these festivals, Bajoghli wryly notes, often work “too well,” inspiring young people to get up and dance, only to be disappointed when the music stops and the film begins.
Or worse, the message is simply ignored. Such was the fate of the state-produced documentary, “The Wolves,” which “proves” that Iranian opposition groups, including those active during the 2009 Green Movement, are being funded by foreign enemies of Iran. Issued by the Ministry of Education as part of the official high school curriculum, teachers simply refused to show the film in their classrooms.
All too human
More than the loss of power or the defeat of political Islam, what Bajoghli’s subjects fear the most is the loss of recognition and personal dignity, of being treated as less than human by their government. The enduring anxiety of being cast back into the margins of society haunts the book’s narrative, and serves as motivation for much of its action. In a telling scene, Bajoghli relates how members of the Basij attending an art university are made to feel like outsiders, the “ultimate other,” by their more hipster classmates, because of their dress and bearing. (It will not be lost on most readers that the IRI systematically denies the humanity of entire sectors of Iranian society, a contempt matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the present American regime’s commitment to doubling down on crippling sanctions on Iran during a global pandemic.)
Such ambiguities and contradictions are what make “Iran Reframed” a compelling, and it must be said, refreshing read. These are not static, one-dimensional regime archetypes, but ad hoc ideologues who are, from day to day, shown to be flawed, inconsistent, capable of change. Bajoghli’s subjects exhibit an extraordinary level of self-awareness. They know that they are perceived as cruel and unsparing by outsiders as well as by those living inside Iran.
For example, Bajoghli introduces us to two young Basij filmmakers, Mostafa and Ali, who are watching a CNN segment on their laptops about the monolithic power of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. Mostafa laughs out loud at the notion:
“[Westerners] make it seem as if the Leader [Khamenei] says something and we just fall in line…Does anything in Iran work so smoothly?”
“You’re being optimistic to think that it’s only foreigners who think that way about us,” Ali responded. “Our own population thinks we’re blindly ideological and out to make their lives hell.”
Mostafa replies that the public is misled by “all the lies” the Iranian stations and websites from abroad tell them. When Bajoghli points out to Mostafa that one of those same websites was visible on his laptop, Mostafa answers defensively, “We have to know what they’re saying in order to respond to it,” before minimizing the window and changing the subject.
A loss like no other
The possibility that the most loyal members of the Islamic system are also its most effective vector for reform remains one of the most underreported stories out of Iran. The tendency of analysts to draw distinctions between “good” and “bad” actors in Iranian politics, based on distance to power, style of dress, and comportment. By this standard, nearly all of Bajoghli’s interlocutors would fall into the “bad” category, needlessly denying us an important source of evidence for explaining change within the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A more propitious starting point for analysis, featured prominently throughout “Iran Reframed” and noted earlier in this review, is the concept of khodi and gheyr-e khodi, the political “insider” and “outsider.” The concept originally emerged as a way to understand the internecine factional battles of the 1980s and 1990s, the height of what Bahman Bakhtiari describes as the “politics of exclusion.” Although it lost some of its explanatory luster with the expansion of the political sphere during the Khatami and Rouhani administrations, Bajoghli’s research points to a category of Iranian activist who straddles both sides of the divide, blurring the previous insider/outsider distinction.
This liminal space is where many former Revolutionary Guard and Basij members found themselves in the summer of 2009. Change did come to Iran, in no small measure because of the renewed efforts of men like Ahmadi, whose quiet and unnoticed efforts at organizing opposition at the grassroots, in mosques and religious schools, and in the cultural trenches, lay the groundwork for the rise of Rouhani. Coming out of the catastrophic repression of the Green Movement, Iran experienced a roughly ten-year period of reform and political development in which all manner of democratic improvement seemed possible as the loyal opposition found creative ways to leverage the existing system, including using turnout and the weight of numbers to make gains at the ballot box, to expand the exposed gaps between Iran’s Islamic structure and daily practice.
That that change, achieved at great cost and effort, proved to be insufficient, even reversible, does not diminish its considerable accomplishments or continued importance. The gaps have been sealed off, filled in by the pressure of sanctions, war, and the naked opportunism of fundamentalists on both sides of the water during the current pandemic. Loss once again hangs over Iran, clouding its present and its future as it did throughout 2009. And yet, despite his grief, Ahmadi pulled himself back into his chair and returned to the field, his faith regained, a combatant for the duration.