February 13, 2005

The Politics of Ambivalence and Appropriation

Posted by Alireza

A couple years ago, as I was preparing to leave my house to attend the annual Bahman 22 (February 10) rally marking the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran, I learned, to my great astonishment and amusement, that a formerly Communist relative of mine (I will call him an "uncle") would be driving us to the demonstration. My uncle, a respected doctor and editor of several popular magazines, had not suddenly discovered some kind of new love for the Islamic Republic, whose very ideological foundations he was, and still is, fiercely at odds with. Even so, he was probably the most enthusiastic among our little group of relatives at the rally, making repeated excited remarks about how many people had shown up, and at least once, running up a pedestrian overpass overlooking Azadi (freedom) street near Sharif University to get a better view of the massive turnout of Tehranis. That day was a particularly cold and snowy Bahman 22, much like the anniversary this year. There were many more umbrellas than there were banners, and people bought little plastic cups of roasted lima beans and lentil soup to keep warm. My uncle, whose presence at the rally on that day I consider to be the perfect reflection of a political "ambivalence" that I mean to talk about in this post, articulated the reason for his presence as support for the "sayyid" (Mohammad Khatami, at the time already president for two years) who was to speak at the end of the demonstration (although even his use of the term "sayyid" had inflections of irony and parody, but I won't get into that issue here). His knowledge of the fact that he would be among the hundreds of thousands of people from across Iran that the right-wing-controlled state television would show (I would say "appropriate") again and again and again and again for the next two weeks with triumphant declarations that the people had "renewed their allegiance" with the Islamic Revolution did not deter him the least bit from his decision to show his support for the reformist president in this way.

Most politicians and political analysts (from journalists to pundits to even political scientists) do not seem to like the concept of "ambivalence" very much. In their analyses, people are always neatly bunched into groups "for" or "against" something (often an entire system of governance), and judgments are often made about how close each of these groups are to "us" or to "them" based on the "criteria" (often serving only the heuristic interests of the analyst in question) that unite or divide them. There is not a lot of room in these interpretations for nuance or uncertainty in people's relationship toward ideas, individuals, political parties, historical events, etc. and this leads, in my opinion, to serious errors in judgment, sometimes with dire consequences.

Herein lies, I believe, the quandary that many observers of Iran, both within the country and without, are faced with in explaining the often "paradoxical" political behaviors of Iranian society: sit in most any taxicab or gathering of friends and relatives and you are bound to hear angry complaints about the crimes du-jour of the "akhoonds" and their most recent destructive policies; and yet there is a good chance that you might see the same people from the taxicabs and family dinners taking part in a "pro-government" demonstration (like Bahman 22) or participating in an election that friends and foes of the government alike would interpret as an endorsement of the "Revolution."

The solution to the resulting confusion (ever so apparent in the writings of most influential opinion-makers in the west - Friedman and Ledeen come to mind for some reason), lies, I believe, in avoiding reductive and homogenizing categorizations of people as either "regime loyalists" or as outright opponents of the state, and instead being mindful of nuances in political positionings and ambivalent relationships toward a multitude of ideologies, histories, political personalities and groups (with their respective histories and ideologies), within the context of shifting local, national, and international politics. Even the Iranian "state" and its semantic equivalents in western journalistic parlance (from the highly imprecise "mullahs" to the equally ill-defined "Islamic regime") are extremely amorphous and elude homogeneous characterizations, and the feelings that "the people" harbor toward this amorphous mass need to be interpreted with close attention to nuance and specificity.

Of course, one might argue that there is political purpose behind the neglect of "ambivalence" and the wholesale appropriation of a heterogeneity of beliefs and attitudes for bolstering narrowly specific political interests. State television in Iran uses the mass turnout at every demonstration or nationwide election to trumpet the "people's" approval of conservative or right-wing elements in the state. Western media likewise exploit every "anti-government" protest or confrontation between the different political forces in Iran to trumpet the decline of the "people's" interest in the "Revolution" and the imminent downfall of the "regime." But the cracks in these pictures of perfection (whether utopic or dystopic) often become apparent in ways that are both compelling and ironic: The massive turnout of people to vote in the 1997 presidential election, for example, ended up endorsing the underdog (Khatami) whom the ruling right wing had consistently bashed for his "anti-Islamic" and "counter-revolutionary" policies. The large turnout of people at the Bahman 22 protest last week presents an inverse picture, in my opinion, that confounds the expectations of the likes of Friedman and Ledeen who want us to believe that Iranians are "hungering" for the Bushniks to "liberate" them from their oppressors. In both cases, I believe it is wrong to lump together "the people" using generalizations that would have them at one instance as "loyalists" and at the other as "opponents" of the government. Any analysis would have to take into account the multitude of forces that are at play in any individual's decision to take part in such high-visibility collective actions as a national election or rally (whether pro- or anti-government); from feelings of nationalism and religious conviction to anti-imperialist sentiment to specific feelings about particular political groups and personalities or even particular issues of national interest (in this case for example, the issue of nuclear energy), and to balance these, once again with attention to specificity, with feelings about the economy, the suppression of dissident voices, government mismanagement, and so on.

Ambivalent positionings can bring seemingly opposing feelings together: one can vehemently criticize the government's suppression of dissent while supporting the nuclear program; one can oppose the totalitarianism of the right wing while also opposing the subversion of the government through foreign military intervention; and one can cry foul at the dismantling of democratic process (for example at the most recent parliamentary elections) while simultaneously taking part in the same flawed process with hopes of bolstering democracy in general. The same can of course be said of the American context (as Niki pointed out eloquently in the previous post). It is possible to be "for freedom" while opposing U.S. military expansionism. We need to be able to recognize ambivalence in such complex relationships as those between "people" and "state" if we are to avoid being misled by those whose political interests lead them to make grand generalizations about the state of entire nations.

February 13, 2005 02:39 AM | TrackBack

Hi, Nice post! All I wanted to say is that certain occasions are different from others. Meaning that probably "most" of the people going for the 22nd of Bahman rally are in favor of the Islamic Revolution. Even if they have a lot of criticisms on the government, parliament, judiciary ... they are still in favor of the nature of the revolution and for what it stood and still stands. That's why you can compare what the IRIB says about different occasions with maybe what CNN and BBC say but on some when "most" people go out for something it is quite natural to refer to them as "all". Especially this time where i think all were branded as people going to punch USA in the mouth!! anyhow good luck!

Posted by: Ahmadreza at February 14, 2005 03:44 AM

I think what your uncle saw and unfortunately most of our compatriots don't see is progress. My impression is that your uncle should be at least in his fifties and like yourself very well educated. He remembers the Shah's era where there was no paradox; everybody was against the regime in one way or another, but for obvious reasons nobody talked about it. Now you talk about this paradox. I wonder why there is such a paradox in the Iranian society. Why you think people are determined to save this revolution, even though they're against the mullahs.
Nowadays I get most of my news about Iran from the weblogs, especially the ones in Iran. The news is not good. A lot of young people are upset, disillusioned, frustrated etc. They want change and they don't see it forthcoming. They had great hopes in Khatami which did not materialize. How do you think we can reach this younger generation and explain to them that George W. is not the answer to their prayers?

Posted by: Jahangir at February 14, 2005 04:45 AM

Whenever we realize that "noone" will help you if you don't help yourself, a large portion of the way we see our problems coule be solved. If you dont care about yourself, your country, the people you vote for or dont vote for, if you dont care about other people's opinions. And last but not least if you always wait for someone else to solve your problems, you'll never take a step towards your dreams. The people who made the revolution happen risked their lives and some sacrificed it. What are we "the young generation" willing to do, to make Iran change for the better?

Posted by: Ahmadreza at February 14, 2005 09:47 AM

The fact that a communist subscribes to the Iranian revolution, comes as no surprise, since there are two major league communists factions, the revisionists, and the post Stalinists, along with many other minor leagues!

Without heavy analysis, the principle remains that, it is the suffrage and their decisions that matters. Plebeians often discounted by the elitists, in fact are far more intelligent, and capable of sifting out the wheat from the chaff! That is if they are afforded the opportunity to evolve and attain the levels of sophistication required for this feat.

Often democracy seen in the western context is written about, debated, and discussed, without any references to the actualities of the models incorporated. This phenomenon hinges upon the collusion of the publishers, and the established powers in promoting and or rejecting the material that are to be disseminated.

This factor bringing about an environment devoid of the true competition that is necessary for the best of breed paradigms to evolve. Hence the monolithic notions of democracy that are before us. Further, based on the scarcity of the data on the operational parameters of these available models, there emerges the disjointing of the actual modalities from that of the theoretical.

Therefore often missing from any debate is the process underlying the selection of the political movements by the would be member, as well as their ascendancy and or rejection within their chosen political organisation. That is freedom of choice between the bad and the ugly is no feat of democracy!

Hence the notions of democracy, in effect yield power structures that are mere dictatorships, while cultivating the perceptions of the suffrage as to their open, free, and transparent nature. The validation of this claim can be found in the recent so called elections in US that have brought on the reign of the current selection of the respective plutocrats, by hook, or by crook!

Since the political movements that support the selected member, in effect are choosing the next leader without the participation of the larger masses, further the climate is designed as to discount any probable mass movements, through the massive financial and legal barriers put in place. Alternatively the would be leader can only emerge through following certain channels and garnering the approval of the power players whose interests shall remain paramount overriding that of the suffrage, simply put dictatorship by Junta! (they have the gall to call Iran undemocratic)

Iranian political structures during the reign of that racist, puppet king of the kings, sun of the Arian Lands, HRH, he whose farts smelt as roses, had laid waste to any cohesive political movement. Although despite all his efforts, and the help of US Israeli constituted SAVAK, he lost the throne, however the vacuum in the absence of any cohesive political movement heralded the engagement of the theocracy within the process of the politics. This phenomenon can be studied in the recent Iraqi elections too.

However, the levels of political awareness in Iran since have by far surpassed the levels of awareness in the West. Ask anyone who has been to Iran to recall the main topics of conversation, further the levels of sophistication on display that is misinterpreted as the upset youth, in fact are the manifestation of a healthy scepticism on display that cannot escape the attention of the political leadership, since these can vote at the age fifteen, and their votes carry equal weights!

Nevertheless the notion of utopia tomorrow is not a sane, or a pragmatic expectation, and Iranians are bound to make mistakes, during their quest to their desired levels of people power. That is if they are left alone to carry on their evolution. As we witness the unwelcome attention of US at this time, hell bent on dispossessing Iranians from their land, resources and freedoms threatens the fundamental sovereignty of that country, rendering all other arguments null, and Iranians realise that without a free Iran there could never be any freedom of action, less said about evolution as they see Iraq standing as irrefutable proof!!!

Posted by: NUM at February 15, 2005 12:48 AM

I'm not a politic person. But I like peace. I hate war. Especially when the reason is because of a right for our country. I believe it is our right to have nuclear energy and even nuclear weapon. Why not?
There is a lot of bad experience from U.S.A. which has nuclear weapons.
It used it before in a war and we don't.
U.S.A. is the most ready country for war in the world as we could see every where which is war U.S.A. is there!
Why some countries should have nuclear weapon and we should not!!!
And all of the people in the world know that U.S.A. is one of the countries which are against us and who knows it will not use of its nuclear weapons against us?
So it is our right to have it to defend from ourselves.
U.S.A love war everywhere for every reason. Others in the world should be conscious about it.
It says they are against terrorism. But they themselves make terror and kill a lot of innocent people in the world.

Posted by: marzieh at February 15, 2005 07:21 AM

They really have no shame:

Two stories posted in the last week on the CNN website, one on nukes in Iran last Wednesday, and another on nukes in North Korea on Saturday, both use the same aerial photograph of the same purported nuclear power plant!


Posted by: claudedorsel at February 15, 2005 08:02 AM

I read a lot of opinions about war on Iran in this blog and somewhere else. I want to remind readers, specially non-iranian ones the complications in the situation here. Some of the comments, e.g. by NIKI, have a very simple logic that this is a war on terrorism and since people in Iran are frustrated from their goverment, war is legitimated and will go as easy as in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I am very sorry for those simply minded friends. The straggling for freedom in Iran backs to hundred years ago, we (iranians) know better than any american what freedom means really. Also we touch war by our bones and skins. If there is any doubt here, think about these questions. Have you been in a real war? Have you ever been under attack by planes, missiles, etc? How about your freedom? Have you been in jail for writing against your goverment, participating in a raly, or even drinking bear in your room, or walking with your girl/boy friend? Now my real question is that which one do you prefer? freedom or your life? liberity or security? The sad point is that Bush and his company never ask people about their preferences. Probably some of you answer that brave people will choose freedom. Well, this is my answer: I am an IRANIAN niether in support of Ayatollahs nor in Bush, I will defend my country against any forigners. Iran is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq.

Posted by: Darius at February 15, 2005 09:40 AM

Sorry, in my last comment, I mentioned NIKI by mistake. The correct example is NUR's comment.

Posted by: Darius at February 15, 2005 09:50 AM

Tips on how to liberate Iran
By Sharif N Mafi

Seymour Hersh has told us that some GI’s are creeping around the deserts south of the Zahedan preparing for W’s next war. I do not subscribe to the New Yorker but I tend to listen when Mr. Hersh speaks; he seems to know what’s cooking way ahead of time. So I would like to make some suggestions to the GI’s in case they actually do make it to Tehran and decide (God forbid) to ‘obliterate’… oops. sorry. I mean, “liberate” us… Falluja style.

Tehran Traffic – if your Central Intelligence Agency has been telling you that Tehran has a functioning traffic system, well they have been somewhat mendacious again. Over there, not even a Daisy Cutter is going to help you. Just sit down in your Humvee, plug in that iPod 40G and pop in a Prozac… extra strength.

Café Naderi – please….please… please, pay a bit of attention when carpet bombing the city with your “precision’ bombs. We are already shocked and awed by your reelection of ‘W’ last November, so there is no further need to stun us. The only place that truly will be missed if leveled will be our beloved Café Naderi. The waiters are primordial, the food is so-so, and the Turkish coffee is dreadful, but it has a slightly dowdy fin-de-siecle feel to it and is much loved.

The Pollution – those elusive “Five years” the wily Israelis keep saying Iran is from obtaining the bomb started in 1977 and we are apparently still five years away, but do not be disenchanted. The air in Tehran is the true WMD you have been searching for so desperately. Those scheming Eye-rainians have managed to manufacture it right under the nose of IAEA. Put on those chemical warfare jumpsuits you have been gingerly saving since Baghdad, and be sure to wear them as you work your way down to downtown Tehran where the sky has a bluish hue to it.

Body Counts – Never mind them, so long as you reinstall our little silly exiles a-la 1953 Coup style, all will be forgotten. Well at least that’s what they will tell you.

The Current President – I say keep this fellow. After all is said and done: new hospitals, refineries and bridges need to be inaugurated. Red ribbons need to be cut. Foreign diplomats’ credentials need to be accepted in colorful receptions. This chap is a skilled master of ceremonies and not much else (he has had 8 years of practice).

Tehran Drivers – The guy with a beat-up RD trying to squeeze in between your 8x8 light armored vehicles while throwing insults and waving his middle index finger at you is not an insurgent. Trust me. He is just trying to make maximum usage of the road by turning a 3-lane highway into 6 lanes.

Esteghlal Football Club; Feel free, absolutely free, to disband this terror cell. Take naked photos of its players for your viewing pleasures, and Gitmo the managers. As a diehard Persepolis fan, I can see no harm any of it.

P.S. Iranians loathe the Bahraini national football squad (for eliminating our side from the last World Cup) and equally abhor the National Geographic Magazine (for it’s branding our beloved Gulf as Arabian). So if you could drop a few of your ‘precisions’ on the Bahraini training ground and keep the ban on that inflammatory publication, you will certainly win all the hearts and minds in the streets of Tehran.

In closing, remember that Alexander (no… not Colin Farrell), the Arabs, the Mongols and even the Russians, did us in a few times here and there along our long treacherous history. But along the way, they all became a bit Iranian themselves. So if many years from now you find yourself a bit superficial, slightly superstitious and a believer of conspiracy theories (commonly involving the British), you will finally realize that the Iranian insurgency is in full swing.

Posted by: sharif n mafi at February 16, 2005 07:20 PM

The original painting (of the bird with the flower and the butterfly), represents more the ambivalence and the complexity that you are referring to: the lover (the bird), sitting next to the flower (its traditional beloved), had turned its gaze towards a new beloved (the butterfly, who in the symbolism of traditional Persian poetry is a paradigmatic substitute for the bird itself). The butterfly is also in love with the flower (a paradigmatic substitute for the traditional candle). (As it has been asked before: Where is the female bird?)

In the new logo of nowaroniran.com the butterfly has been cropped—still beautiful.

As Hafez put it:
Dar kaare golaab o gol, hokme azali in bood
Kin shaahede baazaari, vaan pardeh neshin baashad.

Posted by: manouchehr at February 17, 2005 09:08 PM

There is an underlying assumption in the Iranian and Iranian ex-pat posts that really doesn't fit with reality. That assumption is that the US wants to attack Iran.

It makes no sense. There is nothing to gain. What the US wants to see in Iran is going to happen anyway - whether they invade or not. So why would they spend $500billion for nothing?

I think Iranians are paranoid.

Posted by: Richard at February 18, 2005 07:44 AM

Before patologizing Iranians, you may want to deliberate on the fact that the history of the U.S. policies and practices towards Iran has not been very glorious and friendly. This history gives very good reasons to people for being concerned (some of the posts here have pointed to that history, so I will not repeat them).
I am thinking paranoia would actually best describe what the U.S. has done after September 11 in the region (preemptive war in the name of WMDs that were nowhere to be found!)
Have your heard the story of the boy who cried wolf? I think we have heard this story of "danger" and "risk" way too many times and have very good reasons not to believe what the U.S. government claims about Iran. That is not paranoia, my friend. That is being rational.

Posted by: Sima at February 18, 2005 04:49 PM


Nice, I didn’t know there is another campaign for peace in Iran. During last days I was organizing a campaign on No War In Iran and I have received a wonderful feedbacks from people.
Please have a look at my web-log : http://www.saharmaranlou.blogspot.com/
Some group of independent thinkers are going to make a flash mob on this issue. Please read the comments on No War In Iran and find more information.


Posted by: Sahar at February 18, 2005 05:09 PM

There is no such a thing as “the US interest” in "reality." This is an ideological construction. The possible war in Iran, like the ongoing war in Iraq, benefits some classes, industries and groups inside the US, not the whole US population. The masculinity and the self/othering of the war rhetoric veils its class underpinnings.

Posted by: manouchehr at February 18, 2005 05:47 PM

Yeah paranoid alright, move on (wave, wave) there is nothing to see here, aye?

'America would back Israel attack on Iran'

"Clearly, if I was the leader of Israel and I'd listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well. And in that Israel is our ally, and in that we've made a very strong commitment to support Israel, we will support Israel if her security is threatened." ,

Posted by: NUM at February 18, 2005 08:57 PM

Nope. Not the droids you are looking for....

Posted by: nur at February 18, 2005 09:29 PM

"those who control the past control the present, those who control the present control the future" 1984

It does not have to be, unless you let them to!!!!

First, They Attack the Past

Why are famous journalists so eager, almost as a reflex, to minimize the culpability of political leaders such as Bush and Blair who share responsibility for the unprovoked attack on a defenseless people, for laying to waste their land, and for killing at least 100,000 people, most of them civilians, having sought to justify this epic crime with demonstrable lies?

Posted by: NUM at February 19, 2005 01:23 AM


viewing world events is like mixing colors. If you add red, green, and blue then you will get white. Each of the three colors represents one point of view. White represents the truth.

If you do not find some truth in other points of view, then it is impossible to create white (find the truth).

You do not need to believe or promote the other opinions, but white can not be achieved without finding the elements of truth behind them.

Posted by: richard at February 19, 2005 11:18 AM

Bush said in an interview on Monday that he has no plans to attack Iran. This is a far cry from what he's been advocating all along; hence the creation of this weblog and all the opinions that have been expressed. In my opinion he wants to calm the financial market. After the 'explosion' near the Iranian nuclear facilities, and the shakeup in the market, Wall Street needed some assurances from Bush that the attack is not imminent and they got it.

Posted by: Mohamad at February 19, 2005 03:03 PM
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