In a recent opinion piece in the Democrat and Chronicle, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, assistant professor of political science at HWS, offers her insight into the election turmoil and ensuing protests in Iran, as well as how the media portrayal of the situation impacts its outcome.
“…But if the current unrest in Iran is better understood via the vivid shades and gradations offered by new media, it is still an Iranian story, not an American story,” she writes, noting that America has the role of member of the “supporting cast” in the process.
She goes on to warn that “Protesters’ current coalescence around a questionable election suggests more cohesion among a group of actors with disparate interests and intentions than the images of crowds in Tehran streets may visually suggest. We need to resist the temptation to speak of ‘the reformists’ or ‘the opposition’ as a coherent bloc in need of our support.”
Philbrick Yadav received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Smith College and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation was titled “Islamist Parliamentary Practice and the Remaking of Democracy: Hizballah and Islah in Comparative Perspective.” A Dissertation Fellow with the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, she has teaching experience as a visiting instructor at Mount Holyoke College and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. She also lived and worked in Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen from 2003-2006 studying the impact of Islamist participation in the reconfiguring of national politics in Lebanon and Yemen.
The full text of her Democrat and Chronicle article follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
Hobart professor points out diversity among Iranian protestors
The Iranian revolution in 1979 was framed largely in the black (robes) and white (beards) of the clerical class’ Manichean rhetoric. This clerical class used such rhetoric to advance goals that sought to revolutionize Iranian state and society, but this revolutionary character was gradually obscured by an international media that characterized them as “hardliners”- as the keepers of orthodoxy.
In fact, the revolution produced a new fusion of ideas and institutions, including the architecture of a modern (and Islamic) state, replete with legislative, executive and judicial offices and a system of checks and balances. Authority is distributed across a range of institutions (including the famed Supreme Leader, but also the Guardian Council and the Council of Experts).
For this reason, referring the recent electoral irregularities “to the courts” in Iran makes sense, and reducing such complex judicial oversight to “Khameini’s power” is an unfair reproduction of the black and white paradigm that has been so unhelpful in understanding domestic Iranian politics.
But if the current unrest in Iran is better understood via the vivid shades and gradations offered by new media, it is still an Iranian story, not an American story. New media offers videoclips and tweets that lend a personal character to the story, but now, as in 1979, America’s role is as a member of the supporting cast. In 1979, protesters targeted the regime of the Shah – and secondarily, the American government that subverted Iranian voters to keep the Shah in power. Today, the target is far less clearly focused. Protesters’ current coalescence around a questionable election suggests more cohesion among a group of actors with disparate interests and intentions than the images of crowds in Tehran streets may visually suggest. We need to resist the temptation to speak of “the reformists” or “the opposition” as a coherent bloc in need of our support.
Think back: When nearly one-third of Lebanon’s population converged in downtown Beirut in 2005 to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, restoration of Lebanese sovereignty, they held vivid signs in French and English, and they tilted them skyward for the cameras on the rooftops, seeking-and securing – international support for “the Opposition” through a similar media blitz.
Nearly as soon as the Syrians had withdrawn, however, the coherence of that opposition crumbled, dispelling the myth of unity that had been so misleadingly projected via satellite. As in Beirut, in Tehran today the majority of work being done for change is being done locally, by actors and factions with a variety of divergent interests. It is not nearly as simple as “hard-liners” versus “reformers”- and only once the election issue recedes from the forefront might we gain a better appreciation for the range of interests contending for power in Iran.
Fortunately, Americans have a president who is sophisticated enough in his approach to speak critically of the current regime’s violence, without closing the door to dialogue. Rather than criticizing President Obama for being too restrained, we should be grateful that he shows the wisdom to avoid escalating America’s role in what is and should be an Iranian drama.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is assistant professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.