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Reading Arendt in Tehran: On New Beginnings, Communities in Action, and
Cosmopolitanism from Below
Abstract: This article seeks to understand the Iranian anti-government uprising through an
Arendtian lens. It is argued that models which exclusively focus on civil rights claims or tensions
between “faith” and “democracy” within the theocracy fail to grasp key dimensions of the protest.
Sparked by election fraud, the Green movement engaged in “principled action”. Its agents
actualized public freedom, power and legitimacy under non-democratic institutional conditions.
Taking power to the streets, a diverse multitude temporarily recovered the public realm. Though
subsequently destroyed by the regime’s violence, the multitude constituted new beginnings by
means of politics of transgression that contested existing legal boundaries of the Islamic
Republic. Moreover, the Green freedom movement’s power has been reinforced by transnational
publics that took part in these communities in action. This transnational empowerment challenges
models that presuppose an inevitable trade-off between circumscribed public autonomy and
transnational democracy. Depending on non-institutionalized, non-regularized public venues, the
Iranian multitude points to democracy as self-authorized and self-empowering, extrajudicial and
extraordinary performative practices of public contestation. They also epitomize an Arendtian
cosmopolitanism from below: it emphasizes situated politics but also recognizes a “common
present” of mankind and the significance of transnational publics in the struggle to enable
political voice, protect rights, and reclaim public freedom. As such, the unrest in Iran, not unlike
other new uprisings in the Middle East, points to particular communities in action and
extraordinary democratic acts through which some universal claims are actualized and
Keywords: Arendt, communities in action, democratic legitimacy, human rights, Iran, power,
public freedom, cosmopolitanism, transnational publics
The unexpected anti-government protests that broke out in the aftermath of the
controversial 2009 presidential election in Iran epitomized both a local and global event of a
distinct nature. It did not only affect the lives of Iranians; it mobilized, and was supported by,
diverse transnational publics. And it arguably marked the beginning of new forms of protests,
uprisings and struggles for public freedom across the Middle East. In spite of the government
crackdown, the democratic unrest faced and its own shortcomings to reestablish free public
spaces for good, the events of 2009 may in retrospect be viewed as the first in a series of popular
uprisings shaking the Middle East—some of them resulting in full-fledged revolutions—and, in a
peculiar way, as the audacious beginning of a new wave of democratization from below, albeit
with varying success. Be that as it may: Although the Iranian case is in many ways distinct and
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distinctly situated—shaped by specific local and political conditions, conflicts, struggles, issues
and grievances—it also, I shall argue in this article, represents a striking actualization of
extraordinary politics and Arendtian concepts of freedom and power, which “springs up
whenever people get together and act in concert” (Arendt 1970), even under the most unlikely
conditions. And rethinking these events has implications for democratic theory and our
understanding of (cosmo)politics in the global age.
The emerging Green movement and concurrent forms of rebellious political activism—
and transnational displays of solidarity—across Iran took many by surprise, inside and outside of
the country. Forming the largest and broadest opposition gatherings in three decades and
galvanizing younger generations of Iranians (Afsahri & Underwood 2009), the independent
grassroots movement from below deeply shook the Iranian regime. The movement’s uprising also
created new, non-institutionalized spaces and sites of both national and transnational activism. At
times prematurely perceived as a “Facebook revolution” or “Twitter revolution” (Zuckerman
2009; Esfandiari 2010)1, the opposition utilized a multiplicity of publicity-generating actions,
events, and new digital media, and it successfully mobilized publics far beyond Tehran, Iran, and
even the Iranian exile diaspora.
Reflecting on the fleeting events of this uprising, and indeed the “fugitive” moment of
radical democracy in Iran (to use Sheldon Wolin’s term) this paper revisits Arendtian notions of
(principled) action, freedom, power, and legitimacy in the context of these anti-government
protests that emerged in 2009. This reading offers an alternative account of the unrest. It
complements models that view the opposition movement in terms of individualized civil rights
1 As Golnaz Esfandiari (2010) wrote in view of the unrest on the ground: “Simply put: There was no
Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” However, Facebook and Twitter did play an important role in the
networking effort, organizing capacities and reclaiming of public freedom in the 2009 Iranian uprising. The
role of social networking sites has arguably been ever bigger in the following revolutions in Egypt and
Tunisia. It has been established that these social web sites and their transnational reach laid the groundwork
for the peaceful revolutionary uprisings ever since the time of the Iranian unrest in 2009, demonstrating the
increasing importance of social web sites for political mobilization and the struggle for public voice in Iran
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claims (Afsahri 2009; Boroumand 2009). While rights-based models are important to understand
the civil uprising, they fail to grasp some key elements of its political dynamic. Moreover, an
Arendtian reading of the events challenges models that view the protest as the product of
“unresolved tensions” between “faith” and “democracy” in a theocracy (e.g. Fazili 2010).
By looking at these national and global political events and actors through an Arendtian
lens, this article seeks to instigate a conversation between political theory and actual politics, or
“theory” and “empirical politics”, by moving towards an empirically interested political theory.2
Specifically, this entails two goals: First, by employing Arendt’s theory, I explore some of the
meanings and dynamics of the democratic struggle in Iran. In so doing, I intend to enrich our
conceptual understanding of the Iranian ‘communities in action’ (Benhabib 2003) and the non-
institutionalized, non-regularized spaces of freedom and actions which they generated under the
most unlikely of circumstances. Pointing beyond the usual scope of theoretical interests, I thereby
seek to open up new ways and map conceptual spaces to think about this unrest. Second, I will
map its theoretical and normative implications. I suggest that the transnationally supported rise of
the Green movement constituted a globally relevant political event that provides challenges for
conventional forms of political theorizing. The trans-/national ‘communities in action’ that
popped up in Iran in 2009 provide insights into the meaning of political action under repressive
conditions without formalized and constitutionalized spaces of freedom, and the significance of
transnational publics in challenging systems of domination; they point to extraordinary
constituent moments of democratic self-authorization, contestation and legitimacy shaped outside
of ‘normal politics’, institutional power and pre-established constitutional contexts. I also argue
that this event offers more than a case study for the application of Arendtian concepts. The unrest
ultimately necessitates rethinking—and to some extent expanding—her model of political action
2 In the context of this article, it will not be possible to reconstruct and do justice to the many dimensions,
goals, platforms and controversies of that characterized this movement, though it engages with these issues.
The purpose of this contribution, however, is primarily to illuminate some significant features of the
unrest’s dynamic, and to provide a framework for such an empirical exploration.
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and its demarcations in light of contemporary politics. This inspires a conversation about an
Arendtian ‘situated cosmopolitanism’, or the enabling conditions of cosmopolitanism from below
(Cheah 2006; Hayden 2009; Parekh 2008).
Turning to Hannah Arendt in order to understand the political meaning of these “glocal”
political events is no odd move. As Norma Moruzzi points out, Arendt was fascinated with
people who create political possibilities, especially under bleak conditions (Moruzzi 2001). And
Arendt, in fact, matters in Iran.3 Along with Gandhi, who once mused that “even the most
powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled” (Wright 2009), Arendt is a popular
resource on Iranian opposition websites and gained traction in critical subcultural intellectual
circles within and beyond the confines of the Iranian academia. This is due to her argument,
which is similar to Gandhi’s (Jahanbegloo 2006), about the cooperative nature of ‘power in the
plural’ and her claim about the impossibility of only ruling by means of violence (Arendt 1970).4
However, her popularity is also a public response to the meaning she attributes to the recovery of
the public world and her political concepts of freedom and action. At any rate: Arendt, indeed, is
read in Tehran today.5
As often happens in history, the struggle for democracy faced a serious setbacks
(Hashemi 2010; Tilly 2004). Protestors, activists and many movement leaders were arrested and
put on show trials, tortured and murdered, or forced into exile; a campaign of terror, intimidation,
curtailing of public and semi-public spaces, and generally the theocratic regime’s “iron fist”
3 To be sure, in 1967, in a letter to the German student Jürgen Benedikt, Arendt uses Iran as a case in point
to demonstrate the impossibility of truly “global” politics: “Just try to get engaged in Iranian politics [in
Persien], and you will be healed from that very soon. It is your job to prevent inhuman conditions in
Germany, and to prevent that students who demonstrate get shot.” (Arendt 1967). On June 2, 1967, the
student Ohnsorg was murdered by a German policeman after a demonstration against the ruthless regime of
Shah Reza Pahlevi.
4 In a similar vein, Arendt argues that “political institutions, no matter how well or how badly designed,
[always] depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same
means that brought them into being.” (Arendt 1961: 153).
5 As Ramin Jahanbegloo already pointed out in 2006: “In a young and troubled Iran in search of a new
intellectual culture, there is a serious desire to explore Arendt's oeuvre. If Arendt's contribution to political
thinking finds an important place in Iranian civil society and among Iranian intellectuals, it is mainly
because her thinking shows us how to recover the meaning of the public world.” (Jahanbegloo 2006).
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silenced many dissidents, depriving Iran of some its most important and most radical young new
voices. The new wave of repression and the radical closure of free spaces that have pushed
dissidents to subterranean margins, in fact, may be seen as one of the unintended consequences of
the political uprising (and potentially all action), as human rights have deteriorated steadily since
the summer of 2009. The unrest exposed the regime’s internal frictions and its deep legitimacy
crisis; yet it is also perfectly clear that for the time being, the human rights situation, relentless
state violence, and restrictions on speech are worse than before. However, although the
extraordinary ‘constituent moments’ did not turn into a constitutional beginning, or any lasting
reshaping of Iran’s constitutional form, this is not to say that the Green democratic movement and
its struggle was meaningless. By questioning the government’s decisions and the election fraud
publicly, the movement significantly challenged the very legitimacy of the regime and its internal
constitution. Furthermore, by stepping outside of the boundaries of institutionalized power and
the (nationally) circumscribed political process, the Iranian multitude temporarily constituted
legitimate democratic spaces. It actualized freedom in an extralagal arena without formalized
rules. Yet it did not dissolve into violence.
To gain insight into the significance of this move the first section unpacks the
extraordinary moments of unrest in Iran in light of Arendt’s concepts of freedom, action, power
and legitimacy. The article understands this struggle not only in terms of human rights claims but
also as political action that constituted a democratic multitude which reclaimed spaces of public
freedom by means of transgression. The second section turns to transnational publics and their
meaning for the Iranian multitude. Adopting and rethinking the Arendtian notion of the public
realm, it is suggested that transnational publics, which included supporters, exiles, dual citizens
and those no longer equipped with formal citizenship, did not undermine democratic legitimacy
and public freedom but ultimately reinforced them. The third section further develops some
theoretical implications. They point to an Arendtian cosmopolitanism from below that recognizes
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the significance of situated politics of place but also globalized struggles to actualized what can
be conceived as the human right to political voice.
1. Reconstituting the Public Realm: Understanding the Iranian Multitude and its New
The Unlikely Rise of the Iranian Multitude: Communities in Action
The emergence and sudden rise of the Iranian opposition movement epitomizes the nature of
power and political action in Arendt’s sense, and the spaces it can seize even under unlikely
conditions of political exclusion. In particular, it points to the possibility of democratic moments
and public freedom, and the temporary creation of legitimate public spaces by extrajudicial means
of action if the legal framework is exhausted. The democratic unrest, which began with the rise of
the Green movement before the presidential election and turned into a broad opposition after the
(presumably fraud) election, took many a surprising series of events and developments; namely, it
actualized a seemingly unprecedented politicization of the citizenry since 1978/79 (Arjomand
2009). The startling political events that took place in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the June
12, 2009 elections, such as the millions of citizens taking to the streets (Tahmasebi-Birgani
2010), the open defiance of the regime’s orders and the invention of ever new forms of protest
and spaces for public voice, indeed also point to the essence of an Arendtian notion of freedom: it
is a man-made miracle6 that often rises under the most unlikely political conditions, although “the
more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done
in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which happens automatically and therefore
always must appear irresistible.” (Arendt 1961: 170). Against this backdrop, Arendt argues that
all miracles performed by men must be “interruptions of some natural series of events, of some
6 Arendt offers a decidedly anti-Aristotelian take on such miracles: “It is men who perform them-men who
because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”
(Arendt 1961: 171)
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automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected.” (Arendt 1961: 168),
while the “very impact of an event is never wholly explicable; its factuality transcends in
principle all anticipation.” (Arendt 1961: 170)
The unrest was certainly not anticipated by the ruling class of the regime; it signified a
break with the automatic, regularized processes of domination that appear to be the ‘second
nature’ of all politics. Taking the political order for granted, the ruling elite under the leadership
of “president re-elect” Mahmoud Ahamdinejad and the “Supreme Leader” Khamenei hoped to
consolidate their authoritarian rule and expected to get away with a fraudulent election while
maintaing a pretense of democratic legitimacy. Against the automatic processes of political life
and, in the Iranian case political domination, however, humans can, and millions of Iranians did,
assert themselves through action (Arendt 1961: 168f): “Every act, seen from the perspective not
of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts,
is a ‘miracle’-that is, something which could not be expected. […] It is in the nature of every new
beginning that it breaks into the world as an ‘infinite improbability,’ and yet it is precisely this
infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real.”
In response to this unrest that deeply challenged ideological beliefs and political
institutions inherited from the 1979 revolution, the Mullah regime intensified its deep-seated
legitimacy crisis by employing violence and torture against non-violent critics and by “granting
no legitimacy to the judgment of the Iranian public sphere” (Jahanbegloo 2009: 361). And “a
state,” as Arendt reminds us, “in which there is no communication between the citizens and
where each man thinks only his own thoughts is by definition a tyranny.” (Arendt 1961: 164)
However, neither the regime, nor international observers nor the rulers of the Islamic Republic
predicted the unrest and its enormous scope. The theocratic regimes’s initially erratic decisions in
response to the powerful non-violent uprising clearly indicates how completely unprepared it was
for the events following their decision to declare the incumbent president Ahmadinejad as the
winner of the election. As Patchen Markell has argued, in an Arendtian sense one of the most
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fundamental threats to democratic political activity is when there is no space for responsiveness
to events: not just the loss or restriction of spaces to act but also the “erosion of the contexts in
which action makes sense.” (Markell 2010a: 79) But this threat cannot extinguish the human
possibility of, and capacity for, new beginnings as eptimozed by the Iranian unrest.
The reform-oriented leaders, including the presidential candidate and former hard-liner
Mir Hossein Moussavi, could not possibly imagine the scope and diversity of action and speech
that emerged in this political process (in fact, they often reacted to the movement, and were
themselves rather pushed and driven by the events); and even the citizens and activists who got
toegther and launched it by taking their voices to the streets were not ‘masters’ of the political
dynamic, as “he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes ‘guilty’ of
consequences he never intended or even foresaw.” (Arendt 1958: 233) Such (public) action,
which for Arendt is synonymous with freedom and politics in an ideal sense (Pitkin 1998), is
presupposed by the human capacity to act: “To act, in its most general sense, means to take an
initiative to begin.” (Arendt 1958:177) The heterogeneous movement demonstrated the nature of
freedom and action7, if political freedom is the freedom “to call something into being which did
not exist before, which was given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which
therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known.” (Arendt 1961:151). With Arendt, the events in
Iran may be understood as new beginnings initiated among men in the plural and yet, at the same
time, an “infinite improbability” (though always a human possibility) that can take place even
under conditions of authoritarian domination. Potentially, as humans we are able to act and be
free even under the most hostile circumstances (Arendt 1961; Arendt 2005).8
7 For Arendt, both freedom and action are synonmous. Mankind, says Arendt never lost the experience of
“freedom in the process of acting”. According to Arendt’s anthropological universalism (Benhabib 2003)
the capacity to act and to be free is given to men by virtue of the natality and plurality.To act means for
Arendt always also to begin. In fact, freedom coincides with the performing act. Men are free--as
distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom--“as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to
be free and to act are the same.” (Arendt 1961: 153)
8 “[H]istorical processes are created and constantly interrupted by human initiative by the initium man is
insofar as he is an acting being. Hence it is not the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to be
44 | R e a d i n g A r e n d t i n T e h r a n
relevance of democratic claims across borders, in the Middle East and beyond. Just as the
successful Tunisian revolution helped embolden a new Egyptian opposition and foster and the
revolution there, these events were preceded by, and also took inspiration from, the Iranian
uprising of 2009, in spite of the latter’s temporary defeat in face of a violent governtment
crackdown. In turn, the Iranian public has been reinvigorated—and the struggle for freedom
resuscitated—by the uprisings and revolutions across the Middle East. These national and
transnational communities in action, with all their distinct grievances, struggles and goals, have
much in common. Through the particular—these new public communities’ particular actions from
below—universal claims to freedom are actualized and reconstituted. In that, one may add, these
‘irregular’, extraordinary publics express a genuinely human “miracle” (Arendt): the capacity to
act in concert and begin anew.
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