Is Iran on the brink of a revolution? The mullahs’ main political adversaries in Washington and Tel Aviv appear to think so, as does much of the western media. With the Wall Street Journal reporting that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps is taking charge of security in Tehran, it is equally clear that the regime is taking no chances. And perhaps wisely so.
The last time the repressive Islamist theocracy witnessed such popular upheaval was in 2009. But then the mostly peaceful mass street demonstrations were orchestrated under the unifying banner of a maverick politician, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and what briefly blossomed into his Green Movement. Mousavi had failed to beat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in presidential elections, and his supporters – as well as those of other defeated opposition candidates – smelled a rat. But while the movement did galvanise some sections of the middle class outside of Mousavi’s base, most notably students, the mass sit-ins barely spread outside of Tehran and the country’s other major cities. And as it became clear that Ahmadinejad wasn’t going anywhere, and that the Obama administration’s indifference to the protests signalled a lack of international support, the movement ran out of steam.
This time, we are being told, things are potentially very different. At first glance, there appears to be some truth in this. At least 30 regional cities are thought to have been caught up in the first wave of violent protests, which have only just reached parts of the sprawling (and historically more politicised) capital. During the nine months of demonstrations in 2009, the official death toll was 36; in only the first five days of the latest uprising at least 15 lost their lives. Police stations and army barracks are reported to have been targeted amidst the ongoing chaos, while armed men are said to have infiltrated a number of demonstrations. None of that happened back in 2009. And contrast Barack Obama’s singular lack of enthusiasm for the Green Movement, despite its clear and limited objective (an electoral re-run), with Donald Trump’s excited tweets of support within hours of news of the latest unrest breaking over the New Year – despite nobody really knowing at that stage (or even now) what on earth was going on.
For all these reasons and more, the unrest today, although thus far attracting fewer numbers than in 2009, is potentially more difficult for the regime to contain and pacify. For a start, the demonstrators and rioters seem to be more wantonly violent in their tactics, and are more widespread geographically. The gatherings, moreover, are more spontaneous, and have received swift backing from Washington. Perhaps most crucially, they are leaderless and without clear goals, apart perhaps from messy regime change. Hence the disparate slogans reportedly chanted from one demo to the next: Death to the Ayatollah, No More Spending on Foreign Military Adventures, An End to Unemployment and Corruption, Greater Freedom and Democracy, Reza Shah, Bless your soul.
At second glance, though, the current unrest may in fact have far more in common with the 2009 uprising than has thus far been acknowledged. Obama is still widely vilified for having been so aloof back then, but he sensibly explained that he was reluctant to throw his country’s support behind the Green Movement because the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi ‘may not be as great as has been advertised’. Mousavi, indeed, was arguably the more hard-line of the two.
In parts of the Western media, it is still widely believed that the Green Movement was some kind of youthful block party trying to turn Tehran into the Middle East’s version of Barcelona. In reality, Mousavi believed that the clerical establishment had betrayed the revolutionary ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini – whose designated successor he had once been. A liberal worthy of our admiration and support would, of course, have argued the exact opposite: that Khomeini had betrayed the revolutionaries by killing most of them and then establishing a backwards medieval theocracy.
And while the Green Movement is seen as having failed, a cynic might argue the opposite. By provoking a clampdown, the hard-line clerics Mousavi was aligned with swiftly reasserted control and what moves there had been towards social liberalisation went into reverse.
Is the same scenario playing out today?
Especially interesting is that the first demonstrations occurred in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest city – where the hard-line candidate Ebrahim Raisi is based. He was defeated by the current centrist president Hassan Rouhani in last year’s presidential elections. Is it any wonder that ‘Death to Rouhani’ was the dominant slogan during those first demonstrations? Are those who have since joined demonstrations elsewhere once again being skilfully manipulated with the aim of undermining Rouhani with the aim of giving the clerics the excuse they need to reassert full control?
In any event, at this confusing stage, the West should, as in 2009, refrain from inflaming the volatile situation inside Iran. If we have learned anything from the disastrous revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring, it is that the victors in that part of the world from social upheaval are never the pro-western ones we had initially placed our bets on. Moreover, until now Rouhani has said what any western leader would in such circumstances: people have a right to congregate and protest, but not to attack the security forces or damage property. Sure, Iran is a gross human rights violator, as every hack is eager to remind us. But on that count our allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia arguably fare even worse. So perhaps what we should really be asking is why such rank hypocrisy is so casually taken for granted by everyone from the man in the White House down.
John R. Bradley’s book Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008) predicted the Tahrir uprising against the Mubarak regime.