STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Iran’s continued unrest, now extending through the 30th anniversary of the revolution that toppled the shah, raises the question of whether the Islamic Republic is about to fall. As in 1979, millions of Iranians have taken to the streets, this time to protest electoral fraud in the presidential vote last June.
The cheated presidential candidates, both veterans of the revolution, instinctively thought of a replay of history. Mir Hossein Moussavi saw the green symbols of the demonstrators as representing the color of the House of the Prophet, and urged his supporters to continue their nightly rooftop chants of “God is Great!” Thus, the first slogan of the opposition invoked the religious credo of the 1979 revolutionaries. More recently, protesters chanted it during the funeral demonstrations for Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in the closing days of 2009.
And yet we risk being led astray by memories of 1979. It is far too soon to predict another revolution. But the divide between Iran’s society and its government is much greater today than it was under the shah 30 years ago. Change seems just as inevitable.
Technological advances greatly favor the 2009 protesters. Text messages, Twitter and the Web are infinitely superior to the smuggled cassettes of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s speeches that fueled the opposition in 1979. What’s missing this time, however, is a charismatic leader comparable to Khomeini. Indeed, the striking feature of the Iranian opposition movement is the lack of effective leadership, despite the astonishing persistence of protests. As Moussavi has readily acknowledged, neither he nor the other presidential candidate, Ahmad Karroubi, feels in charge by now.
The greatest difference between 2009 and 1979 was created by the revolution itself. Revolutions give birth to a new political class, and Iran’s Islamic revolution was no exception. The Iranian leadership formed after the revolution consisted of a narrow ruling stratum and a much broader supporting group that was given charge of administration and political mobilization.
In the 20 years since Khomeini’s death, the composition of this political class has changed drastically. The clerical elite has gradually lost power to the military-security groups, from whose ranks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerged. Bureaucratic and security services dominated by the Revolutionary Guards and its militia, the Basij (Mobilization Corps), are now firmly in command.
The leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blessed the Revolutionary Guards’ decision to steal the presidential election. By identifying squarely with the military-security apparatus headed by Ahmadinejad, Khamenei has alienated an important segment of the ruling clerical elite. He has also reduced his own status as the ultimate arbiter in Iranian society, a role that was central to Khomeini’s dominance of the system. As a result, he has produced a rupture between the two pillars of the revolutionary regime: the clerical elite and military-security structure.
The growth of Khamenei’s personal, extra-constitutional power introduces a strong element of uncertainty into Iran’s future. Political regimes that rely on personal power, commonly known as dictatorships, prove to be fragile in crisis. This was the weakness of the shah’s regime, which collapsed as he became paralyzed in his decision-making. There was nothing behind him supporting the system.
Khamenei’s backing of the June 2009 putsch now appears to be a costly mistake. With this single error, he has undermined what had appeared to be a robust post-revolutionary course for the first and only theocracy in modern history. The cries of “God is Great!” have now been overtaken by chants of “Death to the Dictator!” in recent demonstrations in Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz and other Iranian cities.
The Iranian regime is now critically dependent on decisions made by one man, the leader. For that reason, it is demonstrating a degree of fragility that is comparable to that of the shah’s regime in the latter part of the 1970s.
Most spokespersons of the Green protest movement advocate civil disobedience instead of revolution. Earlier this year, Ezattolah Sahabi, who was a member of the revolutionary provisional government in 1979, issued a statement in Tehran stating categorically that “a revolution in today’s Iran is neither possible nor desirable.” At roughly the same time, five prominent opposition intellectuals living in exile released a reformist, not revolutionary, manifesto directed against the “despotic guardians.”
But there is little chance that these children of the Islamic revolution — now graying reformists — will remain in control of the Green movement, which now reflects the aspirations of a post-revolutionary generation of young women and men and students.
The ayatollah-dictator and the Revolutionary Guards have tried their best to discredit their opponents by concocting, through forced confessions at show trials, a conspiracy of regime change based on a “velvet revolution” produced by “Western social sciences.”
Deep down, they know there is no conspiracy. Their fear is grounded in what they see in front of them: the forward march of history.
Said Amir Arjomand is a professor of sociology and director of the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. © 2010 Project Syndicate
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