Iran in 1979 and 2009

The images coming out of Tehran the past week–and especially today–are intoxicating. What is going on? Is there a new Iranian Revolution in the making? Is George W. Bush’s policy of democracy promotion being vindicated on the streets of Iran’s capital? Is there a fundamental change about to break out in Iran? Will 2009 be a pro-democratic version of the Iranian Revolution of 1979?

Before one begins to wax too enthusiastically about the Tehran events, it is worthwhile to step back, take a deep breath, and look at what is different about now and then. The differences may well prove to be profound in determining the outcome.

Three major differences stand out to me. The first is that the demonstrations are much more physically isolated today than they were in 1979. In the year or so prior to the demonstrations that helped bring down the Shah, demonstrations occurred across the country, in cities and towns throughout the provinces that gradually became larger and moved toward the center of power in Tehran. There is little indication that the demonstrations this time are so regionally diffuse. This is important because the basis of support of the current regime is in the provinces among the rural and semi-urban lower classes, not among the urbanized middle class in Tehran.  This concentration in the capital thus raises questions about the extent of support for demonstrations against Ahmedinejad, Khamenei, and the election results.

Second (and related), there is a definite class difference in support and opposition this time. In 1979, the urbanized middle class and the rural or recently urbanized peasantry joined in protests against the Shah. It was an odd coalition at the time, since the two sides had quite different agendas: democratization, modernization, and economic and political opportunity among the middle class; Islamic purity among the masses. They could coalesce for two reasons. One was that the Shah suppressed both desires and was thus a convenient displacement object. The other was that both groups felt they could manipulate the other and provide the eventual ledarship of Iran. The middle class, of course, was wrong.

The tables are turned this time. The ruling regime is the representative of the religious right in the country, and they are supporting both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad. That means the middle class, with whom we in the West most readily identify, is pretty much on its own and is pretty much isolated. One has the feeling that reporting of events is probably making their success more likely than it in fact is–at least partially because they represent the side we–including the press–want to see win.

The third, and possibly most important, difference, is in the ability of the regime to keep itself in power. In 1979, the demonstrations that caused the Shah ultimately to flee into exile had gradually grown over time, and many in the West were amazed that the Shah had not acted decisively to crack down on the demonstrations before it became too late. In retrospect, the reasons were probably some combination of the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy the Shah was undergoing on his ability to make decisions at critical points and admonitions from the Carter administration not to act with historical regime suppressive zeal (which was more important is hard to say).

The regime in 2009 is showing no such indecisiveness. They are not acting with quite the overt violence (at least not yet) that has marked Iranian politics in the past, but they have made it quite clear who they certify as the winners and the unacceptability of dissent from that official outcome. We in the West may not like the results of the election or the honesty of election procedures, but there is not a whole lot we can do about them either. Unless the demonstrations widen noticeably (and it is hard to see how they will, given that the urban, middle class support base in Iran is limited) or the government becomes openly thuggish and brutal (always a possibility), there is little to do but sit on the sidelines and cluck disapprovingly.

It is also one of the supreme ironies of all this that the focus of so-called “moderate reform” is Mir Hussein Moussavi, who is hardly anyone’s historic vision of moderation and progress. This is, after all, a guy who made his name in the 1979 Iranian Revolution who seems moderate and progressive only when compared to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

It is the weekend, when news is typically slow, and thus the 24/7 news media are having a feeding frenzy on fragments of reports about the demonstrations. Are we taking all this too seriously? Is this the beginning of serious change in Iran? Don’t bet the farm on it.

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One Response to “Iran in 1979 and 2009”

  1. William Bilek, M.D. Says:

    The comments in this blog are well taken. Pres. Obama is also taking the correct approach of being low-key but supportive. To encourage the anti-government demonstrators without being prepared to back them openly, in concrete terms, (arms? “volunteers”? “advisors”?) would give false hope and bring a disasterous debacle. Still, it is apparent that this is, indeed, “the beginning of serious change in Iran.” Although Ahmadinejad and Khamanei will most likely prevail, things will never be quite the same.

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