Lots of commentators have pointed out the relatively conservative aims of the Iranian protesters. The marchers seek only to perfect the Islamic Republic so that it lives up to its ideals. They have only called for new Presidential elections, with hints now and then for the replacement of Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei with a different cleric. The chief players in the movement – Mirhossein Mousavi (and his benefactor Rafsanjani), Ayatollah Montazeri – are old senior veterans of the 1979 revolution. Surely they cannot hope to undo the Islamic Republic, right?
I think this is only partly the case. Yes, it is true that the proponents of this massive protest have appropriated the very same rallying cry Allaho-Akbar that anti-Shah protesters shouted from the rooftops in 1978. And it is true that the 80% of Iranians who voted understood that their votes were designed to legitimize the regime; only candidates vetted by the Guardian Council were approved for the ballot.
But one cannot escape the rapidly changing dynamics going on in Iran right now. The Presidential election is one of the only real outlets for democratic thought in Iran, and the people take it very seriously. Iran introduced nationwide elections in its 1906 Constitution, which created the Majlis or Parliament. The Islamic Republic Constitution placed severe limitations on the people’s voice, thanks to Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Jurisprudent theory of governance. But the elections component was no mere throwaway where the incumbent President gets 99% of the vote.
What has infuriated so many Iranians, then, is the realization that even this smidgen of democracy has been shredded before their very eyes. All of this after millions of young Iranians had their hopes of reform and rapprochement with the West raised in the recent campaign. The revolution of rising expectations, they called it in the 1960s.
What has happened now is that a genuine nationwide movement has developed and has threatened the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. The clerics who lead the regime desperately crave legitimacy – both internally and in the greater Muslim world. They are not just another tin pot dictatorship like Syria or Egypt or Saudi Arabia. No, they gain their power from God acting through the great Iranian people. Or so they believe.
In many ways this rekindles the dashed expectations of some of the anti-Shah forces who never warmed to Khomeini’s Guardianship system. The problem with the Shah, to many Iranians (perhaps most Iranians) was not his pro-Western stance or his toleration of “immorality.” The problem with the Shah was his despotism, carried out through the dreaded SAVAK. We often forget today just how widely despised the Shah was in 1978-79. If the current regime has merely placed an Islamic theocratic face on the Shah’s regime, what then did those revolutionaries spill their blood for?
I suspect that Iranians are starting to ask that question – especially the younger generation that grew up without the idealism of the 1979 revolution and only saw war with Iraq, Western sanctions, stunted reforms and international ridicule. The modest aims of this movement may very quickly expand to calls for a new revolution – even if in the name of “restoring” the 1979 ideals.
Keep in mind that when the Battles of Lexington and Concord gripped the American colonies in April 1775, the Continental Congress sought only to claim the rights of Englishmen denied by the Crown and Parliament. It took a year before calls for outright Independence were taken seriously. And what pushed the Patriots toward full Revolution was the heavy-handed response of the British. Like the Bajis and the Revolutionary Guards of today, the brutal crackdown of the British empire and its Tory supporters only served to radicalize the American population.
This whole affair may end as it did in Tiananmen Square. But I suspect that Iran’s own revolutionary heritage will, ironically enough, make that outcome less likely. Those who clamor to the rooftops and march in the streets of Isfahan, Shiraz, Mahshad, Tabriz and Tehran behold a heritage that the marchers in Beijing in 1989 never possessed. Revolution has happened before in Iran. It can happen again.