Remembering, and reclaiming, the Islamic revolution

Iranians commemorate their revolutionary inheritance, and fight over its meaning

Topics: Iran, Middle East

Thursday, February 11 (22 Bahman of the Iranian calendar) is the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. This year, the commemoration is fraught with irony, since the political opposition intends to use it to protest what they consider the fraudulent presidential election of June, 2009, and the drift of the regime toward tyranny.

In an interview on February 2, 2010, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi expressed this disillusionment in an interview in, (translated by the USG Open Source Center). Mousavi said,

During the early years of the Islamic Revolution, the majority of the people, including me, were convinced that the revolution had removed all structures that could lead to despotism and dictatorship. I do not believe in the same anymore. We may once again identify the elements that may lead to dictatorship. Popular resistance against the return of dictatorship is a valuable legacy of the Islamic Revolution.

He went on to denounce press censorship, arbitrary arrests, and the shooting of peaceful protesters in the street.

As bizarre as this point of view may seem to citizens of democratic countries, given the severe political repression in Khomeini’s Iran of the 1980s, it shows the utopian mindset of the revolutionary period and the way even regime insiders were shocked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s behavior, and that of his Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij paramilitaries, since June 12. Some protesters have been chanting “dictator!” at Khamenei.

The other major opposition leader, cleric and former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, also expressed his disappointment in the current order. Both are regime insiders, and neither Karroubi nor Mousavi have been willing to push for a revolution. Rather, they call for peaceful protest and maintain that the fraudulent presidential election and the repression that followed in its wake must be reversed.

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The opposition press is reporting that Basij militiamen were already on Thursday morning lining the main thoroughfares in Tehran, and other reports speak of the same tactic in other major cities, to prevent anti-regime protests. The difficulty for Khamenei is that the Green Movement opposing his actions also wraps itself in the mantle of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and will be marching to celebrate that revolution. They just insist that the Islamic Republic’s constitution guarantees the right of public protest (correct) and that it exalts the rule of law over the personal whim of a monarch (also correct).

Al-Jazeera Arabic broadcast President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address to a huge, peaceful crowd in Tehran’s Liberty Square. There were some signs of green (the opposition color) in the assembled crowd, but no disturbances). Ahmadinejad praised the achievements of the revolution and denounced a grasping United States for attempting to dictate to all the countries in the Middle East.

The regime appears to be attempting to block ease of electronic communications, with Google reporting problems of email access for customers in Iran. The opposition has been savvy about using the internet to coordinate Iran’s first nationwide popular movement since 1978-79. (Iran is notoriously hard to organize, being a set of mostly medium-sized cities separated by vast distances and arid, often craggy terrain; Khomeini used the radio, sending signals through BBC interviews, and audio cassette tapes, which followers played in private or in taxis beyond the hearing of the secret police of Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the shah.)

The BBC is reporting some demonstrations in Tehran and Tabriz on Thursday morning. It also says Iranian authorities may permanently ban Google’s email service, Gmail (presumably because it is too hard to spy on).

Meanwhile, further evidence is surfacing that Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program is facing a lot of technical difficulties and isn’t in fact very far advanced. (Unfortunately the authors of this WaPo article editorialize in the middle about a supposed Iranian nuclear weapons program, which no one has been able to find any credible proof, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligance Agency.) Likewise, the International Atomic Energy Agency agrees with my Monday posting, saying that Iran’s attempt to enrich uranium to the 19.75 percent necessary to run its medical reactor and produce isotopes for treating cancer look to be modest.

In part at the urging of the Israel lobbies, the Obama administration ramped up US unilateral sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which, however, are unlikely to have much practical effect. Except to pave the way for China to do a lot of business with Iran, to their mutual benefit and to the detriment of the U.S.

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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