Revolution Without Martyrdom?

21 July 2009

Revolution Without Martyrdom?

By Gwynne Dyer

Young Iranians were back out on the streets in Tehran on Monday night, after almost a month’s hiatus. They were there again on Tuesday, despite the fact that there were many arrests. Their numbers will probably grow in the next week, for we are now nearing forty days since the regime’s Basij thugs brutally crushed the first round of demonstrations.

In Iran’s Shia Muslim culture, forty days of mourning for the dead are usually followed by public demonstrations of grief. During the revolution against the Shah in 1978-79, that was when the crowds came out on the streets again, to be mown down once more by the Shah ’s army. The cycle continued until the army, sick of killing unarmed fellow-countrymen, began to refuse the Shah’s orders

At least twenty young demonstrators, and possibly many more, were killed by the current regime’s paramilitary forces in late June. Will that old cycle of protest, killing, mourning and more protest reappear in the present and lead to the overthrow of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president whose disputed re-election he so firmly defends, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Probably not, but they could still lose.

There will be no re-run of 1978 because today’s young Iranians are strikingly different from their parents’ generation th irty years ago. Those crowds had little to lose except their lives, and they were driven by a fatalistic courage that accepted death almost without demur. If you are fifteen or twenty-five or even thirty-five in Tehran today, you have lots to lose, and you do not want to die.

Like some general expecting the next war to be just like the last, I didn’t understand this difference at first. But then the terrifying video clip of 26-year-old Neda Agah Soltan, shot down by a Basij sniper and dying in the street on 21 June, got several million views inside Iran in twenty-four hours. After that, you could practically hear millions of young Iranians saying: “That could be me.” And they didn’t want it to be, so the streets emptied.

So don’t expect escalating street protests to make Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retreat or drive them from power. However, cautious, limited, recurrent protests could be part of a more complex strategy that ultimately accomplishes the same goal, for the ruling elite itself is deeply split. That has not happened before.

The three “reformers” who now lead the opposition to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are the three people who made most of the day-to-day decisions in the country from the time of the revolution until only four years ago. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in this year’s presidential election (and may really have won it), was the prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989; Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997; and Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005.

Mousavi has always faced unrelenting hostility from the ultra-conservative Ali Khamenei. As president in 1981, Khamenei refused to accept Mousavi as prime minister (even though he had been legitimately chosen by parliament) until the Old Man himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, intervened and insisted that Mousavi be allowed to take office.

The strong suspicion that this time the election itself was rigged by Khamenei’s supporters to exclude Mousavi from office has only made him more defiant. His website dismisses the regime’s claim that the protests were inspired by Iran’s foreign enemies with contempt: “Isn’t it an insult to 40 million voters… linking detainees to foreign countries? Let people freely express their protests and ideas.”

Rafsanjani, in a sermon at Tehran University last Friday, aligned himself firmly with Mousavi, demanding an end to the media clamp-down and the release of people arrested during the protests. He also referred indirectly to the fact that he actually chairs the committee that elects the Supreme Leader, and can dismiss him.

Khatami went further on Monday, calling for a referendum on the alleged outcome of t he election. “People must be asked whether they are happy with the situation that has taken shape,” he said. “I state openly that reliance upon the people’s vote and the staging of a legal referendum is the only way for the system to emerge from the current crisis.” It was after that that the protestors re-appeared on the streets.

They will not sweep the regime away, and if its henchmen start killing them again they will prudently withdraw from the streets for a while – but only to devise safer ways of making their resentment felt. Meanwhile, a parallel campaign will be waged within the ranks of the Islamic clergy, mixing fine theological points with the crassest appeals to self-interest. This 20will not be an epic tale of heroism and martyrdom, but a complicated and mostly obscure contest for the future of the Islamic Republic.

The hard-liners’ hope, understandably enough, was that after a while the outrage at Ahmadinejad’s implausible re-election to the presidency would subside into a sullen acceptance of the inevitable. That has not happened. Iran is in for a lengthy struggle, with an unpredictable outcome.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Mousavi…ideas”)