Iran’s Islamic Republic faces the most widespread manifestation of popular dissent in its history.
Itself the product of a popular uprising in the late 1970’s, the Iranian republic basked in universal popularity only for the briefest of periods. It took less than a year for the first signs of popular dissent to manifest themselves.
By 1978 the 2500-year-old Persian monarchy had become an autocratic pro-Western regime. It was the Shah’s authoritarian rule, rather than his pro-Western stance, that aroused rumbling opposition over a long period. This developed into a widespread campaign of civil resistance. During 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country. In January 1979 the Shah left Iran, never to return.
On February 1, after 16 years of enforced exile, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini landed in Iran to a euphoric reception by virtually the entire nation. Just as when Adolf Hitler’s political opponents in 1933 appointed him German Chancellor believing he would be easily controlled, so Iran’s secular and leftist politicians supported the revolutionary movement, ignoring the fact that Khomeini represented the very antithesis of all their values. They chose to believe that he was merely a figurehead for the radical change from monarchy to republic, and that power would eventually be handed to the secular groups.
They could not have been more wrong. On April 1 Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic and to approve a new theocratic republican constitution, under which Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country. The revolution replaced an authoritarian monarchy with an authoritarian theocracy.
The first signs of opposition showed themselves very early on, during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980. The People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, the MEK, a Marxist-inspired organization which had been closely allied to Khomeini and his supporters throughout the 1970s, split from the Supreme Leader largely in frustration at being excluded from power. Marxist ideology was scarcely to Khomeini’s taste.
In 1981, the conflict between the government and MEK fighters descended into street battles. As a result MEK was outlawed. Saddam Hussein gave it a base in Iraq, and supported it in mounting attacks inside Iran. Currently based in Albania, and with a somewhat dubious past regarding terrorist activities, the MEK is advocating the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime.
Among other opposition groups to emerge in Iran in the 1980s was the Tudeh party, or the “party of the masses”. The Supreme Leader refused to tolerate dissent such as this, and arrests and executions of Tudeh members continued throughout the 1980s. Intolerance of any but the approved line extended to the Republic’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr, who was impeached a year after taking office in 1980, and went into exile.
Then, in 1989, another high-profile figure fell foul of the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s heir apparent, was fired after he criticized the crackdown on dissent. Montazeri was replaced by the more conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini upon his death in June 1989, and remains Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Nothing, though, could prevent internal opposition to the regime bubbling to the surface from time to time. In 1999, after the nationwide student paper Salam was shut down, students took to the streets. The protests lasted for six days, during which time at least five people were killed and thousands more were injured and arrested. Sporadic protests continued in the following decade. but it wasn’t until 2009 that Iranians would, for the first time since the 1979 revolution, witness massive street protests against the government.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected to his first term as president in 2005, stood for re-election in 2009 against his main challenger, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, a reformer. In the run-up to the elections Mousavi ran a vigorous campaign featuring mass rallies of supporters, who adorned themselves in green garments of various kinds. Popular perception was that Mousavi would be the clear winner. In the event, the published results gave Ahmadinejad more than 64 percent of the vote; Mousavi finished second with just under 34 percent.
On June 13, one day after the elections, protesters turned out in their hundreds of thousands across the country, many chanting and carrying signs around the theme, “where is my vote?” Mousavi’s supporters became known as the “Green Movement”. The protests lasted for weeks. In the inevitable crackdown more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.
When Ayatollah Montazeri died in December 2009, his funeral became a rallying point with tens of thousands of mourners chanting against the government. Just over a year later, in February 2011, the so-called “Arab spring” was under way. The opposition called for protests in solidarity, and leading pro-reform politicians were arrested, but protests went ahead in a number of cities for over a week. Again the crackdown resulted in hundreds being injured and arrested.
And now, once again and apparently out of the blue, Iran is in turmoil. Rallies and street protests are bursting out spontaneously right across the country. Unlike in 2009, they are not confined to students and the more educated sectors of society. Reports suggest that the uprisings emanate from a wide swathe of the population.
At first the protests centred on the worsening economic situation, and the ever-rising food and commodity prices. This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in particular. Particular dissent was being voiced against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
When Khomenei launched the Islamic Revolution, liberal, democratic and secular values were to have no place in Iran’s brave new world. History teaches repeatedly that these ideas can be suppressed, sometimes for long periods, but they cannot be eliminated. A regime that is too insecure to permit a wide spectrum of political and social expression is a regime doomed eventually to implode.
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