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Has The Iranian Revolution Finally Reached Its Thermidorian Reaction? – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

For decades, the repressive Iranian theocracy has shown zero tolerance for any sign of dissent from whatever quarter of society it originates and has cracked down on protesters mercilessly.

Since it came to power in 1979, the leadership of the Iranian regime has shown complete and utter disregard for its people’s human rights, and those of women in particular have been violated with extra zeal.

For more than two weeks now, the Iranian regime has revealed itself in its full repressive atrociousness as it cracks down on many thousands of Iranians, mainly women, who have taken to the streets in protest against the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was apprehended in Tehran on Sept. 13 by Iran’s morality police, apparently for not wearing her hijab properly, and taken to a “re-education center.” She died three days later while in custody.

Is this the historic moment when Iranian women take charge of their destiny, and that of the country, to reform Iran and perhaps even topple the regime?

The demonstrations have spread to at least 40 cities nationwide, including the capital Tehran, under the slogan “Woman, Life, Liberty.” The protesters are demanding an end to violence and discrimination against women. So far, according to Iran Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Norway, 154 people have been killed across Iran and thousands arrested by security forces demonstrating a kind of brutality not seen for a number of years in the country.

The Iranian government is responding in the only manner it is familiar and comfortable with: Using extreme violence against innocent civilians, most of them women, who are no longer prepared to be subjected to a male-dominated regime with an oppressive ideology that has nothing to do with religion but is merely a tool for spreading fear through total control to achieve compliance and obedience.

It is impossible to predict how long these protests will be able to maintain the necessary energy and determination in the face of so many deaths and arrests but one thing is as clear as daylight: The government’s overreaction to the uprising is a demonstration of weakness and fear, not to mention cowardice.

It is afraid because it knows that the anger of Iranian women at a system infected by misogyny and toxic masculinity has reached the boiling point, and their protests are resonating among so many others around the world who have turned out in force to voice their support.

We have in the past witnessed many Iranians taking to the streets to protest against repression, mismanagement of the economy and corruption, and they have faced extreme, repressive brutality at the hands of the government and its agents.

But could this be a moment of transformation, when many Iranians, especially the women of the country, feel they have nothing left to lose and so are ready to maintain their resistance until the regime either reforms itself or folds altogether?

In his seminal book “Anatomy of Revolution,” Crane Brinton identifies four stages that a revolution typically goes through. It starts with the ousting of the old regime by moderates but, due to protracted crises, radical elements rather quickly take control. Although the radicals are small in number they are well organized, ambitious, largely united in ideology and purpose, and above all they are ruthless, eliminating politically, and in many cases physically, the more moderate elements.

Such reigns of terror have been carried out at other points in history by murderous characters such as Robespierre, who sent thousands to the guillotine in France; Stalin, who sent so many people to face forced labour and death in his gulags; and Mao, whose cultural revolution cost the lives of millions.

In all these cases there emerged a system of coercion that had more to do with maintaining an extreme form of authoritarian regime rather than implementing any profound ideology.

The Iranian revolution might not have been as brutal as the Bolshevik or Chinese revolutions but it still has a long litany of atrocities to its name as it continues to exploit religion as a tool for imposing obedience.

But reigns of terror such as these are also bound to come to what Brinton calls a Recovery Stage. This is also known as the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the 11th month of the French Republican calendar, during which a parliamentary revolt in 1794 resulted in the fall of Robespierre, an end to his reign of terror, and the return of power to the moderates.

Today, more than 40 years after the Iranian revolution deposed the long-serving shah, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iranians are far from missing his dictatorship. But what followed has proved to be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.

In the years since 1979 there have been several episodes of people standing up to the regime, most notably in the aftermath of the 2009 election when the reformist opposition, with very good reason, suspected the re-election victory of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rigged. And again in 2018, when widespread demonstrations were less-organized but equally well articulated by the protesters in their demands for economic reforms, an end to corruption and, increasingly, also an end to the regime itself.

On both occasions the protests were brutally crushed, resulting in thousands of casualties and with many other people arrested and tortured in Iran’s notorious jails.

The Iranian revolution has long been due for its Thermidorian Reaction. Such a development does not necessarily mean counterrevolution and another widespread and deadly outbreak of violence. It could take the form of deep reforms that take into account the demands expressed by protesters in the streets or on social media and opposition websites.

At the end of the day, those who have led the country since 1979 have failed the Iranian people on every level imaginable. Instead of security, prosperity and freedoms, the regime has brought only misery at home and confrontation with the world beyond its borders.

These are early days for the current outbreak of mass resistance and it is unclear whether it will be capable of ushering in Iran’s very own Thermidorian Reaction, or whether it will be another false dawn. Much depends on the sacrifices that those who oppose the regime are ready to make in the face of unabated brutality, and on the level of support offered by the international community.

Nevertheless, the courage shown on the streets during these protests, led by so many women and increasingly supported by men, and encouraged by the solidarity voiced by many others around the world, signals that they are resolute in their determination to ensure that the senseless death of Mahsa Amini will not have been in vain.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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