Back to the future

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The scenes of violence being documented on the streets of Tehran over the last two weeks or so are eerily reminiscent of similar scenes that unfolded on these very streets and broad avenues some 30 years ago.  In fact it would seem as thought the opposition, led by Mir Hossein Moussavi, has been re-reading the book on the Islamic revolution that he, Moussavi, helped write.  And furthermore, it seems that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his presidential favorite, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, either did not bother to read the book, or simply forgot what they read. That will cost them dearly, as it did the last emperor of Iran, Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi. Indeed, it is ironic that the regime in Iran appears to be falling into the same trap it set up for the shah three decades ago, a trap that got rid of the monarchy and brought the ayatollahs to power.

The majority of those demonstrating in Iran today most likely do not remember Iran prior to the Islamic Republic. Many might even be surprised to learn that the string of events that lead to the creation of the Islamic Republic and to the demise of the shah - a staunch U.S. ally, bear many
similarities with what is going on today. Back to the future: The trigger that propelled the Islamic revolution was the death of about 400 people who perished in a fire in an Abadan movie theatre.    Movie-goers became trapped inside the inferno when a short-circuit started an electrical fire. The people suspected foul play from the government and protesters took to the streets.  Each protest was met by force from the government and as protests grew and the country’s security forces could no longer cope, the army was called in to assist. Until that fateful Friday when the army opened fire on the crowd.  Forty days later when a march was held to commemorate the dead, more violence broke out, the army fired on the crowds from helicopter gunships, and the rest as they say is history.

Until now. Until now when history is repeating itself.  Ironically, the regime in Tehran appears to be falling into the same trap it set up for the monarchy at the beginning of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Indeed, it seems as though history in Iran is repeating itself, and it is hard not to draw similarities between what is happening in Tehran today and to the events that led to the instauration of the Islamic Republic.

This time the fuse was not a burning cinema, but in all appearances, it was a rigged election. Of course in both cases, in 1979 as today, there were underlying causes of unrest among the people just waiting to explode. The people took to the streets and as it was 30 years ago, clashed with security forces. In the first week of protests Iranian blogs reported eight people killed and the largest protests to rock the country since the Islamic revolution. By week two, the number of people reported to have died in protests increased to 300.

According to lobbyists for the Mojahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK) in the United States, a group also known as the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI).The cycle of violence, the level of anger of the population and the continuity of the past few days, are reminiscent of the events of 1979.  The MeK is considered to be a terrorist group by the U.S. States Department.    Part of the movement that eventually led to the demise of the House of Pahlavi and its replacement by the Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeni fed on the deadly cycle of demonstrations, growing protests and their inevitable suppression by the authorities, in particular by the army, once it became involved.

The circumstances today following massive protests by supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi since the regime moved rapidly to declare the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of Friday’s presidential elections is eerily reminiscent of the protests that eventually brought down the shah, putting an end to the Pahlavi dynasty.

Today, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that history could repeat itself, this time unseating the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment and replacing it with a more reformist wing. “We will have to see how the street responds if Ahmadinejad is maintained as the winner,” said Jaafarzadeh.

Supporters of Mousavi, the presumed favorite in Friday’s presidential campaign in Iran, according to Iranian blogs and judging by the number of supporters who took to the streets claiming that their vote was “stolen,” continued to clash with police, basij paramilitary units and plain clothed security agents as was clearly visible on a number of international television channels broadcasting live from Tehran.  One blog estimated Mousavi received 19 million votes, while Ahmadinejad got only 5.7million.

Reports of fatalities among anti-regime protestors was also confirmed by Iranian opposition groups in the United States and in Europe and photographs and videos of casualties are making their way out of the country despite attempts by the authorities to prevent any images being seen outside of Iran.  Fatalities amongst protestors raises the stakes considerably. Again, if one is to draw comparisons with the events that brought the ayatollahs to power in 1979, it was in large part the vicious cycle of deaths among protestors followed by their funerals, events that drew larger crowds with every death. Incessantly, the funeral processions tended to draw more people, and those in turn attracted more security forces, and as could be expected, the result was more violence and more casualties. This diabolic exercise was repeated week after week. Further feeding the flames of discontent were immense crowds that would spew out from mosques following Friday prayers, roused by inciting sermons from imams supporting the revolt. 

Authorities in Iran will be watching closely what happens after each of the funerals that will take place over the next few days as the dead are buried within 24 hours, as advised by Islamic law. As no doubt they will be looking nervously at the crowds as they gather for the 40day following the deaths ofthose killed in this weekend’s clashes - it was specifically on the 40 day - the traditional day of remembrance - that some of the worst violence took place during the 1979 revolution.

It is worth mentioning that the revolution that brought the Islamic Republic to power changed much, indeed, and not only in Iran.  The repercussions of Iran’s Islamic revolution impacted Lebanon, through support granted to the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah; it impacted Gaza through support given to Hamas and it has impacted the region in general through the Islamic republic’s pursuit of nuclear technology and its repeated calls for the destruction of Israel.  At the same time, the revolution affected the once-close relationship Iran enjoyed with the West. Over the course of the last 30 years relations between Iran and the United States have reached rock bottom. A new revolution will certainly change much once again.

Claude Salhani   - Editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC. He covered the 1979 revolution in Iran.

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