By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
February 21, 2011
Last week and yesterday, mass protests broke out across Iran. Originally called by opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi (both of them presidential candidates in Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009), participants ostensibly wanted to show solidarity with the opposition in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries currently in turmoil. The real reason, of course, was to show the Iranian government that the opposition was still strong.
And they succeeded: Despite security forces’ warning that demonstrators will be stopped, thousands marched in Tehran, Esfahan, Kermanshah, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Mashhad – most of them university students. In response, several members of the Iranian parliament demanded the execution of Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi, and former reformist President Mohammed Khatami for “sedition.”
Which brings us to the central question: Can the current wave of protests in Iran succeed?
Notwithstanding the vibrancy of the protests and many Iranians’ frustration with the current government, radical change in the short-run is unlikely. For one thing, a flashpoint to mobilize the people – comparable to allegations of fraud in the presidential elections in 2009 – is missing. Many Iranians sympathize with, and relate to, the plight of other Middle Eastern people rising up against inept autocrats. But other people’s troubles are not enough to cause Iranian tensions to boil over.
Furthermore, unlike 2009, where dozens of citizens were killed in the post-election protests, this time, the government managed to suppress protests with minimal bloodshed. Sophisticated methods such as deploying riot police around rallying points before the protestors could march, using tear gas and rubber bullets instead of live ammunition, and shutting down internet servers and mobile phone networks prevented the protests from getting out of control.
To be sure, that is not the end of it because the current anger in Iran goes back to the frustrated hopes in the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. From the 1950s until the Revolution, the Shah had promised to create an egalitarian, prosperous, and democratic Iran. But he delivered anything but equality, prosperity, and democracy to the people of Iran. Thus, the Revolution came with the promise to end inequality, poverty, and oppression.
Thirty-two years later, the Revolution has still not realized that promise. The survival of the Islamic Republic depends on whether its leaders will do something about that.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.