Protests in Iran may wane, but long-term threat to regime may not, say local experts
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2009 - Street demonstrations against Iran's presidential election are likely to fade away soon, but what happens next will determine how influential they have been.
That's the view of long-time observers of the political situation in Iran who have been closely watching the protests over the legitimacy of the recent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
"The majority of the Iranian population is young," said Tahmineh Entessar, who teaches international relations at Webster University, "and they feel a real suffocation that the regime has imposed on them. I guess the election has given them a platform to express their feelings that the regime is extremely suffocating.
"The whole process of the election has allowed them to express their feelings a little more openly."
Entessar, who left Iran in 1973, said she had been hoping to see cracks in the political system, so she has been pleased at the open dissent she has seen so far. But she hesitates to draw parallels to the 1979 uprising that overthrew the shah because no powerful leader has yet emerged to play a role similar to that played by the Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago.
"Moussavi is really not someone the people are going to go out of their way for," she said, referring to the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi who was defeated in the presidential race by Ahmedinejad. "Unless there is a leader who can really put the message out there for the people, I don't think you will see the magnitude of the 1979 revolution.
"Also, the system fell apart then when the military stopped supporting the shah. Today's Revolutionary Guard is mostly from the average people. If they are asked to go against their own people, they may turn away from the regime. Otherwise, I don't see that much resemblance between now and 1979."
Tim Lomperis, a political science professor at Saint Louis University, notes that problems in Iran have been smoldering for some time, so the perception that the election was stolen -- plus the feelings of popular empowerment in the region from recent balloting in Iraq and Afghanistan -- could touch off a movement that would be hard to contain.
What is likely to happen next will be determined largely by how the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei uses his authority, Lomperis said.
"It really will depend on whether Khamenei decides to moderate and institute a more reformist platform and clip Ahmedinejad's wings, or whether he decides to become more hard-line," he said.
"If he chooses the latter course, I think a second round will be triggered quickly. If I were advising them, I would say to take the moderate course, especially working to get the economy back, since most of the demonstrations are being staged by the unemployed. If you don't reach out to the middle, you isolate yourself, and while these crowds are riled up like this, I think that would be a serious mistake."
Fatemeh Keshavarz, a professor at Washington University who was a student in Iran in 1979, was surprised that the regime used such force, but she believes that the nation’s leaders were caught by the scale of the protests.
“I thought they would try to scare people,” she said. “I thought the clerics among themselves would reach some sort of a compromise that would be more pragmatic. But I think they were actually taken by surprise, so the whole machine didn’t move fast enough to bring about some kind of a resolution.”
Both Lomperis and Entessar said another crucial factor is whether members of Iran's elite will align themselves with the protesters.
"The interesting thing will be whether the formal institutions within Iranian society join with the forces of the people in the street," Lomperis said. "There's a high possibility for a split within the ruling elite. Usually, this kind of revolutionary momentum favors change. If it doesn't occur, you could actually have a civil war."
Added Entessar: "Unless there is a platform that encourages people to keep on with demonstrations and expressions of opinion, I don't think this can go on much longer. How often can people go out into the street? How often can they get shot?"
Both also noted the crucial role that social media such as Twitter and Facebook have played, empowering people who have seen that the government cannot possibly control the channels of communication within the country.
"I am really happy to see that finally there is at least a little bit of leeway for the public to go over the dictatorial control of the flow of information," Entessar said. "You have not see that in any past moment. It is really fantastic."
"The attempt by any regime to clamp down and shut out the media is a thing of the past," Lomperis said. "That's a huge defining factor. It puts huge constraints on a regime if it can't do anything to contain international outrage."
As stirring as the impact of social media may have been in helping Iranians communicate with each other, Keshavarz thinks its force internationally has been equally important.
“People were able to get words and images out of Iran that would otherwise not have been seen by the world.”
Just as the 1979 revolution was the result of discontent that had begun a few years before, all three observers think the current unrest is likely to lead to broader changes down the road.
“This is a long-term situation,” Keshavarz said. “No matter what happens now, a kind of a threshold has been crossed, and it is going to have a serious impact on Iranian politics and society.”
Lomperis added: "It will be very hard for Khamenei to recork the bottle. I don't think the bottle will be recorked."