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Opinion | Potential Attack Threatens Peaceful Movement for Change

by REZA H. AKBARI and AZADEH POURZAND

29 Dec 2011 02:42Comments
iran-iraq-war07.jpgAn attack could be exactly what the Islamic Republic's rulers are looking for.

[ opinion ] The possibility of a military strike against Iran has become a focal point of U.S. foreign policy debates. As the hawkish voices intensify, we as members of a generation born in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War cannot help but remember the tragedy of those eight years of bloodshed that are so ingrained in our memories.

We want to highlight the images that both haunt our generation and capture the ways that the regime in Iran used the war as a tool to strengthen its control over the country. Although many socioeconomic and political factors are different today, we believe that, if attacked, the Iranian regime will use the same tactics to crush dissent and once again secure its authority over the people.

Both born in 1985, we vividly recall the final phase of the Iran-Iraq War and its aftermath. We remember the cacophonous sound of air strikes in and around Tehran and the nights of taking refuge in neighborhood public shelters. We recall the worried faces of our parents as the sound of alarm sirens -- deafening to our young ears -- ripped through the air. We remember standing on our balconies and watching a parade of coffins go by, as mourning mothers broke down and said their last goodbyes to dead sons.

One of the first heroes introduced to us in elementary school was a 13-year-old boy named Hossein Fahmideh. We learned all about his story and his heroic act, done in the name of Iran and the Islamic Revolution. We were told that he was among the many young boys who took up the call for martyrdom. For defending the Islamic land, the ruling clergy promised him a place in heaven. Martyr Fahmideh, as he was known to us, had tied grenades to his waist and threw himself under an Iraqi tank to stop it from advancing toward Iranian territory. We grew up hearing constant reminders of Fahmideh's bravery and of the many others like him who sacrificed their lives in defense of our "Islamic land."

As young girls, we were asked to guard our veils so as not to disappoint Martyr Fahmideh, who would be watching his Iranian Muslim sisters from heaven. As young boys, we were instructed to carry on his legacy by unswervingly defending our land against the imperialist West and other threats to the Islamic Republic.

Today, as our generation in Iran experiences grave social and political injustices, many find themselves jaded and cynical about the revolutionary ideals that were never delivered upon. We regularly stay in touch with family and friends inside the country, and their reports indicate a strong sense of mistrust and resentment toward the authorities. Today we wonder whether Fahmideh, if he were alive, would have been a member of the Green Movement. Would he be a factory worker fighting for labor rights? Would he, just like us, be a part of the country's enormous brain drain, studying at some Western university? Or perhaps he would simply be among the host of college-educated, unemployed adults who watch, silent and disappointed, as the Islamic Republic destroy the nation's prospects in the name of his, and every other veteran's and martyr's, bravery.

Our generation is quite familiar with the tactics that the Islamic Republic utilized during the years of the Iran-Iraq War and the decades that followed. The regime used the conflict as an excuse to keep the nation repressed and fearful of losing land to enemies -- perhaps the most sustainable way to secure and stabilize its rule. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, the Revolution's paramount leader, declared when the conflict began, "War is a divine blessing, a gift bestowed upon us by God. The cannon's thunder rejuvenates the soul." The regime mastered the art of repression during the 1980s. Anybody who dared to speak out against the government was considered the enemy of Islam and the divine rule of the Islamic Republic, a legacy carried forth into the postwar era.

In the months following the 2009 presidential elections, the regime's repressive tactics seemed to have finally lost their effectiveness as millions of young men and women peacefully marched in the streets. They loudly demanded the freedoms promised to them by their leaders, freedoms for which the martyrs of the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War had supposedly sacrificed their lives. Ever since those unprecedented demonstrations, the Islamic Republic has ramped up its use of force and violence. Yet for all of its repressive efforts, it is not able to put an end to the people's escalating frustrations and dissatisfaction.

During the past two years, fearful of losing their grip on power, Iran's rulers have cracked down with increasing severity on social and political freedoms. Although the popular opposition movement seems to be contained, it is not dead. A generation of young activists are picking up the mantle of responsibility and carrying on the struggle for reform. Throughout the country, university students have prevented government officials from delivering speeches on campus or even entering their schools. By writing open letters against the regime's policies and staging strikes and protests, the students have kept the call for change and freedom alive.

Any military action against Iran will derail the process of peaceful political transition and reform in the country. Given the domestic turbulences, we fear that a military strike against the Islamic Republic is a desirable outcome for the regime. We fear that even the threat of such an attack only helps the regime to regain some of its lost legitimacy and mobilize the people in defense of their homeland.

With the recent talk of possible war, the regime's leadership is preparing the nation for a large-scale conflict. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), recently insisted that the armed forces are ready for military engagement. According to Fars News, the semiofficial news agency close to the Guards, he stated, "Complete and full scale preparedness of the military forces, including the IRGC, Basij, and people was the reason why the enemies did not go beyond just threatening Iran and the reason why we are witnessing their retreat from their threatening remarks now."

Even if quite weakened internally, a regime like Iran's benefits from an imminent threat posed by a foreign enemy -- it binds the people more tightly to a central power that can defend the national borders. Despite the differences between the Iran of today and during the years of the war with Iraq, a military strike would almost certainly awaken the patriotic sentiments of the people, leading them to set aside domestic political considerations in defense of their land against the external adversary. With war, we fear that the peaceful demonstrators of the Green Movement will be forced to pick up arms against foreign invaders instead of continuing their arduous path of demanding reform.

Thus, as members of the generation of a bloody war, we worry that a military strike by Israel or the United States against Iran would be the golden opportunity that the overlords of the Islamic Republic expediently await.

Reza H. Akbari is a research associate at the Century Foundation and a graduate student at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Middle East studies. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Azadeh Pourzand is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Nijenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. Her research and consultancy work focuses on youth, women, and civil society in Muslim contexts.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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