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Iran Makes History Again

19 Jun 2009 16:0914 Comments

Protester holds up sign quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, "A nation derives its ("real," scribbled in) legitimacy from the vote of the people." Photo/via Flickr

By RAMI KHOURI in Beirut | 19 June 2009

The ongoing street protests and other political events in Iran have generated massive amounts of speculation in the Middle East and abroad about the real nature and significance of what is taking place. Learned scholars, experienced diplomats, and others with little knowledge of Iran or the region have made their views known, usually on the basis of speculation and assumptions rather than clear facts that reflect access to the people in Iran driving the events on the ground. No problem: Historic developments are large political barns, accommodating a wide range of beasts. Iran today is profoundly important, if still imprecise in its outcome. This is uncharted territory to a great extent in the context of contemporary Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah. It is perfectly routine behavior, though, in the wider context of human beings who do not like being treated like idiots by their own government, and resist the process when it takes place. Over and over, in lands around the world, human beings who are grossly mistreated by their own government eventually stand up and refuse to take it any more.

The phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in defiance of their government's orders has occurred in many places in recent decades: Iran, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ukraine, and other lands where dictators were forced to leave office by popular demand. The latest manifestation of this in Iran today is linked to the widely contested results of the presidential election. But that is incidental -- just the trigger that shoots us into a wider world of political action. Everyone knows that the Iranian president is not the seat of power, and who wins the election for president is of little real consequence in Iran's controlled system.

The protests are not primarily about the election results per se, but rather about the indignities that ordinary men and women feel at the hands of their own government. The Iranians who are protesting are mostly younger people who were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution, so they do not always share the reverence for the revolutionary elite that continues to dominate the centers of power in the country. Younger Iranians are the latest generation of Middle Easterners who are demanding that they be treated as citizens who have rights and as human beings who have a sense of dignity. They do not particularly care what the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, says, and so they will likely keep protesting what they believe was government heavy-handedness in announcing the results of the presidential election in a manner that treated them like simpletons and chattel. They were made to feel that they participated in a farce, and normal human beings generally do not like to be humiliated like that.

The levers of economic, military, ideological, bureaucratic, and police power are very tightly controlled by the existing elite in Iran, which makes the protests all the more remarkable. The potential for significant ramifications in Iran and the wider Middle East is great, given the role that Iran plays throughout the region. Of the two most significant events that impacted on the entire Middle East in the last two generations -- the Arab loss in the June 1967 war and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 -- the Iranian revolution has probably had wider and greater impact in the long run. Iran impacts on many parts of the region, because of its ideological influence and logistical support to Islamist movements in the Arab world, combined with its leadership of the "resistance front" of regional forces that defy and challenge the United States, Israel and conservative Arab regimes. If Iran once again sets the standard for mass political protest or even revolutionary change, the impact throughout the Middle East is likely to be enormous. Arabs will not feel comfortable seeing the Iranian people twice in 30 years fearlessly challenging their own autocratic regimes, while the people of the Arab world meekly acquiesce in equally non-democratic and top-heavy political systems that treat their own people as unthinking fools who can be perpetually abused with sham elections and other forms of exploitation.

The particulars of the Iranian situation these days are specific to Iran's political culture, where a secretive ruling elite seems to suffer serious ideological rifts, and a major generation gap is also coming into play. The spontaneous mass defiance of the ruling power structure, though, is not Iran-specific. If this turns out to be a serious challenge to the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's system of government, rather than a narrow protest about the presidential election, we should not be surprised to see the Iranian precedent spilling over into other, Arab, parts of the Middle East, in a way that the 1979 Islamic revolution did not.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright (c) 2009 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global

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This helps me make sense of what is going on. I couldn't see why there is so much excitement between the supporters of "bad" and the supporters of "badder." As you point out, there must be a generational change in the willingness to be made fools of. It does seem, however, that Iranians have not learned the history of regimes that combine church and state.

Tom Sharpless / June 19, 2009 2:18 PM

Thanks for posting this. It helps to see the protests in a larger context, i.e., not directly about the presidential election.

Carissa / June 19, 2009 5:34 PM

I don't agree that the 1979 Iranian/islamic revolution did not spill over to other parts of the middle east. I believe the start of extremist Islam started with Khomeini. If the mullahs are defeated, it will spill over to the other parts of the middle east again.

jaleh / June 19, 2009 6:26 PM

I think there is a lot of interest and hope from around the world. People of intelligence, tolerance and good will of all religious and cultural backgrounds would like to see a fading of the power of extremist islamism. We also have a fading of American imperialism with the election of a reasonable US president and an economic ageing of the USA.

Humanity needs to face the challenges of the future which are mainly environmental but require peace and cooperation and science - together. The less mindless hatred and religious dogmatism and dictatorial despotism - the better for us all.

Whether the Basij militia terrify the Iranian democratic movement into submission - like sadly happened in Burma and China - or there is a change like the Phillipines, Indonesia, former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, South Africa - we just have to wait and hope or pray for.

peter / June 19, 2009 11:35 PM

I completely agree with you jaleh.

shetty / June 20, 2009 7:03 AM

All that Ive read and discussions I have had about the election in Iran is that this is not a revolution, but a civil rights movement. The sons and daughters of the 1979 revolution grew up hearing the stories of their parents of how they took to the streets for their civil rights its now their childrens time

Inside MBA / June 20, 2009 11:25 AM

Typically solid insights, Rami.

I already had been thinking about parallels between the reaction of Iranians who yearn to breathe free and similar cries of "Enough!" by South Africans, Czechs, Palestinians and, of course, American colonists. All reached a tipping point provoked by "the indignities that ordinary men and women feel at the hands of their own government," as you say.

Always enlightening to gain your perspective, and heartening now to see Atlantic magazine uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan steer more attention your way with a link and this note:

"Rami G. Khouri seems to think Iran could do what Iraq could not."

Alan Stamm / June 20, 2009 11:30 AM


carpus / June 20, 2009 3:51 PM

the newest photos on your homepage are really brilliant. the first one, i would immediately book for world press photo next year!

have been following tehranbureau since wednesday, and am impressed. the generation born after 1979 is - historically speaking - better educated, well organized and has absolutely nothing to lose. as always, the future of a country is the future of that generation...

good luck.

my iranian female friend (refugee in her fifties) says: 'it is for me like learning how to swim. iranians have to learn how to swim. they are almost drowning.'

dutch woman / June 20, 2009 6:13 PM

One of the countries where massive demonstrations did not take place recently was in the United States, even after the 2000 election was stolen by the Republican Party with assistance from the United State Supreme Court. The Iranian people are brave. We were not.

Bruce / June 20, 2009 8:02 PM

Given the well known history of U.S./Iranian relations, Obama has been entirely correct in his decision not to insert himself and the United States as an issue in this situation. To do so would only give the ruling Iranian elite the foil it now desperately needs (and desires) to completely delegitimize its domestic opposition. As such, any strong U.S. intercession at this time in a matter that must ultimately be decided by the Iranian people themselves would be incredibly stupid, arrogant, and entirely counterproductive.

John Crisp / June 21, 2009 1:08 PM

Also, one must keep in mind that it was Obama's election itself that served as the impetus for the now blossoming Iranian revolution. When oppressed people see an example of democracy in action, they want the same for themselves and their children. Because of Obama's election people see that a new world IS possible.

So as the moronic U.S. Republican Party plays politics with this issue, they utterly fail to comprehend that it was the election of Obama itself that has once again made the American democratic system a beacon of hope in a desperate world.

John Crisp / June 21, 2009 2:27 PM

John Amen my brother

Inside MBA / June 21, 2009 8:34 PM

The greatest oppressor of Iran is Islam. When will muslims learn this?

Daishin / June 22, 2009 12:31 AM