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Iran: Looking to the past to understand the present

To the generation of post-Revolution Iranians who tried to carry on with life as 'normal,' Khamenei broke a bargain.

Protesters in Iran
REUTERS/via Your View
Iranian protesters show victory signs as they march near Ghoba mosque in northern Tehran June 28, 2009.

TEHRAN — Two nights after the presidential election, government militia forces informed students at Tehran University that their end-of-term exams had been postponed. The message came by way of violence: Plain-clothes Basij forcibly entered the university dormitory, injured, arrested and killed as many students as they liked, and told the rest to leave the capital as soon as possible.

Sharom, a graduate student of sociology, decided to instead move his possessions from the dormitory to a friend's home elsewhere in Tehran. The only alternative was to leave for his parents' home in Shiraz, a 15-hour bus ride away. Too far to quickly return in case the exams got rescheduled — and too cut off, in case the unexpected happened, from history's center stage.

It's history that is on everyone's mind in Tehran. Amid all the senseless violence and the unrelenting tension in the air, Iranians look to the past to make sense of the present. In their homes, they rehearse the events of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. At work, they discuss their fears that their leaders will make a decision like the one made by China's rulers in 1989 against the students in Tiananmen Square. They whisper about the countrywide student protests of 1999 and ask questions about how the Supreme Court resolved the United States' disputed presidential election of 2000.

History offers so many plausible examples of turning points and drama, but what many Iranians want most of all seems right now most difficult to imagine. "Anything is possible," Sharom says. "And every day, I wish that tomorrow things will again be normal."

Given the events of the last few weeks, no one claims to know how or when that wish can possibly be fulfilled. Even when the streets of Tehran are free of violence these days, they are far from any definition of normalcy. Businesses continue to send home their employees early. The Grand Bazaar, the center of the country's retail and wholesale exchange, has been quiet. There are reports of large sums of money, once deposited in domestic banks, being moved out of the country. Those who tune into public television broadcasts are treated to propaganda that fails to correspond in even basic ways to reality.

And the basij militia and uniformed military continue to impose martial law after dark. Their patrols are taking on the feeling of something permanent, as are the nightly rooftop cries of "Allahu Akbar!" and "Down with the Dictator!" which have increased in strength and volume. When street protests emerge, as they have again in recent days, the crackdowns continue apace.

Since the day of the election, the regime has been consistent: fear and uncertainty for the disaffected, reassurance for the loyalists. It's a strategy motivated by the government's own favorite historical analogy. The ruling class has long feared a "velvet revolution" within its borders, a demonstration of mass peaceful protest of the sort that toppled regimes in Eastern Europe. Some reports say that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was so troubled by the "orange revolution" in Ukraine in 2005 that he commissioned a study on how a similar movement might be combated in Iran.

If the authorities had been hoping that intimidation would restore calm, they miscalculated — just as they may have miscalculated in thinking that electoral fraud would only elicit mild consternation. Sharom, as much as he would like to take exams and plan his life, has nothing else to do right now but think about and organize demonstrations. Though it's not a role he imagined for himself, there is no one else prepared to assume it. Though Mousavi has been spared until now, most other experienced reformist policy makers and campaign operatives have been locked up.

The protesters, though their decisions to participate are individual and spontaneous, share a common emotional rhythm and momentum. Early morning anxiety becomes excitement, which produces action, which leads to exhaustion, which is again sparked into anger and anxiety at the end of the day by the government's dismissive rhetoric or by horrific images from the preceding day's violence. It's a cycle shared by those who have become too scared to take to the streets.

In their state of perpetual anxiety, Iranians are increasingly realizing that life was never entirely "normal" in the Islamic Republic. Iranians willfully tried to believe otherwise before, and were often successful at pushing politics to the boundaries of their lives, because the regime's repression was relatively targeted. The silent majority accepted a system based largely on the protection of public order, because they thought that their government was concerned with protecting some measure of justice. This was the bargain that Khamenei broke in his hardline speech one week after the election.

Khamenei may have learned the lessons of the "velvet revolutions" too well when he prescribed a coup d'etat as a solution to the problem of a disappointed public. The hardline methods he has endorsed to quickly stamp out a potential peaceful revolution may eventually lay the groundwork for a more widespread, angrier and overt revolution later on. The feelings of betrayal will not dissipate soon, and the Shiite calendar, with its many days of mourning, provides a sufficient schedule for continued unrest.

The important economic networks of the bazaar — the "swing voters" that have played a decisive role in instances of unrest in Iran throughout the 20th century — have given indications that they are frustrated by the continued disruptions. With stronger signs of leadership from the opposition, they may be willing to put their weight behind demonstrations.

For now, the leadership of the country has shown no taste for compromise, placing a considerable bet on its powers of intimidation. History shows, though, that the ultimate track record for unrestrained autocracies is no better than for the type of semi-democracy that the Islamic Republic once was. In fact, if the elites of the regime relaxed their posture of paranoia, they might perhaps notice that the country that enjoys the longest recent history of internal stability is the very country they spend the most time dismissing: the United States of America.

(GlobalPost contributor Cameron Abadi covered the Iranian elections and the protests that came in the aftermath of the contested results. Despite a crackdown on the media and the threat of arrest, Abadi stayed in Tehran until late June, quietly and carefully documenting what he saw unfolding there. This dispatch was based on those observations from Tehran and was published from Berlin, where he is based.)

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