Those of us who are not professional historians (and a few who are) tend to view the past through the wrong end of a telescope. We mark America’s independence on July 4, 1776, conveniently ignoring the fact that it took seven years of war and of peace negotiations before the declaration of Philadelphia became a reality. The French Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy are popularly associated with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. But on July 15 Louis the XVI was still very much king. It would be another three and a half years before he was guillotined.
In Iran the overthrow of the Shah is conveniently pegged in February 1979. But his departure was preceded by months of rising unrest, and was followed by two years of turmoil and political maneuvering as his would-be successors jockeyed for power.
What brings all of this to mind is the impassioned and heartfelt, but ultimately wishful, commentary on Iran that we have seen here in the West over the last two weeks. Ten days ago American news programs were showing video from Tehran and intercutting it with scenes from the Philippines in 1986, the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Boris Yeltsin at the Russian Parliament building in 1991. There was talk of “regime change” (a phrase one might have thought American pundits would have learned to avoid).
By last weekend those images were gone, as was the talk of a quick revolution. In there place were assurances that, whatever may happen in the short run, everything in Iran has changed. I’ve lost track of the number of pieces I’ve read that declared this moment the end of the First Phase of the Second Iranian Revolution.
Perhaps those other commentators are right. Perhaps, as happened in 1978-79, the deaths of the last month will set off a series of rolling, and ever-growing, mourning demonstrations that will shake a discredited regime to its core. Perhaps.
Or maybe nothing of the sort is going to happen. Maybe Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s regime, having demonstrated sufficient ruthlessness to intimidate every opponent who matters, will use the coming months to complete its evolution into a full-blown national security state. I have even read a few articles speculating that, like China after Tiananmen, what we have seen over the last three weeks will be the beginning of a process through which Iran evolves toward authoritarian openness. Again, maybe. But it is worth remembering that it took post-Tiananmen China a very long time to open up and become the officially-Communist-yet-free-market state we know today. Were I an Iranian I’d take little comfort from that analogy.
There are clearly two struggles going on in Iran right now: one in the streets where protests over a stolen election have become something bigger and more deeply felt; and another within the high councils of the regime.
One cannot rule out the possibility of a real revolution – a genuine change of political system, as occurred in the communist bloc in 1989, and in Iran itself a decade earlier – emerging from all of this. But it is equally, if not more, likely that any ‘change’ ultimately will be for the worse, involving a far-ranging and brutal crack down of which we have only seen the beginning combined, perhaps, with some reordering of figures at the top of the regime.
What absolutely bears watching in the coming weeks will be the reaction around the Arab World. Ahmedinejad has built a surprising following among ordinary Arabs with his heated denunciations of America, Israel and the West in general. The fact that a Persian Shiite could command such respect among ordinary Sunni Arabs always said less about him than about the widespread discontent many Arab citizens feel for their own governments. That, however, was before he stole an election with even less finesse than the average Arab president usually manages and sent paramilitaries into the street to put down protests in a way many ordinary Arabs will find depressingly familiar.
Whether this new Ahmedinejad remains an admired figure on the proverbial Arab Street may, in the near-to-medium term, tell us a lot about how receptive Arab citizens are to Barack Obama’s call for a new American relationship with the world of Islam. Among Arabs part of Ahmedinejad’s appeal always lay in the fact that he said the things Arabs longed to hear while having a degree of genuine popular legitimacy. With the legitimacy gone, will rhetoric alone be enough to maintain his image with this most unlikely constituency?