Glued to my computer screen, I watch young Iranians making a theater of defiance through their peaceful protests in the streets of Tehran and other big cities in my country. They are making history. My soul is tormented by the images of young men and women enduring the beatings by the members of the anti-riot police, while calmly protesting the grand theft of their votes.
Ten years ago, on the week of July 8-14, I marched with the defiant students who shook the Islamic Republic through their street protests in Tehran and 23 other cities. Putting their lives on the line, they fought for change. Chanting “Death to the Dictator,” they challenged Islamic Republic’s most sacred institution, velayate faghih. They questioned the unquestionable, broke all taboos, and brought the Islamic Republic’s growing crisis of legitimacy to the open.
Ordered by Ayatollah Khamenei, on July 14th, state-organized hooligans, and thousands of basiji and security forces attacked the protesters with machete, chain, and gun. Soon, the government began rounding up student leaders, journalists, intellectuals, and others, accusing them of plotting against the Islamic Republic. More than 2000 people were arrested. The youth movement was defeated.
The student protest was the first open explosion of the children of the Islamic Republic against the state and all that it represented. It was a loud cry for change, a social rupture, and a revolt by those who, nearly two years earlier, made possible the victory of Mohammad Khatami in his bid for the presidency of Iran. However, in the most critical moment, Khatami failed to defend the students and their demands.
Ten years later, once again, Iranians are back to the streets in most heroic, and peaceful street politics. The cry of “Death to the Dictator” is heard everywhere. Is history repeating itself?
Many things have changed since the days of the democracy movement in 1998. The Islamic Republic is a more divided regime. The conservative block that stood against the students, and the official movement for reform in 1989 is broken. The political break is the outer layer of a complex battle for the control of Iran’s national wealth. The recent Presidential Election and its aftermath is, in many ways, a clear manifestation of this battle.
The electoral theft, and the political violence that followed—what people call a coup d’état on the streets of Iran—was an orchestrated effort to contain the democracy movement. It was also an important step by the powerful Revolutionary Guards in a protracted war against Hashemi Rafsanjani for the control of Iran’s economy.
Today the Iranian economy is the private turf of a handful of economic and political mafias. Once the revolution’s primary economic benefactor, Rafsanjani and his family have been losing ground to other competitors, particularly Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In recent years, the Revolutionary Guards transformed itself from a sheer military force, to a military-economic-financial oligarchy in control of main arteries of the Iranian economy.
Mahmood Ahamadinejad’s attack on Rafsanjani and his family during his televised debate with Mi Hossein Mousavi was a calculated move, and political maneuver paving the ground for an all out war in later days. The democracy movement was the collateral damage in this war.
The streets of Tehran are under the occupation of the security forces. Basijis on Honda motorbikes are creating terror by breaking windows, rampaging shops and cars parked on the streets, and clubbing peaceful protester. Despite the violence by the government, however, the current phase of struggle for democracy is not over. The Islamic Republic is violent and brutal, but it is also responsive to public pressure. Change is possible. The future depends on the new balance of power that will emerge on the streets of Iran, and the course of action taken by Mousavi and other members of the official movement for reform.
Mir Hossein Mousavi and other reformist leaders, at least for now, seem determined to continue a legal struggle for reform. Despite Ayatollah x Khamenei’s call to support Ahmadinejad as the legitimate victor in the election, Mousavi has, so far, stood firm opposing the results, warning against the decline of the Islamic Republic into “a government of deceit and despotism.” Appearing at an unauthorized march in Tehran on Monday, Mousavi climbed to the top of a car and addressed hundreds of thousands of his supporters, urging them to keep calm, while calling for a new election.
On its part, the democracy movement has also gained more experience, in the past ten years. People’s longing for change has become stronger, and the movement has gained more maturity. Today, the Iranian youth are engaged in a historic collective action for rights. They are also demonstrating remarkable political maturity, and the potential for a successful movement for democracy.
The next few days and weeks are crucial for the future of the democracy movement. If defeated, Iranians will face even more severe repression. Many will be jailed, and tortured. More rights will be taken away from Iranian people. Darker years may follow.
However, Iran also faces the potential for a growing non-violent movement for change. The youth have demonstrated not only zeal and courage, but also remarkable self-discipline in their peaceful street politics. They are ready to change the face of Iranian politics.
Not only important for the future of Iran, the current democracy movement sets an example for the millions of people elsewhere in the Middle East, a region devastated by continuing violence. We are witnessing the birth of a powerful movement with important implications for Iran and the Middle East.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. Yaghmaian is currently working on a book about China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.