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Iran: Is 2009 an Update of 1979? A Debate in Three Parts

The Latest from Iran (23 June): Preparing for Thursday

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KHAMENEI4SHAH OF IRANYesterday, an analyst from BBC Persian Television, speaking on BBC News 24 on Monday, predicted the protests are going to wither and die because of the government’s crackdown and heavy security across Tehran. He also criticised comparisons with 1979. I asked two Enduring America contributors, Steve Hewitt and Chris Emery, "Is he right?"

Is the 1979 Analogy Relevant?

STEVE HEWITT: I agree. Iranian society then was united against the Shah with a strong rallying figure in the form of Khomeini, whereas today it is just very polarized.

CHRIS EMERY: I agree that analytically there is little point in making analogies with 1978-9. Khomeini did not just have a cause or a sense of injustice, as Mousavi has today, he also had a constitutional template for a radical overhaul of Iran's political system and foreign relations developed over years. He also had a far-reaching network for achieving his goals; Mousavi, on the other hand, is improvising.

However, a key point is that the analogy is acting and active INSIDE Iran.

It is also influencing, I think, the State's response to the crisis. The authorities are afraid of the analogy and trying to not repeat the Shah's mistakes (but i think failing). The analogy is not just about wishful thinking by Westerners hoping for an overthrow of the system. Its imagery and psychology is omnipresent on the streets of Iranian cities (with kids who cannot remember it still indoctrinated by the imagery and sense of what the youth achieved in 1979). For example, I think that if there is a general strike, many will feel this evocative of 1978 and this sense of historical momentum will be as significant as any economic disruption.

The analogy maybe be false, but that doesn't mean it is insignificant. The Vietnam analogy in Iraq was false but was an undeniably important cultural and historical lens in which many Americans viewed the imagery and reporting of events there. It mobilised opposition. My Lai = Abu Ghraib, Tet = Falluja, language such as "quagmire" and "stay the course"....

Is the Current Regime Vulnerable?
HEWITT: Interesting points, especially in terms of the government’s response. But how can you measure the forces that you describe? And what about the millions who support the government and [President] Ahmadinejad? Where do they fit in the equation?

EMERY: You can't measure those forces (you couldn't in 1978-9). However, there are certain signposts from the past that will increase momentum to the point of critical mass. I mentioned a general strike. Another significant signpost would be if elements of the regime's security forces refuse to fire on the people and join the demonstrators, though we are miles away from that (bar a few reported isolated incidents).

I think you have hit upon the other point. The Shah, because of his own paranoia and managerial style, shrunk his power base to a very small few. He even used to meet his ministers and military leaders one at a time to discourage any unity; he was obsessed about being ousted by the military). He had deliberately weakened outside institutions and alliances. He also alienated all sections of Iranian society; even the North Tehran bourgeoisie mostly hated him. The whole system was reliant on him.

Now, the notion of an Islamic Republic is defended by the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, Revolutionary Guard, Majlis [Parliament], Presidency, Judiciary, and of course the Supreme Leader. It is defended even by Mousavi, Khatami, and Rafsanjani! There may be human rights activists and Iranian intellectuals centred on this issue, but there is not an intellectual culture proposing a complete political alternative, as in the example of Ali Shariati.

This is why we won't see a similar revolution. That's not to say, however, that the analogy won't be acting upon a movement that may radically shake up the political establishment but not bring down the Islamic Republic.

Myths and Chinese Models?
HEWITT: And what about the regime deploying powerful myths of its own, such as US and British interference in Iranian affairs? I think in the long run the regime is finished having destroyed its credibility by stealing the election, but in the short term the protests will fail just as they did, using another historical analogy, 20 years ago in Beijing.

EMERY: I think that's a reasonable assumption. However, the question is how the regime modifies its style. Some have suggested that the authorities have the Chinese model in mind. They are going to normalise relations with the West, invest in technologies such as nuclear power, end sanctions, and aim to make Iran as prosperous as possible. They reason that the problem is simply a lack of economic opportunities for the young. They hope to distract the youth with materialism whilst creating a wider base of vested interests not wishing to challenge the regime in the future.

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