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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why this is different than 1979

In an article in Wednesday's New York Post, Iranian ex-pat scholar Amir Taheri explains why the current situation in Iran is different than the Islamic revolution of 1979.
To start with, the ruling establishment back then remained reasonably united until the very end. Even after the shah had left the country, no key regime figure switched sides. Today, however, the ruling elite is split down the middle. Almost as many regime dignitaries have sided with Mousavi as have backed Ahmadinejad.

In 1979, the people looked to the Shiite clergy for leadership. This time, the clergy is pushed into the background. The new "moral references" of Iranian society are no longer clerics; they are intellectuals, academics, lawyers and independent trade-union leaders. Whatever the struggle's outcome, one thing is certain: Mullahs will never regain their position of moral authority in Iranian politics.

Another difference is that the ruling elite in 1979 had little stomach for a fight. Many of its members had homes and investments abroad and thus could just pack and leave -- they weren't forced to fight with their backs to the wall.

But the overwhelming majority of today's ruling elite has no fallback position. If driven from power, "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei or Ahmadinejad would have nowhere to go. They have no choice but to fight to the bitter end. This time, it is in the opposition camp that one finds most of those who can pack and go to golden exile abroad.

There's yet another difference. In 1979, a majority of Iranians would probably have voted for the shah, had there been elections. Few, however, were prepared to fight for him in the streets. This time, the regime may well lose a free and fair election but still is capable of fielding large numbers of supporters who are ready to die and kill for it.

Finally, one must take into account differences between the shah and Khamenei.

The shah had no stomach for bloody repression. His constant, and rather charmingly naive, motto was: "A king cannot kill his own people."

In contrast, Khamenei has built his career as a tough street fighter. In his Friday sermon in Tehran declaring war on the opposition, he made it clear that he wouldn't shy away from a bloodbath in order to prevent regime change.
But Taheri ends his article claiming (hoping?) there won't be a civil war. He points to the fact that there have been only three civil wars in Iran's 2500-year history and attributes that fact to Iranians' ability to see which side is winning and to jump on the bandwagon. On the other hand, he says that he hopes that the side that is losing won't 'deny the evidence' and precipitate a long and bloody conflict.

Unfortunately, given that the Mullahs have no place else to go and that they are willing to murder their own people to stay in power, it seems likely that if the losing side is the Mullahs there will be a long and bloody conflict in Iran. And unfortunately, much of the rest of the World seems willing to sit by and let that happen.


At 2:55 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The clergy has no place to go. There are enough fools, frauds and fanatics to help keep them in power and unlike the Shah - they're willing to kill large numbers of their own people to do it. That's why I don't share Amir Taheri's optimism. Even a totalitarian regime that has lost all popular support can cling to power provided that the ruling faction and the military remain united behind it. There is no disunity among the hard-liners and while the regime is shaken, it will not give ground. The events of the last week may lead to the regime being discredited but its demise, if it does come about, will neither be swift nor sure.


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