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Behind the rage, Iranians dream of democracy

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Demonstrations in the country, usually triggered by high living costs, invariably end up targeting the religious autocracy

Iran’s recent demonstrations in the wake of a drastic fuel price hike are reminiscent of the major uprisings that took place at the turn of 2018. Just as in 2018, the protests spread quickly and turned into a revolt against the Iranian regime. It is interesting to see why demonstrations in the country that are always primarily directed at high costs of living and financial difficulties quickly become politicised and begin to target the religious autocracy.

Social unrest in Iran is not a new phenomenon. The present turmoil echoes a long list of social and political strikes, protests and confrontations since the establishment of the Islamic regime in 1979. Between 1980 and 1988, thousands of young Iranians, members of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) and Marxist groups, were killed by the Islamic regime. The darkest period of these killings happened in the summer of 1988, after the end of the eight-year war with Iraq. A military operation organised by the MKO forces was followed by heavy losses, but the regime initiated immediately the execution of thousands of political prisoners.

Social protests of the 1990s

Unlike the political confrontations and mass killings of the 1980s, the 1990s in Iran were characterised by social and economic protests of students, workers, feminists, teachers and trade unionists. Unsurprisingly, they were always in response to a specific government action. In 1992, there were revolts in the holy city of Mashhad, after Iranian authorities tried to demolish homes built without permits in a squatter area. Three police officers were killed, government buildings were destroyed, hundreds arrested and at least four protesters later executed.

Two years later, in 1994, new protests took place in the northwestern city of Qazvin, triggered by a rejection of legislation by the Iranian Parliament to create a new province with Qazvin as its capital. In 1995, there was a crackdown on protesters in the city of Islamshahr, on the outskirts of Tehran, after an increase in public transportation costs. In all these three protests, the missing elements were the lack of political leadership and a clear absence of the Iranian middle class. However, the two major protests of 1999 and 2009 in Iran were clearly of a more political nature than the previous ones, with a huge impact on the political consciousness of the Iranian middle class.

Iranian Tiananmen of 1999

Named as the “Iranian Tiananmen”, though not as bloody as the Chinese uprising of 1989, the Iranian student movement of 1999 remains in the memory of Iranians as the outcome of a political confrontation between the reformist government of the then-President Mohammad Khatami and the conservative political and military forces of the Islamic regime. The student protests were organised against the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam and Parliament’s passage of a new law limiting freedom of the press, but it was mainly a night attack against the Tehran University’s dormitory by paramilitary elements which caused the anger and rage of the students. At least one person was killed. Many others were injured and imprisoned by the authorities. Undoubtedly, the student movement of 1999 laid the foundations for the ‘Green Movement’ of 2009. Though triggered by a fraudulent presidential election that reaffirmed a second term for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the favourite reformist contender Mir Hussein Mousavi, the Green Movement turned into a mass struggle for civil liberties and the removal of Iran’s theocratic regime. The demonstrations were not simply a reaction to unfair election results but were based on years of built-up frustration, dissatisfaction, and anger towards the theocratic rule.

If we take a closer look at the trend of social protests in Iran in the past 30 years, we can say that the ‘Arab Spring’ started in Iran back in July 1999 or in June 2009. In other words, the ‘Arab Uprising’ had a ‘non-Arab’ beginning in Iran’s protest movements. However, the democratic transition in Iran has not been able to turn into a successful model of non-violent transition and negotiation because of the practice of absolute violence by the Iranian authorities.

Unlike Tunisia in 2011, where street revolts succeeded because the armed forces decided not to share the destiny of the dictator, and refused to shoot on the people, protests in Iran have been quite limited in their tactics when confronting the harsh violence of the Islamic state. In each of the cases named above, including the recent protests in Iran, civic movements lost their unity and their momentum as soon as they faced a violent crackdown.

In Tunisia, the removal of Ben Ali and free elections marked the “beginning of politics”. In Iran, on the contrary, politics will not start with the end of the dictators, but politics itself will bring about that end. As such, if Tunisia was a sprint, Iran will be a marathon. The ultimate question that remains is: if the Iranian political system cannot be reformed in a peaceful and non-violent way and through the ballot box because of its failure to heed to popular demand for change, then what is left of the Iranian dream of democracy? Nobody knows how long the Iranians should wait for this dream to become reality.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 7:13:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/behind-the-rage-iranians-dream-of-democracy/article30195517.ece

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