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Iranian Revolution: Postelection Unrest Reveals Cracks In The Republic

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Many Green Movement activists say that Iranian leaders have failed to live up to their ideals

Many Green Movement activists say that Iranian leaders have failed to live up to their ideals

In the wake of the 1979 revolution, Iranians chose an Islamic republic as the form of government that would embody their revolutionary ideals.

Little was known about what their new republic would offer in practice, but many hoped they would enjoy more freedoms than they did under the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and founding father of the Islamic republic, promised a free society where oppression and tyranny would have no place.

"There is no dictatorship in an Islamic establishment. It is like the rule of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [cousin of the Prophet Muhammad]. It is based on justice," Khomeini said.

But as the Islamic republic prepares to celebrate its 31st anniversary on February 11, many Iranians -- including former revolutionaries -- are coming around to the idea that their revolution has failed. And, as the country's Green Movement prepares to use the occasion to continue the protests they began after the country's contentious presidential election in June, the prospect of renewed violence by the state against its citizens could further the idea that the Islamic republic has essentially devolved into a dictatorship.

Last week, Green opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi remarked that the 1979 revolution had failed to achieve most of its goals, including eradicating the "roots of tyranny and dictatorship." And the presidential candidate, who was an active participant in the Iranian Revolution, is far from alone.

Exiled journalist Nooshabe Amiri, who three decades ago protested against the monarchy, says the current political repression is much worse than it was under the shah.

"When you look at things today, you see that the pressure that people faced for their reform movement was not as bad then [during the Iranian Revolution], against the people who wanted a revolution. At that time we used to say that the shah's army did this and that. But today when I look at the arrests, torture, harsh repression -- unfortunately I have to say that it's not comparable," Amiri says.

Despotic Regime

Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, says that the past seven months have shown that the Islamic establishment is relying on military force more than ever in order to maintain its rule. Milani describes the Iranian regime as a semi-military Islamic one.

"Following the flawed election, we see each day that the power of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij [militia] increases. Each day the need of the regime for military might increases,” Milani says.

Milani believes that each day the legitimacy of the establishment decreases and the "despotic regime" has more than ever become military in its nature.

Washington-based Middle East expert Rasool Nafisi agrees. He says that while religion remains the ideological basis of the Iranian establishment, the way the regime now operates and deals with the opposition is very similar to other "religious military dictatorships."

Nafisi tells RFE/RL that the June 12 presidential vote, in which President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was named the first-round winner over Musavi in what the opposition believes was a stolen election, drove the semi-democratic Iranian system toward dictatorship.

"People were faced with a new reality that the Iranian establishment had kept secret to a certain extent. And that is that the power of the Vali Faqih [the supreme jurist or leader, meaning Ayatollah Khamenei] and this power goes even beyond the power of the kings and there is no limit to it. This came to light [in practice] in the presidential vote," said Nafisi.

'Failing The Ideals'

Ahmadinejad's reelection, announced only hours after polls closed, created a rift within the Iranian establishment that has turned many former revolutionaries into opposition figures, many of whom now sit in jail or face charges of attempting to overthrow the Iranian establishment. Both sides accuse each other of deviation from the revolutionary values and ideals.

Milani believes the main reason for the creation and expansion of the Green Movement is that the founders of the Islamic republic failed to live up to their promises.

"If you look at the statements of [Ayatollah Khomeini] in the months leading to the revolution, it was all about democracy. He promised a democratic government. When the Velayat Faqih principle was [adopted], people realized that a historic promise had not been kept," he says.
A protester covers his face from tear gas during clashes with riot police in Tehran in June

Expert Nafisi believes that last June's vote and its aftermath demonstrated that the Iranian establishment, in its current form, has no democratic potential.

He says that the two-term presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami where Iranians enjoyed relative freedom was an exception to the rule.

"After Ahmadinejad took power, he promised a return to the ideals of the revolution. The return to those ideals has shown that it's all about putting people in jail and pressuring them -- like the early years of the revolution. Therefore, it dashed the hopes of those observers who were hoping for a relatively democratic system," Nafisi says.

On the 31st anniversary of the 1979 revolution future of the Iranian establishment remains unclear. On the one hand, members of the Green Movement show no sign of backing down. On the other hand, the Iranian regime -- backed by its military and security apparatus -- show little readiness for compromise.

Some observers believe February 11 could prove to be a decisive date for the future clerical establishment. Others predict more tensions in the coming weeks and months.

For now, supporters of the Green Movement do not appear ready for another revolution. Many say they simply want a fairly elected and responsible government, freedom of speech, and the release of all political prisoners. Opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, who also ran in the June election, was recently quoted by the BBC as saying that the aim of the movement is to return the derailed train of the Islamic republic to its original path.

Reza, a 27-year-old student who spoke to RFE/RL, plans to be on the streets on February 11, but not to celebrate the Islamic Revolution in its current form. Reza, who declined to provide his full name, said he intends rather to make himself heard to the "despotic leaders" of his country.

"I will protest on 22 Bahman [ February 11]," he said. "My blood is not more colorful than the blood of those who have been killed [by security forces]."

Radio Farda broadcaster Hossein Ghavimi contributed to this report
Images Of Revolution

An audio slide show of Reza Deghati's iconic photos of the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis that followed. Play

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at


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