Two young women approached me at a rally of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents I was observing outside Paris Saturday, June 20, 2009. One woman expressed deep concern for her family in Iran, which she believed to be in danger. The other sobbed for her Iranian family members in Iraq, where they are under siege by Iraqi security forces acting on behalf of the Iranian regime against its opponents in Iraq. Both women wanted my take on prospects for increased regime repression against Iranian oppositionists in Iraq and those on the streets of Iran.
I told the first woman that the fate of Iranian dissidents in Iraq was linked to the fate of their counterparts in Iran: The more the attention the world press would give to the Iranian regime’s repression against the civilian population in Iran, the less likely is it that Iranian oppositionists in Iraq would be harmed.
With respect to developments in Iran, I raised the issue of whether 2009 is likely to become similar to 1979 or 1999. In 1979, a cycle of violence beginning in 1978 culminated in regime change in the form of the Iranian Revolution of February 1979. In 1999, there was a cycle of violence again, but it failed to result in regime change.
I told the women that during my first trip to Tehran in 1975 to speak at the Shah of Iran’s think tank, I witnessed growing disenchantment with the Shah’s rule. Although his image adorned the walls of most businesses, I heard over many cups of sweet tea rumors of dissent, which reflected pent-up frustration with the increasingly authoritarian governance of the Pahlavi dynasty. Later, from my academic posts at The University of Michigan and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I followed an Iranian cycle of demonstrations, riots, and state-sponsored repression in 1978, which culminated in the February 1979 Iranian Revolution.
“Black Friday” is the name given to riots and state repression in Iran that begin on September 8, 1978. The Shah of Iran’s Government declared martial law in response to protests against his reign. His military used tanks and helicopter gunships to break up peaceful demonstrations. Although casualty estimates are in conflict, my best guess is that there were almost 70 killed in Jaleh Square on Black Friday; and in other parts of the capital, there were about 25 people killed in clashes with the Shah’s martial law forces. Because of the casualties, there was considerable disillusionment with the Shah among the Iranian public.
Demonstrations and riots continued for another four months; they culminated in an October 1978 General Strike, which closed the petroleum industry, a sector critical to the Shah’s survival.
Upon joining the Reagan-Bush White House in 1981, I monitored developments in Iran and was impressed by large scale demonstrations carried out by the largest opposition group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK). This is the same group that as a part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) helped European parliamentarians organize the June 20, 2009 rally outside of Paris at which I met the two women.
In June 1981, the MEK organized a massive demonstration of about 500,000 people. I learned that the MEK had been at the forefront of the popular movement that brought down the Shah, but that clerics under Ayatollah Khomeini had seized the Revolution from the more secular-oriented MEK. With the strange claim that religious leaders should rule as representatives of God on earth, Khomeini sought to justify his dictatorship.
I informed the two women that after twenty years of clerical rule, students led an unsuccessful revolt during July 1999: Rioting students threw stones at the clerical regime’s security services, set fire to images of the Supreme Leader, and engaged in battles with the police. The regime’s vigilantes and riot police stormed a university dormitory on the night of July 8, prompting outrage among the general population. Students escalated and expanded their protests because of the destruction, casualties and detentions during the dormitory raid.
The 1999 riots played into the hands of the clerics and justified a backlash by the security services. Ayatollah Khamenei announced that, “My basiji children in particular should maintain their full alertness and through their presence everywhere they are needed, terrify and crush the wicked enemies.” (The basiji are paramilitary volunteers associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as so-called guardians of the revolution.)
Because blame for violence shifted to the students, the same mix of riot police and state sponsored paramilitaries condemned for carrying out the student dormitory raid now had license to attack rioters with greater brutality.
2009 and the Iranian Opposition
Below are three conclusions from the comparison of the 1979, 1999, and 2009 situations.
First, on one hand, if the Iranian regime can rightfully be accused of unjust atrocities during the 2009 cycle of violence, such blame would be more likely plant the seeds for regime change; on the other hand, if Tehran can blame demonstrators under the influence of foreigners for instability, the regime is likely to survive the present round, despite being oppressive.
Second, to the degree that the West unites behind the Street with rhetoric and concrete actions against the regime, e.g., at the UN and with crippling sanctions that divide the regime, such actions are more likely to lead to a 1978-1979-like conclusion than if the West sits on the sidelines waiting to see who prevails.
Third, regime change from within requires an organized opposition not simply a movement based on the whims of the crowd and repression of the regime. With the organizational skills of the MEK, as indicated by the massive turnout of a worldwide gathering of supporters in Paris on June 20, this dissident organization provides heft to the pro-democracy movement. And because the Iranian system lacks the kind of political parties present in democratic countries, the movement in Iran needs something like the Mujahedeen-e Khalq.