Revolution not in the cards in
Iran By Ali Reza Eshraghi
Vladimir Lenin had a formula for
diagnosing the symptoms of revolution, "Those at
the bottom won't, those at the top can't." He
argued that revolution required mass involvement,
a spirit of courage and commitment, and political
engagement. These three conditions do not yet
exist in Iran.
The demonstrators who came
to the streets of Tehran on February 14 and in
smaller numbers on February 20 certainly had
courage. They were ready to face anything despite
the violence the regime used against mass protests
in 2009. And they voiced the most radical slogan
yet heard - one that was not heard in the 2009
demonstrations - attacking the normally inviolate
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They also showed judgement by knowing when
to shout slogans
and when to keep quiet, how
to flee from danger and how to avoid being
There are significant
differences between the two demonstrations. On
February 14, the regime did not appear to be
planning violent repression. Two deaths were
reported, but it is not still clear how they
One reason why the regime was
reluctant to deploy violence may have been that
Turkish President Abdullah Gul was visiting
Tehran. But on the other hand, the regime clearly
had enough confidence in its ability to handle the
protests that it did not postpone the visit.
A more important reason for restraint may
have been that the regime wanted to assess the
current state of the opposition after the latter's
absence from the streets for more than a year.
According to one member of the Basiji militia,
police would wait for substantial numbers to
gather in a given place before arriving on the
The second day of protests this
month, February 20, saw a much heavier police
presence, outnumbering the demonstrators and in
clear anticipation of a crackdown. This deterred
many people from coming out into the streets,
suggesting that the regime can still count on
Strangely, some opposition
activists used methods similar to those employed
by the regime - they tried to censor news of the
intimidating security presence, even trying to
stop the news getting out on media like the BBC
Persian service, in the somewhat naive hope that
this would get more people onto the streets.
It is not only courage and commitment that
is somewhat lacking. Many Iranians still lack the
motivation to join in opposition protests; the
will for change is just not strong enough.
Revolution becomes a real prospect when
only the opposition and the regime's forces are on
the streets, and the apathetic stay away.
The February 14 street protests clogged up
some streets in Tehran, but did not totally
paralyze the city. Much of the video footage shows
people walking or driving by, going about their
normal business. Shops and cinemas remained open
even in areas where demonstration was taking
Eyewitnesses say that motorcyclists
were offering rides to sightseers who wanted to
have a look at the demonstration, and to people
just trying to work through the crowds.
While popular discontent with the regime
is widespread, people are not so fed up that they
are prepared to act. The Green Movement remains
smaller than its mantra "we are countless" claims.
Its support-base remains largely confined to parts
of the middle class.
pressures including recent price rises on food and
fuel, residents of the poor areas of southern
Tehran were not motivated to come out and protest
on February 14.
In a speech following the
2009 protests, a veteran Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps commander, Saeed Ghasemi, said the
time to be afraid would come if the poor of south
Tehran ever "went crazy" and withdrew their
support for the supreme leader.
concerns did not feature large among the demands
voiced by the protesters, and when they
occasionally did - complaining about the price of
bread - it rang hollow given that these were
people who could clearly still afford it.
The lack of blue-collar support for the
opposition is exemplified by industrial action at
the Abadan Oil Refinery on the same day as the
first February protest. Opposition websites tried
to play the strike up, comparing it to the mass
oil industry strikes during the 1979 Islamic
revolution. In reality, only about 50 workers were
involved in the strike, which concerned one
specific issue, unpaid wages, and did not reflect
support for the Green movement.
the opposition engaged the wealthy classes of
north Tehran. Throughout the unrest, holidays to
Malaysia, Turkey, Thailand and Dubai were fully
All this shows that the Green
movement has not yet created all the preconditions
for becoming a dominant force.
It is even
losing some erstwhile friends in the Iranian
establishment, particularly those hostile to
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Among those who are
peeling away are Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi,
custodian of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and
its economic assets including industries, farms
and real estate, provided both moral and financial
backing for Mir Hossein Mousavi when he ran
against Ahmadinejad in 2009.
he is describing the participants in the February
14 protests as "seditious instigators who
undoubtedly deserve to have God's verdict
delivered upon them".
Ali Akbar Nategh
Nouri, who heads the supreme leader's
Inspectorate, and one of the most influential
leaders of the conservative clergies, is another
former Mousavi supporter. He has been quiet for
some time, but broke his silence after the
February 14 demonstration by saying both Mousavi
and his ally Mehdi Karroubi lacked political sense
and patriotism and recommending they both be put
"Our enemies need to know that
we may have differences among ourselves, but we
all defend the regime together," he said.
The bigger headache of all for the Green
movement is that its aims are unclear, and that it
has not translated them into language that
convinces people that it is seeking emancipation
for all, rather than for specific social groups.
The Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators
had an obvious goal - the end of the regime.
When the Green movement took shape after
the 2009 presidential election, its message was
straightforward - the vote had been rigged and the
electorate cheated. That brought three million
people out into the streets.
But what now?
Does it still want Ahmadinejad to be removed and a
new election held? If so, it is not apparent from
the slogans shouted by its supporters. Does it
want the Islamic system of government to be
dismantled, or just for Khamenei, to step down?
Does it favor constitutional reform and the
abolition of the position of supreme leader, or
merely better government within the current
Green movement leaders have not
been helpful in disentangling these ambiguities
and presenting a clearer message that would
recruit more Iranians to its cause. The messages
continue to be confused - the February 14
demonstration was supposed to be in solidarity
with the Egyptians and Tunisians, but the main
slogans heard were against the supreme leader.
Leading opposition members say the recent
demonstrations were a victory in that they proved
the Green movement was still alive. But did that
have to be proved? If their main aim is to show
the government that they still exist, street
protests are reduced to being a kind of carnival,
unfortunately featuring police batons and tear gas
rather than balloons and refreshments.
people cast around for the root cause of Iran's
woes, no one is offering a convincing solution.
Opposition activity is confined to reacting post
factum to what the regime does.