Fear is stronger than anger in Iran, for now

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am

The grisly video of 26-year-old Neda Agha Soltan dying in a Tehran street, shot down by a government thug, has already been seen by millions of Iranians. If protesters against the alleged rigging of the recent election needed an image of martyrdom - and such images have a special resonance in Iran - they now have one. But things are not so simple.

Her death, all the more affecting because she was not actually a protester but just trapped in their midst, has enraged many people, but also frightened them.

Conventional wisdom says that, in Iran, such deaths only fuel popular anger and make the demonstrations bigger, and that is certainly what happened during the struggle to overthrow the shah of Iran 30 years ago. But there were only hundreds of protesters, not hundreds of thousands, on the streets of Tehran in the days after Neda's death.

The regime has now nailed its colours to the mast: supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that he will back President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory, come what may.

The regime's heavy artillery, the Revolutionary Guards, has been deployed on the streets, and its website makes it clear that it is willing to kill demonstrators.

It is the regime that has deliberately raised the stakes, from a mere dispute about the outcome of an election to an existential struggle for the regime's survival. It is a gamble, of course, for there are many young Iranians who would be willing to fight it out on that ground - but their leaders are not.

All three presidential candidates who believe they were cheated in the election are stalwart supporters of the Islamic regime - they were vetted by the Guardian Council for their revolutionary and Islamic dedication. The opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was prime minister during the war with Iraq in 1980-88. Mohsen Rezaie is a former Revolutionary Guards commander. Even Mehdi Karroubi, the most liberal candidate, has served the revolution faithfully, if critically.

If it comes down to the survival of the Islamic revolutionary dispensation they have devoted their lives to, the three are all ultimately on the same side as Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad. That is what it's coming down to, by the decision of Ayatollah Khamenei. As he intends, it leaves the young people in the streets without leaders. It seems likely that Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad knew in advance that the latter's re-election bid was doomed, and rigged the election to 'save the Islamic regime', or at least their version.

The protesters know they have been cheated but, without leaders, they may not be able to continue. We will know if it's really over on July 31, 40 days after Neda's killing.

In the Shiite tradition, that's when the mourning ends. During the revolt against the shah, that was when the masses came out into the streets again to remember their martyrs. The game is still afoot, but the young, predictably, have been betrayed yet again by their elders.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries