Revolution in the making - minus the martyrdom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2009, 12:00am

Young Iranians were back out on the streets in Tehran on Monday night, after almost a month's hiatus. They were there again on Tuesday. Their numbers will probably grow in the next week, for we are now nearing 40 days since the regime's Basij thugs crushed the first round of protests.

In Iran's Shiite Muslim culture, 40 days of mourning are usually followed by public demonstrations of grief. During the revolution against the shah, in 1978-79, that was when the crowds came out on the streets again, to be mown down once more by the shah's army. The cycle continued until the army, sick of killing unarmed countrymen, began to refuse the shah's orders.

At least 20 young demonstrators, and possibly many more, were killed by the current regime's paramilitary forces in late June. Will that old cycle of protest, killing, mourning and more protest reappear and lead to the overthrow of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election he so firmly defends? Probably not, but they could still lose.

There will be no rerun of 1978 because today's young Iranians are strikingly different from their parents' generation. Those crowds had little to lose except their lives, and they were driven by a fatalistic courage that accepted death almost without demur. If you are 15 or 25 or even 35 in Tehran today, you have lots to lose, and don't want to die.

Don't expect new street protests to force Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad into retreat or drive them from power. But, cautious, limited, recurrent protests could be part of a more complex strategy that accomplishes the same goal, for the ruling elite itself is deeply split, which has not happened before.

The three 'reformers' who now lead the opposition to Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad are the three people who made most of the day-to-day decisions in the country from the time of the revolution until only four years ago. Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Mr Ahmadinejad in the presidential election (and may really have won it), was prime minister from 1981 to 1989. Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997; Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005.

Mr Rafsanjani, in a sermon at Tehran University last Friday, aligned himself firmly with Mr Mousavi, and referred indirectly to the fact that he actually chairs the committee that elects the supreme leader, and can dismiss him.

Mr Khatami went further on Monday, calling for a referendum on the alleged outcome of the election. It was after this that the protesters reappeared on the streets.

They will not sweep the regime away and, if its henchmen start killing them again, they will leave the streets, for a while, to devise safer ways of making their resentment felt. A parallel campaign will be waged within the ranks of the clergy. This will be no epic tale of heroism and martyrdom, but a complicated and mostly obscure contest for the future of the Islamic Republic. Iran is in for a lengthy struggle, with an unpredictable outcome.

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