Saturday, June 20, 2009

Heading for a "Tienanmen moment" in Iran?

In eastern Europe, 1989 was an annus mirabilis that saw the sudden collapse of the whole Soviet-dominated Communist order imposed after World War II, accompanied by transitions to democracy (fairly successfully in most cases) in the former Soviet-bloc countries. Two years later the Soviet Union itself came to an end.

In China, 1989 meant something different. There, as swelling movement of protest and discontent marked by the expression of democratic aspirations was crushed, brutally and effectively, by the Communist regime. The central image of that crackdown was the slaughter in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, though both the unrest and its suppression took place in a number of other cities, too.

Is Iran headed for some version of Tienanmen? I hope not, but I have to confess that at the moment this look like the most probable short-term outcome. In fact, this historical analogy came to my mind as soon as the massive popular protests against the stolen election began to gather momentum. Barring a complete capitulation by Moussavi and the rest of the opposition leadership, which seems unlikely, these demonstrations are going to continue. And Supreme Leader Khamenei's Friday speech, which ruled out any compromise with the opposition, made it clear that continuing popular protests would be met by force. The Khamenei/Republican Guard/Ahmadinejad bloc that carried out the election coup will crush popular protests rather than giving way to them, and there's no reason to doubt that the regime has enough reliable armed men to do the job. (With luck, it won't turn into a large-scale bloodbath.)

Again, I hope that this prognosis is too pessimistic. But the government and the opposition do appear to be moving toward a final confrontation, and we ought to prepare ourselves for that possibility. The dynamics of this process were laid out in a New York Times report as early as Tuesday, June 16, and the analysis seems even more on-target now. Some highlights:

In an iconic photograph of antigovernment demonstrations in Iran, a student with flowing black hair and a headband held aloft the bloody T-shirt of a wounded protester. After his face appeared on the cover of The Economist magazine in July 1999, Ahmad Batebi paid dearly for it, enduring nearly a decade of imprisonment and torture before fleeing into exile.

On Tuesday, as he watched the swelling antigovernment protests in Iran from suburban Virginia, Mr. Batebi described a sense of dread mixing with happiness. “Every society has to make their own version of freedom and democracy, and that is what the Iranian people are doing right now,” he said through a translator. “But I know that people are being beaten, some are going to jail and some will be killed.”

The Iranian government tolerated student-led uprisings in 1999 and 2003 for only a few days before unleashing fearsome crackdowns, sending Basij vigilantes onto campuses, where they flung a few students from the windows; bloodied as many heads as they could with bricks, chains or truncheons; and jailed scores.

Similar intimidation tactics have been on display over the past few days with little result, as Iranian state news reports of seven people killed in various cities did not deter another major antigovernment rally on Tuesday. This time, analysts say, the government will have trouble bringing about a swift, sharp end to the demonstrations over the contested presidential election results in the same way it had shut down previous eruptions.

First, there is the sheer size of these demonstrations, with protests that are not limited to students, but cut across generations and economic classes. Second, there is a more pronounced, if still nebulous, leadership centered around the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, who has adopted an openly hard-edged attitude toward the government. Third, the current crisis was inspired by common anger over a national election, not the more narrow issues students took to heart.

The question mark remains how long Iran’s rulers will tolerate the demonstrations, and indeed how long the protesters will stay in the streets until what many analysts expect will be a “Tiananmen moment.” They fear a replay of the Chinese government’s rolling out tanks to ruthlessly crush pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 — China’s economic growth and centralized control being something of a model for the mullahs.

“This is an order of magnitude different from those earlier demonstrations,” said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, who has been tracking the upheaval on his Informed Comment blog. “In the earlier student demonstrations, people were saying that the hard-liners were doing things that were wrong. What these demonstrators are saying is that the regime has become so corrupt and so dictatorial that it has become rotten to the core.”

In the earlier protests, the middle class extended something like drive-by support, honking their horns or flashing their high-beam headlights as they drove past the chanting students. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke like a rueful patriarch, saying he regretted the few student deaths and that people who criticized him should not be chastised. After the initial spasms of violence the president at the time, Mohammad Khatami, fearing wider bloodshed, declined to call his followers out in support. [....]

“Moussavi was around in some tough times, he has not shown any signs of being intimidated by all this,” said Gary Sick, a senior scholar at Columbia University who runs the Persian Gulf research and information Web site called Gulf 2000. Just how far Mr. Moussavi takes the mantle of leadership is another unanswered question — the demonstrations will have to continue for the demands for change to yield results, he said.

Finally, there has been a critical shift in alliances. In the earlier uprisings, it was basically the reformists calling for change, opposed by both the religious hard-liners and the more pragmatic conservatives. This time, the pragmatists and the reformists have joined forces against the hard-liners, analysts said.

With that, the route to any workable compromise over demands by demonstrators for a new election is difficult to envision, analysts said. One reason Mr. Moussavi and other leaders have labored to keep the chants focused on the election result is to avoid giving the government the excuse to open fire because the demonstrators want to topple the system.

“I expect the situation to polarize further, and given the character of this regime, I think it is a matter of time before they roll in the tanks,” said Professor Cole.

That sounds right to me. Opposition rallies were suspended on Friday (at least, in Tehran). They resume on Saturday. The first signs of what's coming up may be conveyed by the size of Saturday's rallies and the government's response to them.

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub