‘This may be the first spark of revolution in Iran’

Analysis: If the people don’t go home, the regime will have a problem, says veteran Israeli expert on Iranian affairs Menashe Amir.

Protests in Tehran Iran 2009 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Protests in Tehran Iran 2009 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The protesters in Egypt, who brought down Hosni Mubarak over the weekend after 18 days of sustained demonstrations, have given the Iranian public a clear lesson, according to Menashe Amir, a veteran Israeli expert on Iranian affairs: When you take to the streets, don’t go home again.
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Amid news of clashes at many locales across Iran on Monday – with Iranian forces said to have used clubs and tear gas against demonstrators, leaked footage showing mass protests at Tehran University, hundreds of arrests and reports of at least one fatality – the question of the hour is whether Iranians have learned from the Egyptian precedent and are willing to try and replicate it.
Monday’s demonstrations were initiated by Iranian opposition figures in ostensible solidarity with the popular protests in Egypt and elsewhere, but were plainly intended, after months of relative quiet, to revive the post-election protests of 2009.
According to Amir, that goal, at least, was achieved.
“After a year of silence, everyone thought the opposition was dead,” he said. “They had sought permits to demonstrate and, when refused, simply withdrew. This time, they went ahead despite the refusal.”
By publicly endorsing the Egyptian people’s rights to hold protests and to achieve their freedom, analyst Amir noted, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime exacerbated the problems they now face from their restless people.
“How, after all, it will be wondered, can Ahmadinejad say ‘yes’ to the rights of the Arab peoples, but deny those same rights to his own people?”
Further complicating matters for the Iranian regime on Monday was the fact that Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul just happened to be visiting Tehran, and used a joint press conference with Ahmadinejad to declare that “the desires of people must be taken into account. In this respect, fundamental reforms must be carried out, whether economic or political.”
Iranian-born Amir, Israel Radio’s long-time Persian language broadcaster, said he had heard reports, furthermore, that the Gul-Ahmadinejad press conference was cut short after the Turkish visitor indicated that he intended to accept an invitation from the organizers of the Iranian solidarity rallies.
Plainly concerned ahead of time about the potential for escalating protests, the Iranian regime placed two key opposition leaders, defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, under house arrest days ago. On his website on Monday, Mousavi said the street around his home had been blocked off, and his and his family’s phone lines cut.
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hossein Hamadani, reportedly warned that “any incitement will be dealt with severely,” and that “the conspirators are nothing but corpses.”
Amir said the regime had slowed the Internet and interfered in text-messaging networks. All foreign journalists were also barred, and information was leaking out mainly via social networking sites, YouTube and other new media channels.
Critically, Amir said, the regime gave the large contingents of security personnel it sent into the streets orders not to fire on protesters. But those orders for restraint, if maintained, said Amir, could create a climate for steadily growing public participation in demonstrations.
“As long as they are not firing on people, more people will come out,” he said.
Amir said there were some reports of intervention by Basiji paramilitary forces and the Revolutionary Guard, which put down the major protests that followed Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections in June 2009, killing hundreds of people. Some official Iranian sources, it was reported on Monday night, were blaming “Tel Aviv” for fomenting unrest – perhaps as part of an effort by the regime to justify the use of force against the protesters.
In contrast to 2009, when the Obama administration chose not to energetically encourage the protests against the ayatollahs’ regime, the State Department has opened what Amir described as a “symbolically significant” Twitter account in Farsi.
“We want to join in your conversation,” it tweeted initially.
Later posts, according to The Associated Press, “noted the inconsistencies of Iran’s government supporting Egypt’s popular uprising but stifling opposition at home.”
Amir, who pointed out that President Barack Obama “completely supported” the anti- Mubarak Egyptian protests, recalled that in June 2009, the president was waiting to hear back from the Tehran regime on its nuclear program, and also that overt US support for the protests then could have proved counter-productive, in that it could easily have been spun by the regime in Tehran as ostensible proof that the “Great Satan” was trying to orchestrate ferment in Iran.
In the wake of the patently genuine uprisings across the Arab world in recent weeks, any such claim by the Tehran regime today would presumably be less credible.
“This may be the first spark of revolution in Iran,” said Amir.
“But for it to work, people will have to not be scared. In 2009, they demonstrated and went home. The Egyptians taught them a lesson – don’t go home.
If the Iranian forces do what the Egyptian army did, and don’t fire on them, they’ll keep coming, and the regime will have a problem.” Tellingly, he added, “the Iranian people’s demand is no longer limited to fixing the election result and returning to the ‘glorious past’ of [Ayatollah] Khomeini.” In his assessment, “most Iranians want real regime change, as demanded in Egypt and Tunisia.”
Amir said it was significant that the protesters on Monday gathered in several cities across Iran – as many as 30, according to some reports, including Shiraz, Isfahan and Mashhad – and at several squares in Tehran, rather than the single intended focus of the rallies, in the capital’s Azadi (freedom) Square.
“The protests were splintered, which meant they were weakened,” Amir said, “but if all the demonstrators had gathered in one place, it would have been easier for the regime to suppress them. One key test will be whether they stay out into the night. Another will be whether they come to feel strong enough to concentrate in one square and refuse to leave.”