Learning from Iran's Past Revolutions

If the uprising can grow to include the massive bazaars of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz, it is hard to imagine how Ayatollah Khamenei would not change his tune, or even be forced to step aside.
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The last one and a half centuries of modern Iranian history have been marked by recurring popular revolts in the streets of Tehran and throughout the rest of the country. Among the countless uprisings, three stand out as dramatic examples of a people imposing their collective will on a despotic regime: The Tobacco Protest (1891-92), the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11), and the Islamic Revolution (1978-79). Today, we are witnessing a fourth such movement.

There have been enough mass uprisings in Iran to identify the important trends they all share. One such trend has been the involvement of various segments of society with a common purpose. Grand coalitions of secular intellectuals, merchants from the bazaar, and the clergy, have always been the driving force behind any revolution. Clerics and bazaaris are especially critical, since they project traditional Islamic values and piety to the Iranian masses. Without their active participation it is hard to imagine any uprising succeeding.

Among the first, large-scale revolutionary coalitions was formed during the Tobacco Protest, which was organized by the clergy and the bazaar in a response to the shah's decision to hand over Iran's entire tobacco market to a single British citizen. After over a year of merchant strikes and demonstrations, it was Ayatollah Mirza Hasan Shirazi's fatwa calling for a boycott of the product that forced the shah to finally cancel the deal. (It is said that Shirazi's word was so powerful that even the shah's harem refused to smoke.)

A second common trend in Iran's mass demonstrations has been the length of time it has taken them to mature--over a year of demonstrations in each of the cases mentioned here. The Constitutional Revolution, which began as a grassroots movement of citizen councils demanding a parliament and a written constitution in early 1906, was not fully quelled until pitched street battles between constitutionalists and Russian-commanded forces came to an end in 1911. By then, the parliament and constitution had become staples of Iranian political life, even if those in power chose to systematically ignored them.

The third and arguably most important common denominator of revolutionary activity in Iran has been the ideals that protesters have embraced across the centuries. Repeatedly, Iranian movements have centered around two key premises: First, that Iran should be free of foreign meddling (whether it be British, Russian, or American); and second, that the country's politics should be reflective of popular will. In other words, modern Iranian revolutions have always sought a degree of democracy and national independence.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 was in many ways a culmination of the previous century's upheaval. It ended with the toppling of Mohammad Reza Shah, a foreign-backed dictator who inspired a unique kind of hatred among his subjects. But while post-revolutionary Iran became the poster-child of political independence and self-reliance, the second goal of Iranian social movements, that of democracy at home, quickly fell by the wayside.

As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini consolidated power over the emerging Islamic Republic and the country fought an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq, political development in Iran took a back seat to national security and survival. The millions who had taken to the streets in 1979 to demand political representation soon found themselves on the receiving end of an increasingly brutal regime, one that, like the shah's government before it, had few qualms about enforcing obedience through murder, rape, and torture.

It was not until the blatant theft of the June 12 election by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that masses of Iranians from all walks of life have taken to the streets once again. Today, a revolution is underway in Iran, and democracy is once again on the table.

As with past revolutions, it is difficult to tell just how and when it will end. Should the regime beat and kill the revolutionaries to a standstill, it will only be kicking the ball forward, setting the stage for a future confrontation. If, on the other hand, the uprising can grow to include the massive bazaars of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz, and more active participation from clerics in the Shia holy cities of Qom and even Southern Iraq (yes, Iraq), it is hard to imagine how Ayatollah Khamenei would not change his tune, or even be forced to step aside.

Whatever happens, the world will look back on the 2009 Revolution as one in a long line of movements to reconcile the harsh reality of Iranian politics with the unresolved grievances and unmet aspirations of a population willing to fight for its principles. While coalitions from across all sectors of society finally succeeded in ridding Iran of its status as a Western puppet back in 1979, the Iranian masses have yet to achieve individual rights and self-determination; values that do not necessarily resonate with the rest of the world, but most certainly carry potent meaning in Iran.

One thing is certain: The current revolts are no longer about who won the June 12 election. They are the manifestation of a national ideal that not only pre-dates the Islamic Republic, but will most certainly outlive it.

Nathan Gonzalez, a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, is author of Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice.

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