2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of a new Islamic Republic to replace the monarchy. But a questionable presidential election in 2009 also sparked the largest anti-government demonstrations in Iran since that revolution.
Protesters in Tehran on July 18, 2009 (click on images to see high resolution)
When protests erupted over the declared outcome
of the June presidential election, many Western analysts proclaimed Iran was on
the eve of a new revolution that would topple the theocracy. But it did not
happen. Not only was there was no revolution, but the theocratic rulers remain
in power and many of the protesters have been arrested and tried.
Some Iran-watchers say that was because the
protesters were not able to draw support from the middle-class shopkeepers and
merchants. But others say the explanation is simpler.
The head of the National Iranian-American Council, Trita Parsi, says it is because the protesters were never demonstrating for regime change - at least not in the beginning.
"I think the reason there was not a revolution was that they were not aiming for a revolution. This movement started off by people demanding that their votes be counted. As the government showed itself to be completely uncompromising and radical in its clampdown and started to use violence in the extreme, then of course the demands of the protest began to increase," said Parsi.
The protests have continued, but more
sporadically, and Parsi says the situation remains very, very volatile. The
protesters have gotten more radical and the government's rhetoric against the
reformists has correspondingly ratcheted up as well. Parsi says the protesters
will have to bend a bit to avoid a government bid to totally wipe out the
"If they manage to continue this fight, if they manage to continue deprive the government of any normalcy, then, in order for them to actually claim victory, they need to offer a way out. Otherwise, the government will feel they have no other option but to be radical as well," said Parsi.
Senior officials have publicly criticized key reformist figures, like Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former presidents Mohammad Khatemi and Hashemi Rafsanjani for the protests but these figures remain at liberty.
Editor Alex Vatanka, of the English-language
newsletter on the Islamic world, Jane's Islamic Affairs, says that may indicate
President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have concerns about a
potentially explosive situation.
"If Khamenei or Ahmadinejad factions were so powerful, why are they not arresting Rafsanjani and Khatemi and Moussavi and Karroubi? Why are these people, despite the allegations they are making, why are they still free? That right away brings to my mind the question, maybe they are not powerful enough, brave enough, to do it because they know might unleash something they can not control," said Vatanka.
The protests complicated U.S. President Barack
Obama's plans to reach out to Tehran and Iran's response to those overtures,
particularly on the sensitive nuclear issue.
Iran continues to insist it has only a peaceful nuclear program. But in October Iran appeared to finally agree in principle to sending nuclear material to a third country for enrichment. But Iranian officials then backed away from the proposed deal after it came under criticism in Tehran.
Alex Vatanka says it is not clear if the shifting response was a sign of political overreach by President Ahmadinejad or a stalling tactic.
"Question is, was this miscommunication? Was this Ahmadinejad's people getting ahead of themselves in pursuit of perhaps reaching some sort of dialogue with the West and Khamenei being upset about it and stopping it in Tehran? Or is it a deliberate, fully calculated, tactical game that Iran, some have argued for a while, plays, which is, plays for time?" asked Vatanka.
Other analysts suggest it was because power is too deeply fractured and diffuse for Iran's leaders to reach a consensus on such a sensitive issue.
Will sanctions work?
Whatever the reason, the response has heightened
a push for new sanctions against Iran at the UN and from the U.S. Congress as
well. But analysts say any sanctions should be carefully calibrated against the
government of Iran and not the Iranian people.
Trita Parsi says sanctions could backfire against the reformist movement.
"What you do not want to do is put the opposition into a position in which they suddenly now, instead of focusing their energy on challenging Ahmadinejad, have to defend themselves and defend their nationalistic credentials by coming out and blasting the U.S. sanctions. The opposition is in a tough position enough fighting such a brutal, repressive system," said Parsi.
But analysts point out that no significant sanctions will be coming without the backing of Russia and China. Both have so far been reluctant to back such measures.
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