The protests that have erupted over the past seven months in Iranian towns and cities show that people are disenchanted and angry. Crowds have been shouting “Clerics get lost” and even “Death to the Supreme Leader.” To some – both inside and outside Iran – it’s proof that Iranians want democratic change.
I say be careful.
Let’s consider the run-up to the Iranian revolution. Crowds hit the streets then too, shouting “Death to the Shah.” That was the universal cry, led by activists and taken up by people who actually wanted a whole variety of things: justice, better housing, an end to Western interference and – in some cases — an Islamic government.
But few of those people — and even fewer of the political organizers at the time — were calling for democracy.
After the revolution, when it became clear the new utopia was in fact a murderous dictatorship, some opposition leaders did begin to demand democracy and the freedoms of civil society – but it was too late. The mullahs and their partners, the Islamic revolutionaries, were in power.
Bear in mind that for more than 200 years Iran’s uprisings and revolutions (or, as I think of the February 1979 events, de-evolution) have been powered by a small minority.
The Stanford academic Abbas Milani writes in his book The Shah that Iran had a population of 35 million in 1979. Less than 11 percent took part in the demonstrations that lasted a year and a half and led to the revolution. The revolution was not a grassroots movement. It was a medieval theocracy imposed by an autocratic minority on an uninformed and passive people.
The other day I entered the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar and watched a crowd of protesters and activists charging along shouting “Close down! Close down!” Their aim was to force the merchants to shut their shops.
Of course I was reminded of the revolution. Once again, I was watching a small minority (I estimate a hundred or so) dictating to the majority, determined to impose their own political dreams.
The current uprisings may indeed signal a slow collapse of the Iranian Islamic state.
Quite often they are true and spontaneous popular protests. Often they consist of people angry about rising prices or the collapse of a bank. But very quickly, a few masked activists show up and take over the political message, shouting “Reza Shah, God Bless Your Soul” (a way of saying the monarchy was better than the mullahs) or “Death to Khamenei.”
What is missing in our current street politics is a democratic mandate backed by politicians who genuinely support solid representative government. All those underpaid teachers, laid-off factory workers, people who have lost their savings and students who thirst for social freedoms – they need leaders who can re-direct their anger into calls for democratic reforms and fair, secular governance.
So far in this wave of unrest, there are no such leaders.
That means that if these protests lead to the collapse of our incompetent and corrupt theocracy, a bunch of new despots will emerge from the chaos and the whole sorry cycle will begin again.
Viewing the protesters in Tehran’s downtown, I recognize among them petty dealers in hard currency and shop clerks. These people are not concerned with democracy. We need to remember they are out purely for themselves.
With the wisdom of hindsight, all those well-intentioned middle-class Tehranis – now growing old – who demonstrated in 1979 have realized they were deceived. The revolutionaries who led the mass call and response chants of “Death to the Shah” were despots determined that they knew what was best.
Actually, two brave public figures did speak up back then, when that old charlatan Imam Khomeini and his cheerleader Hassan Rouhani were leading the revolutionary charge (Yes, the same Hassan Rouhani who is our current president). The acclaimed novelist Mahshid Amirshahi (now self-exiled in France) and the late Mostafa Rahimi, advocate of French existentialism and European socialism in Iran, warned that the coming theocracy would be a nightmare.
Fast forward almost 40 years. I am following their lead. I say to Iranians: Be careful! Pay attention to the aims of those leading the protests! Get active! Insist they push for bigger and better things than the death of the Supreme Leader! Demand guarantees of individual freedom, freedom of assembly, true multi-party politics and secular rule.
As I stand on the sidelines of the current demonstrations I can’t help hoping that democratic changes are on the way – but I fear we are doomed because we have no democratic tradition.
As the cynical author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes Book wrote: “All things are wearisome…. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
What wouldn’t I give to be proven wrong?