1999 not 1979
Protest movement has no recognized leader
By Fereydoun Hoveyda
July 20, 1999
Most press reports have compared the six-day student demonstrations
in Tehran to the street manifestations that toppled the Shah twenty years
ago. It is true that the recent events were, in some ways, reminiscent
of scenes of the 1979 revolution. And probably they constitute the worst
unrest the Islamic republic has ever faced. But the differences are more
For one thing, the turmoil did not overthrow the regime. Moreover it
lacked open support among the bazaris, the workers, the clerics, and some
layers of the population suffering from the disastrous economic situation.
Finally, the protest movement has no recognized national leader.
The Tehran University students proclaimed their allegiance to President
Khatami who was elected two years ago by more than 70% of the electorate.
But, as it clearly appears now, Khatami does not consider himself as the
leader of any political movement. To the contrary, he has in the past and
most recently during the July demonstrations , underlined his devotion
to the Islamic Republic. He only differs on some policy points with the
radical clerics. He is in favor of more freedom and transparency, but not
against velayate faqih or any other principle of the theocracy.
In a way, Khatami reminds one of Prime Minister Mossadegh who also enjoyed
the support of a very large portion of the population and could have reversed
the 1953 coup and topple the Shah. But Mossadegh, also, had no intention
to change Iran's regime. He only wanted the full application of the 1906
constitution and the end of foreign domination (namely the British who
were the masters of Iran's oil resources). Indeed, Mossadegh dismissed
suggestions by some of his aides to promulgate a republic in August 1953.
The people would have backed him then and Iran would have become a secular
republic. But that was not his goal.
In hindsight, one can say that in 1978, the Shah could have stopped
the demonstrations by using the same tactics and means as those used by
the Islamic Republic.He also could have changed the course of events by
calling in a democratic national government, surrendering his dictatorial
powers to a constitutional monarchy and organizing internationally-controled
free elections. But he instead hesitated, allowing Ayatollah Khomeini enough
time to become the recognized and accepted leader of the protest movement
. At the most critical moment , he chose to flee the country, leaving his
closest collaborators in the hands of a vengeful enemy. He was aware of
his own terminal disease, but hid it and clang to absolute power as long
as he could.
Iranians should reflect on their recent past and analyze the events
of 1953 and 1978. They should avoid spending their energy and assets before
having organized their opposition movement with clearly defined aims. In
the recent upheaval, the slogans were against dictatorship and in favor
of freedom. There were no mention of economic difficulties, rampant corruption,
inflation , mismanagement, unemployment or daily hardships. The movement
did not appeal to other layers of the population.
Yet, the unpopularity of the regime is well known, despite the size
of the July 14th government-sponsored counter-demonstration. Not only do
the clerics and their minions impose medieval restrictions on women and
youth, they have created an unprecedented economic disaster which will
weigh heavily on future generations. On the one hand, thanks to the enforcement
of so-called Islamic principles (eradication of family planning, four wives,
etc) the population has more than doubled during the past two decades.
On the other hand, the national income has been cut by half. It certainly
will take more than one Maynard Keynes or Alan Greenspan, plus many years,
to solve this economic mess (supposing a solution exists). In short, the
regime is doomed.
It seems reasonable that opponents start putting up a common platform
that includes problems faced by different groups of Iranians. Such a program
would help in uniting all dissatisfied elements of the population.The opposition
should at the same time find an unreluctant leader, one with enough charisma
to inspire confidence and attract the people. In case they cannot find
such a person, it seems advisable (and democratic) to create a collegial
In any case the protesting students represent the future, the clerics
the past. The latter cannot win. Instead of launching further repression
against students and other dissidents, they have better heed the words
of the wisest cleric of them all, the great and perennial Mullah Nasreddin,who
used to repeat: "Let people enjoy life. It's up to the Almighty alone
to judge them."
Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from
1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web
site. ... TO TOP
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