I remember a family friend reminiscing about student demonstrations at the University of Tehran in the early Seventies when a single beat cop equipped with only a baton would rush a crowd of five hundred students. Those were the dark days just after Siahkal, the first shots in the urban guerilla warfare had been fired and a terrible frost had fallen over the whole country.
That atmosphere of fear was best expressed in Farhad's anthem-like song Black Friday with His Coolness bemoaning a sinister black cloud raining blood. The regime's air of invincibility and omnipotence was such that its sudden crumbling only a handful of years later was welcomed as a divine deliverance.
Of course the telltale signs were there for all to see. The rapid urbanization and out of control sprawl of the cities, the housing crisis, the maddening traffic, the corrupt bureaucracy and the lavish life styles of the court cronies all pointed to an impending storm. Having lived through the revolution when as teenagers we used to taunt fully armed soldiers on top of tanks and play hide and seek with security forces I have learned that no matter how omnipotent a regime, there will come a day when the wall of fear will simply tumble down.
Observing the Islamic Republic from the vantage point of outside, I can't help but be reminded of the mid-Seventies. The same explosive brew of economic and social factors seems to be fomenting once again only on a much larger scale.
The combination of overpopulation, high unemployment, recession, housing crisis, devalued currency and the high cost of military posturing has brought the country to the brink. Add to this the suffocating social and sexual repression and it's a wonder the populace hasn't exploded yet.
Having failed miserably in management of the country's immense natural resources (like an incompetent son running the family fortune into the ground) the regime seems content to assert itself primarily through harassment of women. But the conservatives' attempt to reinvigorate the country's revolutionary zeal is failing miserably.
Khamenei is no Khomeini (ditto Ahmadinejad) and the young population (3 out of 5 Iranians are under 30) doesn't seem to care much about their parents' revolution. Even the lower middle-class, the regime's traditional source of support has had a bellyful of the men with beard. The revolution has been dead for some time. The regime has become pure bureaucratic repression.
Now as was the case thirty years ago, the question is who will have the organization to provide the leadership to fill the political vacuum once the wheels come undone? With hundreds of thousands of US troops parked next door in Iraq and the rumours of an impending bombing and invasion by US and Israel refusing to die, separatist intrigues fomenting in Azerbaijan and Baluchestan and the ever dangerous Kurdistan, the very future of the country is at stake.
The depressing thing about repression and dictatorship is that by depriving its subjects of free thought and political maturity it perpetuates itself. The Islamic republic is to a large extent the legacy of 25 years of Pahlavi dictatorship. What will come once the Islamic Republic wears out its welcome?