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1999 not 1979
Protest movement has no recognized leader

By Fereydoun Hoveyda
July 20, 1999
The Iranian

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 striking.

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 leadership.

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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