Ever Green

Iran's democracy movement still inspires


Ever Green
by Jalal Alavi

In a televised interview broadcast just a few days ago, University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole described the Tunisian uprising as not only “the first popular revolution since [the Iranian revolution of] 1979,” but also “something that other Arab countries might well look to -- the public, at least -- for inspiration” [1].

Coming from a Middle East expert, who is also a trained historian, this analysis is totally unacceptable because it fails to so much as even mention the historical fact that Iran’s Green Movement preceded the “mass movement” in Tunisia, thus making it not only the first popular uprising since the 1979 revolution, but also the inspiration by which Tunisians from all walks of life took to the streets across Tunisia in the attempt to overthrow their oppressors [2].

Of course, Cole might argue (as he has in that same interview, albeit in relation to the 1979 revolution) that Iran’s post-election uprising was Persian and Shiite in nature and thus not Arab or Sunni enough to have inspired the movement in Tunisia.

But that, too, coming from a trained historian, would be utterly unacceptable, first, because it assumes that the spirit of freedom and justice cannot travel from one country (or region, for that matter) to another, if the countries involved do not share the same cultural or racial identity; second, and perhaps more importantly, because it fails to take into account the many historical examples that clearly invalidate this assumption; for example, the fact that billions of dollars were spent by Arab governments and their Western allies right after the Iranian revolution of 1979 to prevent it from spreading to neighboring countries, which happened to be mostly Sunni, or the war that Saddam Hossein waged against Iran in the early 1980s partially for that same purpose.

What is more, Tunisian activists have not made it a secret that some of the tactics that they used in their struggle against the Ben Ali regime were indeed borrowed from the Iranian uprising of 2009 (especially those involving the use of such social networking technologies as Facebook and Twitter), thus confirming the existence of a certain connection, spiritual or otherwise, between the two nations’ movements.

Why, then, did Cole fail to acknowledge, in his discussion with Amy Goodman, Iran’s Green Movement in the way in which it was described above?

True, the post-election uprising in Iran did not succeed in what may be considered Iranians’ initial attempt in the 21st century to facilitate the country’s transition to democracy [3].

But how could anyone use this as a justification to deny the Iranian uprising the capacity to inspire similar events elsewhere?

Perhaps Cole would find this an issue worth addressing at some point in the near future.

Finally, a few comments are in order in relation to the popular uprising that is currently taking place in Egypt.

Although, at this stage, it is not possible to predict the exact outcome of this uprising, there is a good chance that, similar to Iran’s Green Movement (which may be considered the 21st century’s first major democratic movement), it is an indication of a new “wave of democratization” that can potentially sweep the entire region of dictatorships.

As such, the leaders of the authoritarian regimes in the region are at a crossroads and thus have a decision to make: they can either voluntarily dismantle the authoritarian systems with which they have been oppressing their subjects for years and thus facilitate their countries’ peaceful transition to democracy, or face the possibility of total obliteration, which, considering the region’s current political climate, should occur sooner than later.

Of course, there is also a third possibility: those who are at the helm of these obsolescent regimes might choose to wait until the last minute to relinquish power, and, then again, only partially so, through negotiations of a limited nature with their main opponents.

But history, as well as the situations in Tunisia and Egypt, has shown this to be an unsound strategy that cannot be expected to bear fruit in each and every revolutionary situation, thus requiring these despots to seriously consider the possibility of genuine democratization in their countries before it is too late [4].

Jalal Alavi is a sociologist and political commentator specializing in issues related to Iran.

1.  The rush transcript of Amy Goodman’s interview with Juan Cole is available here.

2.  Like Cole, who has failed to acknowledge the Green Movement as a source of inspiration for discontented populations the world over, Iran’s rulers have recently put forward the idea that the uprising in Tunisia (and now Egypt) was inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution.  This, of course, is a flawed assessment, not least because the revolution of 1979 occurred some 32 years ago, when many of the region’s inhabitants were not even born yet, while the Green Movement, of which almost everyone in the region has a fair recollection, occurred just over a year ago.

3.  The Green Movement failed mainly because its leaders were more dedicated to preserving the “Islamic Republic” than to following through with the demands of the Iranian citizenry for freedom and justice.

4.  The last shah of Iran, as well as Iran itself, was also a victim of this flawed strategy.  


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Good catch

by pas-e-pardeh on

While technically correct that it's a the first revolution since- not the first uprising since, Cole misses a great inflection point in what is happening in the world right now.  Iran- 2009- June was the beginning.  That was the spark.