If the people donâ€™t go home, the regime will have a problem, says Menashe Amir.
The protesters of Egypt, who brought down Hosni Mubarak over the weekend after 18 days of sustained demonstrations, have given the Iranian public a clear lesson, according to Menashe Amir, the veteran Israeli expert on Iranian affairs: When you take the streets, don’t go home again.
Amid minor, but spreading clashes in Iran on Monday afternoon, with news agencies reporting Iranian forces using sticks and tear gas as several thousand people headed into major squares, the question of the hour is whether Iranians have learned from the Egyptian precedent and are willing to try and replicate it. Monday’s protests were initiated by Iranian opposition figures in ostensible solidarity with the popular protests in Egypt and elsewhere, but were plainly intended, after months of relative quiet, to revive the anti-regime demonstrations of 2009, and the Iranian authorities did their best in recent days to discourage them.
By publicly endorsing the Egyptian people’s rights to hold protests, to be heard and to achieve their freedom, analyst Amir noted on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime have exacerbated the problems they now face from their restless people. "How, after all, it will be wondered, can Ahmadinejad say ‘yes’ to the rights of the Arab peoples, but deny those same rights to his own people?"
Further complicating matters for the Iranian regime is the fact that Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul just happens to be visiting Tehran, and used a press conference there on Monday to declare, albeit without specifying which "people" he had in mind, that "The desires of people must be taken into account. In this respect, fundamental reforms must be carried out, whether economic or political."
The Iranian leadership was plainly deeply concerned ahead of time about the potential for escalating protests on Monday, and had placed two key opposition leaders, defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, under house arrest days ago. On his website Monday, Mousavi said the street around his home had been blocked off, and his and his family’s phone lines cut.
Amir, who closely follows events in Iran, said the regime has also slowed the internet and has begun interfering in text-messaging networks.
Critically, he said, it has also given the large contingents of security personnel it has poured into the streets initial orders not to fire on protesters. But those orders, said Amir, could create a climate for steadily growing public participation in demonstrations. "As long as they are not firing on people, more people will come out," he said, and the protests will gather momentum.
"If it fears that the protests are getting out of control," Amir went on, "the regime will have to call in the Basiji [paramilitary forces]" and the Revolutionary Guard, who put down the major protests that followed Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections in June 2009, killing hundreds of people.
In contrast to 2009, when the Obama administration chose not to energetically encourage the protests against the ayatollahs’ regime, the State Department has opened what Amir described as a "symbolically significant" Twitter account in Farsi. "We want to join in your conversation," it tweeted initially. Later posts, according to AP, "noted the inconsistencies of Iran’s government supporting Egypt’s popular uprising but stifling opposition at home."
Amir, who pointed out that President Barack Obama "completely supported" the anti-Mubarak Egyptian protests, recalled that in June 2009, the president was waiting to hear back from the Tehran regime on its nuclear program, and also that overt US support for the protests then could have proved counter-productive, in that it could easily have been spun by the regime in Tehran as ostensible proof that the "Great Satan" was trying to orchestrate ferment in Iran. In the wake of the patently genuine uprisings across the Arab world in recent weeks, any such claim by the Tehran regime today would presumably be less credible.
"This may be the first spark of revolution in Iran," said Amir. "But for it to work, people will have to not be scared. In 2009, they demonstrated and went home. The Egyptians taught them a lesson – don’t go home. If the Iranian forces do what the Egyptian army did, and don’t fire on them, they’ll keep coming, and the regime will have a problem."