During the months of unrest that culminated in his ejection from the throne of Iran in January 1979, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi oscillated between repression and leniency, rifle fire and mea culpas. Since coming to power on his departure, the clerical leaders of the Islamic Republic have concentrated on avoiding the Shah’s mistakes, elevating consistency and an unfaltering will into high principles of state.
The country’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demonstrated these qualities in the summer of 2009, when he faced a vast outpouring of anger provoked by a fraudulently conducted presidential election. At a chilling Friday Prayers in Tehran on June 19, which I attended, Khamenei declared valid the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and warned millions of demonstrators to go home or expect “bloodshed and chaos.” Over the next couple of months, the minority of protesters who defied his warning were chased, beaten, and shot in the streets; torturers went to work on detainees in prisons; and state television broadcast the “confessions” of broken men in show trials. That autumn the universities expelled dissident students, and there was an exodus abroad of depressed young people. This huge, exuberant, but ultimately deferential agitation—regime change was not its purpose—was smashed with embarrassing ease.
The protests that erupted in Iran for a week or so at the end of December and the beginning of January attracted only a few tens of thousands, by contrast, but they were more widespread than those in 2009, affecting some eighty cities and towns across the country. They started in the northeastern city of Mashhad but spread as far as Izeh, in the far west, and Ghahderijan, in the central province of Isfahan. Rising living costs along with budget proposals to raise gasoline prices and cut monthly assistance to the middle classes were the spark, though the demonstrations soon took on a more radical flavor than the earlier protests, with calls of “Death to Khamenei!” and attacks on banks, shops, cars, paramilitary installations, and a mosque.
The state’s response was uneven. In Tehran the authorities managed to quell the protests by flooding sensitive areas (such as the neighborhood around Tehran University) with armed men; they were less prepared in the smaller towns, where around twenty-five people—including at least one member of the security forces—were killed. Several thousand people were arrested, two of whom later died in detention in suspicious circumstances.
I was in Tehran, staying with my Iranian parents-in-law, and it was immediately apparent that while many Iranians shared the rage of the mostly young, male protesters—against the state’s hypocrisy and intrusions, the siphoning off of wealth, the stifling of personal freedoms—they didn’t seriously contemplate joining them. In 2009 every member of my circle of friends in Iran was demonstrating for the limited goal of reversing a sham election. This time none took part. Many disapproved of the vandalism and destruction. There were also widespread suspicions…
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