TCS Daily

A Revolution's Lessons

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - July 15, 2003 12:00 AM

The July 9th protests against the Islamic regime in Iran started out with the reform movement announcing that it would cancel protests because of concerns that the regime would crack down harshly on the protestors. In reward for the forbearance, leaders of the reform movement were kidnapped by regime enforcers.

Protests against the regime ultimately occurred, but it is worth noting these events to point out that the Islamic regime is absolutely devoted to putting a stop to any effort to reform or change it. The mullahs are not only ruthless about stifling dissent, they have gone so far as to get non-Iranian riot police in order to have a police force that is less reluctant to engage in savagery against Iranian demonstrators (the theory being that an Iranian police force might have greater difficulty in putting down revolts that were instituted by their own countrymen). The internal police force has been specifically trained to help preserve the power of the regime, and is skilled at clamping down on internal revolt. In instituting these safeguards, the mullahs demonstrate that they have learned from history.

Many of the leaders of the Islamic regime were revolutionaries themselves 25 years ago -- revolutionaries against the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Shah had a powerful military, and a fearsome security apparatus: SAVAK (the Persian acronym and the words it represents translates to "Organization for State Information and Security" in English). However, the Shah was under increasing Western pressure to curb the abuses engaged in by SAVAK, and his military force was not skilled at internal crowd control and domestic peacekeeping. Because the Shah's security apparatus was not prepared to put down revolts against his regime, the Islamic Revolution -- given so little chance to succeed -- was able to bring an end to the Pahlavi dynasty, and to nearly two and a half millennia of monarchy in Iran/Persia.

In addition, the Shah himself was always wary about the use of force against demonstrators, and that wariness ultimately gave the revolutionaries confidence that the Shah would not crack down on them. Marvin Zonis (who was one of my professors when I was in graduate school) noted this wariness in his psychological profile of the Shah. He tells us that the Shah was hesitant about cracking down on protestors who initially began to dissent against the Shah's regime in 1963 (the year that Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as one of the main figures in opposition to the Shah), and that the Shah had to be prodded by his prime minister, Asadollah 'Alam to take drastic measures to preserve his reign. When the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s came around, there were no leaders like 'Alam to urge the Shah to repeat the clampdown of 1963 in order to preserve his reign. Additionally, as Zonis points out and as the Shah himself hints to in his own autobiography, the Shah was reluctant to crack down on the protestors because he didn't feel that he had the backing of the United States to do so. All in all, the Shah did not have the proper instruments of state power to control his population, and failed to use the instruments that he did have. The mullahs will not make that mistake.

So what can be done to counter the mullahs' absolute determination to hold on to power? One thing that would help would be increased media coverage of the events in Iran. The regime's leaders will have a harder time taking drastic steps to curb the pro-democracy movement if they realize that the world is watching them, and if they realize that they will come in for strong international condemnation and increased isolation if they impose brutal crowd control methods to keep power.

Additionally, it would help if other countries would do more to isolate the regime. Despite its support for terrorism, its appalling human rights record, and the threat it poses to peace and stability, the friendship of the Iranian regime is still courted by other countries -- including European countries. This causes the regime to believe that it has nothing to fear in terms of retaliation if it does take measures to crack down on protests. Instead of their current course of action, European countries would do well to inform Iran publicly and directly that there will be no business done between the two countries unless the regime respects and gives voice to the demands of the pro-democracy movement.

The protests against the Islamic regime have now reached a critical stage. The regime is determined to do whatever it can to keep power. For its efforts to be frustrated, the international community must recognize and seek to frustrate the regime's determination to implement harsh measures against the dissident movement, and the international media should place the regime's actions under a microscope in order to prevent the mullahs from believing that their totalitarian and repressive methods will not be noticed by the rest of the world. As important as regime change in Iran is, it will not be implemented easily. Only by focusing more attention on Iran, and by isolating the regime further will the international community be able to head off the Islamic Republic's efforts to outlast the pro-democracy movement.

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