On February 11, Iran’s unpopular regime celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its 1979 revolution as well as the ouster of Egypt’s President Mubarak. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, claimed that Iran’s Islamist revolution had inspired Egyptians and charged that the United States was trying to “derail” Egypt’s revolution. Although the regime did its cynical best to conflate the two events and trumpet the Egyptian revolt as an echo of Iran’s Islamist revolution, few Iranians bought the propaganda line spread by the regime.
Iran’s opposition Green Movement is both a forerunner and a beneficiary of many of the same forces that animated Egypt’s popular uprising. The Green Movement, fully realizing this, took the opportunity to launch its own demonstrations in support of the Egyptian revolt to embarrass and defy the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime on February 14. The regime, caught off guard by the size of the demonstrations, with tens of thousands of protesters marching in Tehran and other cities, denounced the protesters as “hypocrites, monarchists, thugs and seditionists.” Hardline members of Iran’s rubber-stamp parliament called for opposition leaders to be executed as traitors.
The thugs of the pro-regime Basij militia were mobilized to attack demonstrators and prevent them from massing in larger numbers. At least two protesters were killed, and plainclothes police later hijacked their funerals and claimed that they actually had been members of the Basij who had been killed by the opposition. Despite such repressive tactics and the arrest of its top leaders, the Green Movement has called for further demonstrations on Sunday.
The Iranian opposition, which had been intimidated by the regime and remained dormant for more than a year, has been revived and energized by the examples of opposition triumphs in Egypt and Tunisia. The Green Movement, like the opposition movements in those two Arab countries, draws strong support from the young, well-educated, urban middle class, which has plugged in to Internet-based social networks.
But in Iran’s case, the opposition has a much harder struggle ahead of it. Iran’s Islamist dictatorship is more ruthless and systematic in repressing its domestic critics. It also has a stronger economic, political, and ideological base than the brittle Arab regimes. Moreover, Iran’s regime is not dependent on economic aid from a foreign backer pressing for restraint and accommodation of the legitimate demands of the opposition.
Most importantly, the Green Movement cannot count on neutrality from an army that respects the rights of Iran’s people, unlike in Egypt. Instead of an army dedicated to protecting the nation, the backbone of Iran’s regime is formed by Revolutionary Guards bent on protecting the Islamic revolution. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij may succeed in temporarily muzzling Iran’s opposition, but the Green Movement has shown that it is resilient and is likely to spring forth again in the future.
Meanwhile, the United States should be more proactive in publicly supporting the Green Movement and defending the rights of Iranians to choose their own form of government.