Yesterday Tunis, Today Tahrir Square, Tomorrow Tehran?
Just as the anecdotal broken clock rings true twice a day, so Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei got it right last Friday at his rare cameo appearance at prayers when he said that Iran had inspired the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia (and he could have added Jordan and Yemen, where the inspiration has been more material than ideological).
Except that he had the inspiration all wrong (indeed he had it inside-out and backwards). It wasn’t, as he claimed, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that inspired many of the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but rather the mass movement that started in 2009 in defiance of the theocratic tyrants who rule the country.
But Khamenei was right in saying that there was now an active insurrection all over the Middle East, and there is clearly an interplay between the demonstrators from one country to another. As Wael Ghonim, the poster boy of the Egyptian uprising, said to the Iranians, we hope to inspire you, as you have inspired us. And there is little doubt that the Tunisian and Egyptian examples have spurred the Iranian Greens to be more ambitious and perhaps more aggressive. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the most public Green leaders, requested a permit to demonstrate in support of the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia. It was a clever maneuver, since the supreme leader himself had praised the Arab insurrections, and if -- as one could have predicted -- the regime nixed the request, then the Greens had a fine example of theocratic hypocrisy.
Then the Greens went further, and called for mass demonstrations for tomorrow, Saint Valentine's Day. This carried an additional layer of symbolism, for the regime, terrified as it is by any act of love or mere fun, had banned all Valentine's Day celebrations. Moreover, as the right to assemble and express oneself is guaranteed by the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Greens are entirely within their rights to demonstrate.
But of course such legalistic niceties are quite beside the point in Iran today. It's not a matter of rights, it's all about power and cruelty, and the regime has been relentlessly hunting down anyone who criticizes them. The official execution rate has been running at one every eight hours, and the real rate is higher; there are reliable reports of waves of secret executions. This suggests profound concern and perhaps real fear at the highest levels. Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and the others of course know full well that most of the people hate them, and if they have any doubts all they have to do is listen to the chants of "Death to the Dictator!" that have rocked the major cities the last two nights.
There are real signs of concern, and perhaps even some indication of a wavering will in the corridors of power. Supreme Leader Khamenei just went to the holy city of Qom for the sixth time in three months, trying to convince the senior ayatollahs to rally around his flag, but the frequency of his travels suggests it isn't working to his full satisfaction.
Still afraid to arrest the Green leaders, the regime settles for half measures. Karroubi is under house arrest, and both he and Mousavi have been cut off from internet and telephones. For the past several days, activists have been rounded up and delivered to the prisons. The regime has created a new crowd of cyber cops. There is a very suggestive story to the effect that General Jafari, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has given orders to avoid confrontations if the crowds are big. And during the night, someone in Tehran emailed Tehran Bureau (which is doing a good liveblog of the day's events) to add that many people suspect that the regime will want to avoid brutal repression in the streets, since the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, will be in town. I don't quite follow this, since I rather suspect that Gul might enjoy a bit of mayhem (and the Turks themselves are in the midst of renewed oppression against their presumed military opponents, and are pushing Islamism for all they're worth), but the Tehran correspondent thinks that the mullahs won't want to appear more brutal than the Tunisians and Egyptians. We shall see soon enough.
Meanwhile, the regime's enemies are active -- pipelines continue to explode -- and the Greens are circulating a lovely video that asks the armed forces to join with them on "liberation day." And, happily and surprisingly, the White House has condemned the regime's refusal to grant free expression to the Iranian people. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was quite explicit:
By announcing that they will not allow opposition protests, the Iranian government has declared illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians. We call on the government of Iran to allow the Iranian people the universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate that’s being exercised in Cairo.
That's progress, and as they say, better late than never. If the American government will start providing real support to the Iranian democrats, this regional insurrection may yet turn into a real revolution. Maybe even in the morning. You never know.