Belmont Club

Past and future

There was a subtle difference between the slogans chanted by two groups of street marchers marking the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran.

TEHRAN became a battleground again last night between supporters and opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran marks the 30th anniversary of the storming of the US embassy. … Protesters chanted “Death to the dictator” while a pro-government group that had also gathered at the square chanted “Death to America”.

The differences had as much to do with present politics as it did with history, with each side trying to harness history for their own ends. “Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister defeated by Mr Ahmadinejad in June, had urged supporters to make the day a reminder that “it is the people who are the leaders”. Mehdi Karroubi, another defeated presidential candidate, was expected to march through the capital. … Meanwhile, in a sign of a hardening stance on nuclear talks, Iran’s supreme leader accused the US of trying to strong-arm Tehran.”

“Whenever the US offers a smile, it hides a dagger in his back,” Ayotollah Khamenei said, according to the state news agency IRNA. He rejected “talks in which the US decides about its results in advance.”

President Obama declared that he wanted to “move beyond this past”, without squarely addressing the question of which side he wanted to see control the future, other than to affirm that the US sought “a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

“This event helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust and confrontation,” Obama added. “I have made it clear that the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. … We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.”

But it was the future which the rival forces in Teheran were fighting over. The Guardian, live blogging ongoing events reported that “this would be the biggest opposition demonstration since the rallies in June if the reports of the unrest are correct”. The opposition in fact used the official commemoration of the US embassy as an occasion to organize their own anti-regime rallies.

Unsurprisingly the state media is ignoring the opposition protests and focusing instead on the official anti-US rallies. Press TV claims: “Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life and many political persuasions have staged a rally at the site of the former US embassy in Tehran, better known in Iranian history as the ‘den of spies’.”

The Iranian opposition movement has been debating new dates to renew their street protests since they last took to the streets in significant numbers on Qods day in September. They opted for today in attempt to hijack another official rally. It’s Students Day when Iran celebrates the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran with anti-US demonstrations.

At this writing the struggle for Iran’s future is still underway. The Los Angeles Times reports that clashes have erupted between anti-government demonstrators and security forces. Today’s events suggest that things have moved beyond a mere remembrance of the seizure of the US embassy. Those events are now secondary to the question of which path the Iranian nation is now going to take.

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut – Large stretches of the Iranian capital erupted in chaos and violence today as anti-government protesters and security forces clashed on the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by radical students.

Amateur videotape also purported to show small, boisterous demonstrations in the Caspian Sea city of Rasht, the southwestern city of Ahvaz and the eastern city of Mashhad.

As dusk settled, protesters in Tehran continued to gather in the streets and prepare for what they predicted would be a long night of clashes with security forces stationed at main squares around the capital.

The most interesting parallel between Nov 4, 1979 and Nov 4, 2009 is that on both occasions a relatively left wing US President was placing a bet on the future of an Iran that was in flux. In 1979 Jimmy Carter angered the coming men with his effusive praise of the men who were shortly to leave power. He misjudged the situation. Carter bet on a horse that lost and then tried to change horses in midstream, to mix metaphors, by attempting to conciliate the Islamic Revolutionaries, leading to Khomeini’s slogan “America can’t do a thing”. It only compounded his error.

If the Obama Administration is looking for lessons, it would do well to consider one more recent than Mossadegh: it should try to avoid making the same mistake that doomed Jimmy Carter. The President is facing his own test. In approaching Iran, who does he deal with? The only people he can deal with for the present are those in power. But for how long will they remain there? And will Obama, by dealing with the existing men, be delivering the equivalent of Carter’s televised toast to the Shah? Perhaps the President still sees the Islamic Revolution as the “wave of the future”. That may have been true in 1979, but maybe their energy is near spent. At the very least Iranian society is looking for new directions. Obama’s desire for “engagement” with the current regime should take into account that the fact that it might change. It did in thirty years ago with disastrous effects on Carter.


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