A Quest for Democracy in Iran

A Quest for Democracy in Iran

Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs 
by Reza Akhlaghi
On Sunday, February 20, 2011 Iranians will take to the streets to hold anti-government demonstrations to commemorate the death of two protesters killed during an earlier demonstration on Monday, February 14th. Emboldened by the success of revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and the unfolding of events in neighboring Persian Gulf states, the Iranian opposition sees an opportune and historic moment to take on a theocracy known globally for brutalizing its citizens for three decades.

Under intense psychological pressure from the success of demonstrations in the Arab world, the Iranian government took a precautionary step aimed at outmanoeuvring the opposition by putting the main opposition figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, under house arrest with reports about Mr. Mousavi having gone missing since Tuesday. On the other hand, demonstrators are bracing themselves for a tough battle on Sunday that holds high potentials to turn bloody. This is a new and crucial phase for Iranian demonstrators as their slogans suggest they have hardened their position with toppling of the theocracy as their chief objective. Sunday demonstrations have already garnered global support of the Iranian diaspora who will be holding similar demonstrations as a show of solidarity with those in Iran.

All these developments are certain to force the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China to recalculate their geopolitical and geo-energy equations; a toll order as many issues remain unresolved and uncertain particularly in the event of more regime ousters. A new strategic landscape is being shaped in the Middle East and Iranian demonstrators on Sunday will have a direct hand in drawing that new landscape. A troubling question on everyone’s mind, however, is the severity of the crackdown to come by the Iranian security forces. A harsh and perhaps bloody treatment of protesters could turn the unrest into a full-fledged revolt and worsen the crisis in the entire region.

As the current crisis in the Middle East was in its brewing stage, the administration of Ahmadinejad had hoped to stabilize the Iranian economy and set the stage for what it termed as “a new era of prosperity for the Iranian economy”. The whole spin on the “economic prosperity” was built on the elimination of government subsidies, hoping to set the economic stage for large-scale and much-needed foreign investment in Iran and with a hope for subsequent political stability. The supposed “new era” has yet to arrive.

Geopolitically, Ahmadinejad had also hoped to present himself as a bold reformer capable of executing on grand economic and political visions in a key global energy corridor that has been mired in economic stagnation, high youth unemployment and mostly run by U.S. allies. But a new reality is setting in the Middle East with eye-catching results that can only be viewed by the Islamic Republic leadership as their ultimate nightmare. Suffering from a profound ideological bankruptcy that has shaken the very foundations upon which the Islamic Repubic was founded, the Ahmadinejad administration has tried to present a new discourse centered on Persian nationalism distant from the Islamic ideology. The new nationalist narrative has failed to catch the imagination of Iran’s mostly young and restive population.

February 20 carries another significance that is mostly psychological. With a glorious historical past engrained in their national psyche, Iranians see their present declining fortunes as the result of a religious dictatorship that has tarnished not only their image on world stage, but also hurt their long-perceived sense of superiority in their region. They also see the continuing success of pro-democracy protesters in the Arab world as a push for their own path to democratic rule. Hence the great psychological impetus for the defeat of their theocratic rulers.

As Iranians dig in their positions on the streets of Iran, the clerics undoubtedly ponder their best move and what appears to be the increasingly uncertain fate of their “god-given” rule. The more the battle lines appear blurred for both sides, the more the likelihood of an intense uprising.

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