What makes the Iranians different


Rudolph Chimelli

The well-known Middle East expert Rudolph Chimelli (1928-2006) was a correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in France (1979-1998), before that in Moscow (1972 to 1979) and Beirut (1964 to 1972). Chimelli has published numerous books, including "The Revolution Increases Its Children. Iranian Notes" (2000).

When the people of Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their governments in the spring of 2011, the world looked again at Iran: In the summer of 2009 there had been mass demonstrations there against the regime, the so-called Green Movement called for reforms. But the protest was bloodily suppressed. A 2011 essay by Middle East expert Rudolph Chimelli.

A supporter of the presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi at an election rally in Tehran in June 2009. (& copy AP)

Iran was always different. When Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran 32 years ago - supported by a huge popular movement - many of his disciples, at least initially, had hopes that their revolution would spread to neighboring Arab countries. The revolution in Iran should become a model for the wider Islamic world. These expectations did not seem unfounded: the Arab despots were just as hated by their peoples as the Shah in Iran. Social injustice was equally oppressive here and there. And political Islam as an idea had its origin with the Muslim Brothers in Arab Egypt.

But nothing came of this. No Arab people then or later followed the example of the Iranians. For the Sunni majority of Arabs, Iran's Shiite state doctrine could not be made attractive by the rule of the leading scholar. The Sunni do not have the hierarchy of professional clerics that rose to the ruling class in Iran.

The Arab Spring did not spill over

Conversely, at the beginning of 2011, many - especially in the west - were surprised that the Arab Spring did not encroach on the Iranian highlands. The expected revival of the wave of green protests that rose against the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2009 largely failed to materialize.

Even more than Tunisia, Egypt or a number of other Arab countries, Iran has a well-educated young generation who lack professional prospects. Iran's President Ahmadinejad has promised 2.5 million new jobs for the current year, but his critics within the apparatus calculate that the maximum number of jobs can be 600,000. Prices are outstripping incomes and millions still live in poverty. At the same time, a rich upper class enjoys a level of prosperity here that is increasingly alienating them from the problems of the majority. In addition, a broad middle class buys certain freedom by abstaining from politics, just like the bourgeoisie under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

There was therefore no lack of potential reasons for an Iranian spring awakening. Countless Iranians, probably the majority, have had enough of ideological harassment, petty harassment through dress codes, corruption, the autocratic ineptitude of the bureaucracy and their own political and cultural isolation from abroad. The supporters of the protest movement against Ahmadinejad wanted a turnaround in very different ways. In addition to protesting the controversial re-election, they called for political participation and civil rights; they wanted other people to run the state, and they wanted an end to brutality and oppression. You still want all of this. But hardly anyone dreams of a new revolution, and only a few are currently prepared to risk their lives for it.

The Iranians have already seen a revolution

Because the Iranians have an experience ahead of the Arab rebels. With the 1979 revolution, which began with such high hopes, they lost the illusion that something could be improved by overturning. In addition, the Iranians elected the reformer Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997 and 2001. But the reform approaches ebbed, Chatami did not bring the hoped-for change and many of his supporters turned away in disappointment. The fact that the green wave of 2009 failed due to the ruthless repression by the regime sealed these historical experiences. In its later protests, the Green Movement against the overwhelming power of the state no longer raised millions, but only tens of thousands, in the end just a few thousand. Their leaders, Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been forced to isolate themselves from their followers for months.

In the summer of 2009, the Iranian revolutionary regime was able to suppress the green movement. One of the reasons for this is that it can rely on broad layers of beneficiaries. The government and clergy have created dependencies through the allocation of posts, jobs, apartments, school places, scholarships, welfare and other small privileges. It is estimated that a quarter of Iranians cannot have an interest in overthrowing the system for such material reasons. Revolutionary leader Khomeini once resented dissatisfied people that he had not started the revolution so that watermelons would be cheaper. But since the rank and file of every revolution expects a better and richer life in the long run, Ahmadinejad thought of something else.

Before he was elected president for the first time in 2005, he promised that under his rule, oil money would be channeled to the dinner plates of the poor instead of the pockets of corrupt exploiters. For a long time, the head of state realized this promise by means of increasing state aid for basic foodstuffs, gasoline and important supplies, which kept their prices absurdly cheap. Subsidies have long shaped Iran's economy, and there was no sustainable economic policy under Ahmadinejad either. On his countless trips to the province, President Ahmadinejad hands out money with full hands. He is plundering the state treasury using illegal means: opponents in parliament have just accused him of paying an additional cash bonus to nine million voters in order to secure his re-election in the year before last. Parliament will investigate the allegations.

For many, maintaining the status quo is best

But even his bitterest enemies do not accuse Ahmadinejad of having amassed 40 billion dollars abroad, like Mubarak or Ben Ali. The spiritual leader Ali Khamenei is also blamed for his flourishing personality cult, but never for personal enrichment. The clergy dignitaries and, in the meantime, the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards are in favor of the status quo anyway, because they control the profitable sectors of the economy.

When the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities filled with millions protesting against Ahmadinejad under the sign of the color green in the summer of 2009, senior Iranians and foreign observers were reminded of the rallies that had preceded the overthrow of the Shah three decades earlier. As then, people shouted slogans against the dictatorship, were beaten up and driven out. And just like then, the state authorities shot and blood flowed - albeit far less. But that's where the similarities ended. In 1979, the leader of the revolution Khomeini had a dense organization that reached from the mosques to the last village. His staff directed the movement, determined where there was demonstration and where the bazaars closed, because the middle class and the bourgeoisie were also for the Islamic movement and supported it financially. The oil workers went on strike for months, bringing the monarch's regime financially to its knees due to the loss of income. Parts of the armed forces, especially the air force, defected to Khomeini.

The demonstrators were left with their impotent anger

In contrast to those days, the Green Movement had almost nothing in the summer of 2009, especially no organization. The Iranians under the Islamic Republic were always allowed to curse as much as they wanted with impunity, because there was no consequence. The slightest attempt to create oppositional structures, however, was mercilessly smashed. As a result, the Green Movement could only rely on spontaneous outbursts of dissatisfaction and general weariness with the circumstances. The other side, the regime, had everything for the confrontation: the police, the secret services, the regular armed forces and the parallel army of the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard; the regime had the administration, television and radio, most of the newspapers. On one side were the guns, on the other just passed out anger.

The parallels between the Iranian Green Movement in summer 2009 and the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia were hastily drawn. It is true that both here and there the protest movements were largely a matter of youth. Since the youth have mastered the modern means of communication, they feel everywhere as aspirants for the political future. The apparent lack of organization, of programs and of charismatic leaders could be bridged by this vigor in Cairo and Tunis until a rapid breakthrough.

But the Iranian repression apparatus was more efficient. Its internet police force is one of the strongest in the world. As early as the morning after Ahmadinejad's re-election, on June 13, 2009, the mobile phone networks were switched off and state controllers took over the ten largest Internet providers. The transmission speed on the Internet has been reduced to a thirtieth of the previous data volume. The state monitors collected an enormous amount of personal data and contacts from opponents of the regime online and only then intervened. Nothing escaped censorship on the Internet.