BY PAUL TAYLOR
PARIS – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana wrote.
In Iran, both sides remember the past. Pro-democracy campaigners are imitating the tactics of the Islamic revolution, while the authorities are seeking to avoid the errors of the Shah as they defend what they consider the legitimate order.
The authorities reject any comparison between the events of 1978-79 and today’s mass protests against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The crackdown and bloodshed on the streets of Tehran are grimly reminiscent.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames the protests on hostile Western powers and “terrorists.” He has thrown his full weight behind Ahmadinejad.
The 1978-79 uprising was structured by a potent combination of internal and external leadership, using mosques and audio cassettes to spread the anti-Shah sermons of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled first in Iraq and later in France.
The revolutionaries used the Shi’ite Muslim mourning cycle, turning memorial processions seven and 40 days after each death into new protests, which produced new “martyrs” for the cause.
The cult of martyrdom is a feature of Shi’ite Islam, with the adulation of Imam Hossein, grandson of the prophet Mohammad, who was killed by the tyrant Yazid at the Battle of Kerbala.
The anti-Shah revolt reverberated around provincial towns and villages. Among the most effective tactics were strikes by oil workers, who turned off the taps on most of the country’s revenue, and by bazaar merchants, who funded the rebel clerics.
The main opposition presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, who says the authorities stole his victory, has called for processions to mourn demonstrators killed in protests.
He has also called for strikes if he is arrested. But there has been little sign of labor unrest so far and the bazaaris seem loyal to the ruling system, under which their import-led business has prospered. The government appears to have a tight grip on the oil industry, whose revenue remains vital to fund public spending and reward loyalists.
During the revolution, news of protests, strikes and deaths was telephoned abroad by resistance networks, and broadcast back into the country by the BBC World Service and other short-wave radio stations.
As a young reporter in Paris, I was bombarded with telephone calls recounting often unverifiable events in Iran from exiles such as Abolhassan Banisadr and Ebrahim Yazdi.
Banisadr went on to become Iran’s first elected president in 1980 before being dismissed the following year and forced back into exile in France. Yazdi, a U.S.-trained doctor and close Khomeini aide, still heads the banned Iran Freedom Party in Tehran and was briefly detained last week.
Today’s opposition campaigners are using social networking technology — the Internet, Facebook and Twitter — in the same way that Khomeini’s followers used audio cassettes and the telephone to spread news and alert the media.
They have a diffuse network of supporters abroad, who run websites and television stations. For example, acclaimed Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is putting his celebrity status at the service of the opposition by speaking on behalf of Mousavi in the European Parliament and in French media.
Inside Iran, campaigners have imitated revolutionary tactics by staging nightly protests chanting “Allah is great” and “Death to the dictator” from the rooftops of their homes, echoing up to the Elborz Mountains above north Tehran.
To human rights campaigners at that time, the Shah’s great error was to alienate the population with torture and bloodshed. But in hindsight some historians say the Shah was too weak, slow and irresolute in repression.
When he tried to crack down, it was too late to stop the mass movement, and the loyalty of his security forces wavered. When he tried belatedly to reach out to the opposition, Khomeini rejected all compromise and condemned collaborators to death.
One of the key lessons that Khomeini and his successors drew from the revolution was the need to divide the security forces, with parallel revolutionary bodies at every level to ensure loyalty to the authorities and prevent any possible coup.
That system persists, with riot police, the basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards all involved in quashing protests, using teargas, clubs and, in some cases, live ammunition.
Few Iranians doubt the authorities have the determination to crush the protest movement. The question is whether that will widen rifts in the clerical establishment and engender long-term resistance that could undermine the revolutionary system.
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