Opinion

Iran today: 1979 revolution redux?

Reformers hope to fulfill the work they began 30 years ago.

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The events we are witnessing in Iran are not the makings of another revolution, but rather a continuation of the struggle for reform that began in 1979 and has not yet ended. This is the latest installment in Iran's unresolved revolution.

The shorthand narrative of the 1979 revolution tells us that the Iranian people, under the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomanei, rose up against an unpopular shah, a dictator whose misguided reforms alienated large swaths of his country.

But it is important to remember what happened after the shah was overthrown. There were two phases to the revolution that began in 1979. After Iran's diverse segments from both rural and urban classes – students, professionals, the religious establishment, the bazaaris (Iran's commercial class) – came together to overthrow the Pahavli dynasty, another, more meaningful, struggle began.

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Traditionalists and reformers, after working together to overthrow the dictator, became pitted against each other. The hard-line religious establishment and the bazaaris originally triumphed against the more secular, democracy-minded reformers. But these reformers never really gave in and have sought over the years to usher in a more democratic Iran, along the original ideals of the revolution that got away from them. The recent protests are merely the latest manifestation of this long process of change.

Consider the student uprisings in the late 1990s, the disappointed expectations of reform under former President Khatami, the countless activists who continued to agitate against the clerical regime. These are not isolated incidents or actions, nor are they failed or fizzled reform movements. They are a part of the continuous struggle of Iran's reformers that began in 1979.

But there are key differences that distinguish the recent unrest from past steps along the path to revolutionary change, leading many to believe that the election controversy of 2009 could be the turning point to finally realizing the reformers' goals for change that began 30 years ago.

More and more, Iranians are coming to believe that the supreme leader has become the shah by another name and that the unfulfilled goals of the 1979 revolution are truly necessary. More Iranians are joining the ranks of the original reformers – agitating for greater personal freedom, fairer political representation, and greater exchange with the outside world.

Mir Hussein Mousavi is the unlikely face of this change. He is a product of the clerical revolutionary establishment that originally only sought regime change, not full-scale reform. But he has come to represent Iran's original and newly converted reformers.

Vast numbers of Iranians are supporting him for myriad reasons, pinning their diverse desires on his candidacy in much the same way American voters were drawn to President Obama. His growing legion of supporters demonstrates that a large number of Iranians are still seeking fundamental reversal in Iranian society.

Most significant for the reformers, their old adversaries in the early days of the revolutionary process – the likes of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's former president who, like Mr. Mousavi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a product of the establishment – have come out against the current regime and are also seeking change in Iran. Over the years, Mr. Rafsanjani has transformed his platform to be more aligned with the reformers who never gave up their revolutionary ideals. Iran's current establishment is fracturing, with many former establishment officials splitting off and cleaving to the reform movement.

If this were just any election controversy, Iran's reformers would have done what they did during the last election – stay home and not cast a vote in protest against the government. Instead, Mousavi's supporters are recalling a tactic of the early days of the revolution in 1979 by climbing on their rooftops and shouting, "Allahu Abkar" and "La Ilah il Allah" – God is Great and There is no God by God – a pointed rebuke of Iran's Supreme Council, which has become illegitimate in the minds of many Iranians.

However, in order for the reformers to realize the full potential of the opportunity brought on by the regime's election rigging and resolve Iran's ongoing revolution – they must quickly regroup. The clerical regime has not stood by as the reformers took to the streets. Instead they have efficiently infiltrated the protesters, intimidated through violence and arrest, and caused doubt among those who were caught up in the initial excitement of the reformers' protests.

Iranian reformers must keep the world's attention through their peaceful protests and strikes. They must hold onto the new among their ranks – giving them reason and hope to risk their safety and, potentially, their lives.

Observers have long said that Iran is a country of contradictions and those contradictions are, in part, a product of Iran's unresolved revolution. Iran's foray into clerical rule could turn out to be merely Phase 1 in Iran's extended revolution.

Likewise, the recent uprisings could be a decisive turning point or just another step along the long journey toward realizing the reformers' revolutionary ideals. It all depends on whether the reformers can bravely regroup in the face of the government crackdown, keep the momentum alive, and deal the decisive blow.

Lydia Khalil is an international affairs fellow in residence at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

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