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Iran’s Revolutionary Echoes

STONY BROOK, NY – Iran’s continued unrest, now extending through the 30th anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Shah, raises the question of whether the Islamic Republic is about to fall. As in 1979, millions of Iranians have taken to the streets, this time to protest electoral fraud in the presidential vote last June.

The cheated presidential candidates, both veterans of the revolution, instinctively thought of a replay of history. Mir Hossein Moussavi saw the green symbols of the demonstrators as representing the color of the House of the Prophet, and urged his supporters to continue their nightly rooftop chants of “God is Great!” Thus, the first slogan of the opposition invoked the religious credo of the 1979 revolutionaries. More recently, protesters chanted it during the funeral demonstrations for Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in the closing days of 2009.

And yet we risk being led astray by memories of 1979. It is far too soon to predict another revolution. But t he divide between Iran’s society and its government is much greater today than it was under the Shah 30 years ago. Change seems just as inevitable.

Technological advances greatly favor the 2009 protesters. Text messages, Twitter, and the Web are infinitely superior to the smuggled cassettes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s speeches that fueled the opposition in 1979. What’s missing this time, however, is a charismatic leader comparable to Khomeini. Indeed, the striking feature of the Iranian opposition movement is the lack of effective leadership, despite the astonishing persistence of protests. As Moussavi has readily acknowledged, neither he nor the other presidential candidate, Ahmad Karroubi, feels in charge by now.