On the surface, the revolution against Iran’s Islamic Revolution is getting its second wind: Thousands of demonstrators braved a ferocious security cordon last week, breathing new life into protests against last summer’s stolen presidential election.
But in truth, the Teheran protests are not going well – and possibly not going anywhere. The democracy demonstrations are coming up against a massive clampdown by a revolutionary regime that is 30 years old, deeply entrenched, and determined to protect the spoils of power.
To understand the tragedy and brutality of Iran’s broken dreams, it helps to see the country through the eyes of Parastou Forouhar.
She has been making an annual pilgrimage to the place where her parents were assassinated in 1998 by the secret police, demanding justice. This month, Forouhar got an unexpected reply from the regime:
Security officials confiscated her passport as she was trying to return home to Germany, where she has long lived in exile as an artist. Now, like other Iranian dissidents, she lives under the threat of detention and possible torture.
But the suffering of the Forouhar family is a reminder of a time when Iran was supposedly flourishing under the reformist rule of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. It’s hard to imagine this in today’s climate, but Khatami’s government offered much of what today’s protestors are now calling for – greater openness and accountability for the Islamic Revolution.
For Forouhar, however, reforming the revolution never amounted to much – then, or now.
Eleven years ago, a government agent broke into the Tehran home of her father, dissident politician Dariush Forouhar, and stabbed him repeatedly, killing him with a thrust to the heart. He was found slumped behind the desk in his study. Her mother, Parvaneh, was hunted down in another corner of the house.
Only a few weeks before, both of them had sat down for an interview in the high-ceilinged salon of their home, serving me tea and biscuits on fine china, attentive hosts to their foreign guest. They were among Iran’s most enduring dissidents and avowed secularists.
They lived through Iran’s history and died for it. Jailed in the former Shah’s time, Forouhar served briefly in the 1979 revolutionary cabinet as minister of labour, but fell out with the clerics. He continued to fight for human rights, which didn’t sit well with the hardliners who plotted his demise.
Even in death, Forouhar’s words stayed with me. He had no faith in Khatami’s putative reforms, arguing that he was merely a figurehead in a regime marked by rival power centres and ultimately controlled by doctrinaire clerics.
All these years later, his daughter is still looking for answers. All she has found is a government that has taken away her freedom to leave the country.
The depressing historical lesson, however, is that Iran has gone through the best of times and the worst of times since the mid-1990s, when Khatami was elected, served out his presidency, and then gave way to his successor, the now notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Forouhar’s surviving daughter is a living reminder that even at its best, the Islamic Revolution makes only a pretense of protecting human life and ideals. Today, Iranians remain prisoners of their own recent history.
For the current generation of protestors, the choice is to continue their quixotic campaign for fresh elections – which Iran’s rulers have already ruled out. Or to press for regime change, which seems utterly hopeless.
That explains the tension within Iran’s fledgling democracy movement. Does opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi still speak for the campaign that was cheated out of a possible election victory last summer, or is he now a footnote to history, tainted by – and feeling the pull of – past associations? After all, Mousavi is a former prime minister backed by the old establishment, notably Khatami and another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Recent news reports suggest the demonstrators burned photographs of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Reformists have rushed to deny these reports, reasserting their revolutionary bona fides and claiming the security services staged the burnings to discredit them.
It seems that all these years later, fidelity to the regime remains a litmus test of loyalty. It also shows the limits of the reform movement, and why change – and especially regime change – remains a long way away.