Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Repetition in history

Political scientists look for patterns in organization and activity. Historians look for patterns in the record of past events. Michael Singh offers some Iranian history and tries to identify some patterns.

Michael Singh is a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iranian Re-Revolution
On June 10, when the Iranian opposition movement cancelled its planned commemoration of the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, commentators assumed that the Green Movement was finally finished…

But the history of political turmoil in twentieth-century Iran suggests that the movement may yet survive. After all, movements propelled by similar social currents have succeeded in dramatically changing Iran in the past.

Three periods of domestic political turbulence shook Iran in the last century -- the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11… the Muhammed Mossadeq era of 1951–3… and the 1979 Islamic Revolution…

Each of these episodes was brought about by the confluence of three factors: increasing popular anger at the regime’s corruption, a rupture between the ruling and clerical classes, and dissatisfaction with Iran’s foreign relations. In each instance, two disparate camps -- one secular and liberal, the other comprised of politically active (often young and mid-ranking) clergy -- momentarily came together in opposition...

All three opposition movements took years to consolidate before becoming powerful enough to force change on the regime…

Each period of turmoil was distinctive but was propelled by similar undercurrents. It is a peculiar irony that in today’s campaign against Khomeini’s political heirs, the opposition movement is appealing to many of the same grievances Khomeini cited in his campaign against the shah. And indeed, the very same three factors that contributed to previous episodes of turbulence are converging again today…

Yet if history gives cause for optimism regarding the opposition’s prospects for success, it also gives cause for caution. Their primary goals achieved, the coalitions leading the past century’s three reform movements quickly crumbled, riven by conflicting objectives and ideologies...

The international community should not worry that the Green Movement is doomed, but it should harbor no illusions that its success would inevitably lead to peace and democracy in the long term. Indeed, the United States and its allies should be considering not only how best to support the democratic aspirations of Iranians but also how to prepare for the real possibility of instability in Iran should the opposition prevail.

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