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The Islamic republic of Iran at 31

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 11 February 2010

Many Iranians believe the official demonstrations celebrating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution represent the calm before another storm, writes analyst Arshin Adib-Moghaddam.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Thirty-one years ago at this very moment millions of Iranians were celebrating the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile pinning their hopes on this enigmatic cleric who had risen, it seemed, like Phoenix out of the ashes in order to deliver the Islamic republic. Today, the children of that revolution are cumbersome, wary and divided over the future of their project.

At the time of writing the situation is familiar. Hundreds of thousands have roamed the "Freedom Square" in Tehran and are listening to the speech of President Ahmadinejad. Galvanised by the massive bureaucracy of the state, they are celebrating the demise of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic republic 31 years ago.

But there is a layer of uncertainty about what is to come after the official demonstrators disperse. Many Iranians believe that it could be the calm before yet another storm. It has been a major strategy of the opposition to confront the government on official occasions, not only in order to protest the contested election of President Ahmadinejad, but also in order to demonstrate that there is a mass movement behind their strident calls for reform.

And so Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi and the "Sheikh of reforms", former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, have also called for peaceful demonstrations.

There have been calls for calm and security from all sides, but Iranians remain anxious. Residents in Tehran and the other metropolitan cities fear that the brutal scenes of previous demonstrations may repeat themselves.

Yet none of the protagonists of the unfolding drama has an interest in escalating things on the streets at this stage. Karroubi and Moussavi have distanced themselves from the violent splinter groups within their ‘green movement’. The government has put all the security organs on high alert. Riot gear has been distributed, crowd control manoeuvres have been excessively practiced. Demonstrating unity in the face of foreign aggression is the word of the day.

The opposition has also been increasingly prioritising stability. Both Karroubi and Moussavi have made it repeatedly clear, in a range of recent interviews and proclamations, that they are not seeking to overthrow the system in Iran, but that their seeking reforms to its authoritarian excesses.

But it is the people in Iran who are driving the political momentum. Karroubi and Moussavi are the products, not the incubators of the protest movement. The vast majority of Iranians do not want another revolution. What they do demonstrate for, however, is government accountability, the very third pillar of the revolution, encapsulated in the idea of freedom from the arbitrariness of the state.

This is a powerful utopia and is likely to drive the children of the revolution in their political project to reform an entrenched political system. The memories of lost comrades, the common rage, the shared experience of incarceration and punishment envelopes the political consciousness of this generation of Iranians and links their project to previous movements against authoritarianism in Iran, from the constitutional revolt in 1906 to the Islamic revolution itself.

There is no violent solution to this reform movement. It cannot be crushed or silenced into oblivion because it inhabits all strata of society and all the layers of power in the country. At some stage the establishment will have to react to this reality. It would certainly be politically naive, nay potentially fatal not to do so.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of, most recently, Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic Republic. He teaches comparative politics at SOAS, University of London.

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