Iran and History’s Repetitions

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In today’s New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar describes the dilemma facing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei like this: “He now faces a nearly impossible choice. If he lets the demonstrations swell, it could well change the system of clerical rule. If he uses violence to stamp them out, the myth of the popular mandate for the Islamic revolution will die.”

The danger is that Khamenei, a life-long leader of the Revolution, will cause a repeat of the images created in 1979, when forces loyal to the Shah fired into peaceful crowds, enraging ever larger crowds and eventually toppling the regime. (There are also marked differences: Whereas the agitation in 1979 was revolutionary, seeking the overthrow of a governing system, both sides in the current conflict appear to be debating within a political system that they both claim to support.) This sort of widespread violence is still not a certainty, but the irony is clear. History has a tendency to repeat itself. Those who overthrow oppressive regimes tend to imitate the same tactics to different ends.

A few years after the fall of the Shah, in 1982, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, in his book “Shah of Shahs,” bemoaned the rapid transformation from oppressed to oppressor by those forces loyal to Ayatollah. Political executions were common in the months after the Ayatollah’s return, and students who favored a more democratic government were attacked in the streets by knife-wielding gangs. Kapuscinski writes:

A despot may go away, but no dictatorship comes to a complete end with his departure. A dictatorship depends for its existence on the ignorance of the mob; that’s why all dictators take such pains to cultivate that dictators. It requires generations to change such a state of affairs, to let some light in. Before this can happen, however, those who have brought down a dictator often act, in spite of themselves, like his heirs, perpetuating the attitudes and thought patterns of the epoch they themselves have destroyed. This happens so involuntarily and subconsciously that they burst into righteous ire if anyone points it out to them. But can all this be blamed on the Shah? The Shah inherited an existing tradition, he moved within the bounds of a set of customs that had prevailed for centuries. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to cross such boundaries, to change the past.

It is also worth noting that the Iranian opposition leader today, Mir Hossein Moussavi, served as prime minister of Iran in the late 1980s, when the government carried out mass executions of thousands of political prisoners. To read about the program of political execution, click here.