With all the talk of the "twitter revolution" and the role that technology is playing in the recent uprisings, one would think that technology is being used in revolutions for the first time. The truth is that it was the Islamists themselves who were the first to use technology for such purposes in Iran. Back in the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolt against the Shah that saw a dramatic shift in government rule. While women and secular Iranians had been active participants in the 1979 revolution, they were quickly shut out of the government as Khomeini and his cohorts cemented their grip on power in the country.
The ruling Islamists appear to have forgotten their own history, and the role that technology can play in a popular uprising. During the period of the Shah, the taped recordings of Khomeini's sermons from his exile in France were smuggled into Iran on what was then the newly invented cassette tape. It was a form of subversion that the Shah's security forces were unable to control, and was used with similar success in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.
Today, with the use of the internet and cell phone technologies, we are seeing a similar revolution take place. Just as the use of cassette tapes was a new form of rebellion back then, so too is the use of twitter today. The question is whether the current Iranian regime, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei and his sidekick Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will overplay their hand with overly repressive measures to clamp down on dissent.
In January 1978, forces loyal to the Shah of Iran killed a number of protesters in the streets of Qom. With each death came more marches, leading to more repressive measures. As the Shah's men began to use more lethal force to keep the public in line, the Iranian people took to the rooftops, yelling Allahu Akbar -- "God is great." If any of this sounds familiar, it's because the Iranian people today are doing nearly the same thing; only this time, they are adding "death to the dictator."
The Shah's brutal methods did little to end the internal strife, and today the Islamists are repeating many of those same mistakes through the deployment of Basiji militia. Despite the government's best efforts to limit communications, protesters continue to assemble in defiance of government censure. Soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the outright winner in a landslide victory, the Iranian people began to march in protest. Ahmadinejad's response? He compared the people to "dust." Perhaps recognizing the error in his choice of words, he later added but "we [the Iranian government] like everyone." A few more government miscalculations like that can spell the beginning of the end for the current regime.
Whether or not the Iranian government ultimately remains in place, what is for certain is that this episode will not simply be swept under the rug. There is no question that despite the many similarities between 1979 and today, there are of course countless differences as well. Nonetheless, the Iranian people have a history of revolutionary fervor that violence and repression have not always been particularly effective at stopping. Technology has played a leading role in these revolutions as we are seeing again today. If the ruling Islamists in Iran are not careful, they may find themselves with a full blown revolution on their hands. They would be wise to remember their own history.