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The Turning Point in Iran

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Regimes in Iran over the past century have followed the remarkable pattern of running the country by decree, facing an outburst of opposition by mainly the urban Iranians, yielding to an outraged populace, just to retake the reigns of power under the pretext of spreading modernity or serving heaven's mandate. Analogously, for over a century, Iranians have suffered the arbitrary rules for a while before they take to the streets as a form of plebiscite, forwarding their political demands to the rigid autocracies, originally peacefully, then violently, in fierce battles and revolutionary upheavals. It is surprising how little the regimes in Iran learn from the past. They leave revolution the only option, and the cycle of suppression-revolution-suppression perpetuates itself.

The events of December 27 were in line with Iran's traditional political culture, but the scale of the uprising stands out in comparison with past social movements, as did the violence. The police largely avoided the use of guns, and instead doled out brutal beatings or ran over demonstrators by car. Demonstrators, undeterred by police efforts to cordon off main avenues, rammed police obstacles, fighting with a courage born of desperation. Tehranis pushed the police back, burned their vehicles, and even took some demoralized Basij members who were in forefront of attack on the demonstrators as temporary hostages. This unprecedented level of confrontation shows that the civil movement in Iran is not abating -- it is gaining momentum.

The fever pitch of these protests owes to a few factors. The most important one is the coincidence of the seventh day of passing of Ayatollah Montazeri with Ashura, which is the day of sorrow for the Shiites. The symbolism of Ashura looms over the whole tragedy, a fact owing in large part to oppositional leaders' rhetoric. Mehdi Karrubi, one of the leaders of the Green Movement, said that even the Shah's regime did not shed blood on the day of Ashura. This will mark the Sunday's killing of eight people in Tehran as a bitter note in the collective memory of the pious Iranians.

The events will force the regime in Tehran to take one of two options: either seek a compromise or heighten the level of repression, possibly giving rise to a full fledged revolution or even a civil war in the future. Present behavior of the regime such as the mass arrest of moderate leaders leaves little doubt as to which way the Islamic Republic has chosen. When Mir-Hussein Mousavi published a five points program to end what he calls a crisis, regime supporters replied that instead of plans for peace, he better write his will.

The original strategy of the regime was to nip the movement in the bud in its early stages through the use of severe force. As it did not quell the uprising, the security forces raised their level of suppression, and tried to overwhelm demonstrators by bringing out more plainclothes and uniformed forces. These tactics also seem to have backfired as witnessed by the Ashura events. Since then, the regime seems to be without a clear strategy for dealing with the movement. Intimidating the movement leaders by killing or imprisonment of the relatives of the leaders -- such as the nephew of Mir-Hussein Mousavi who was assassinated and Shirin Ebadi's sister who was arrested for no reason -- seems to be the new measure adopted by the security forces.

Dictatorships in the Middle East -- particularly those claiming the mandate of Allah -- don't go away easily. Khamenei and his allies don't take popular opinion as the basis for their power or decisions. Regime ideologues like Ayatollah Messbah-Yazdi, say that people's vote merely confirms the mandate of god, and other than that, votes play no role in legitimizing the regime. Considering the long held belief of Ayatollah Khamenei that the Shah's regime fell because it succumbed to the opposition, the regime will not seek compromise until it is too late; it may be too late already. There is also a chance that sections of the military-security forces switch allegiances, and help the opposition. Talks about a general strike are also in the air. But no matter how long the regime holds on to power, the countdown has already begun.