June 15, 2003


After almost a week of protest, the violent demonstrations rocking the Iranian capital each night are limited in size and confined to less than a square mile. And they remain a leaderless expression of anger.

But what started out as a paltry student demonstration is now loaded with significance for the future of the Islamic Republic.

Unlike the student demonstrations four years ago, say analysts in Tehran, these protests are tapping into an unexpectedly fierce determination by thousands of ordinary Iranians – many of them young, and some families with children in tow – who are frustrated with the slow pace of political change in Iran.

In the past, unelected clerics led by Iran’s conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, were the target of protests. That’s true again, with the first-ever public chants calling for the ayatollah’s hanging. But now the reform-minded President Mohamed Khatami – whose widespread popularity during six years in office is ebbing, as reforms are systematically blocked – is also a target.

“It’s scary talking to these people [the protesters],” says a seasoned political analyst reached by phone in Tehran, who asked not to be named. “There is such a determination in their eyes and their behavior. They are fearless; they are ready for combat. It’s like [urban] warfare.”

“They say: ‘This is just the beginning, we have started it, and we are going all the way to the end,’ ” the analyst says. “But if you carry on the conversation, they have no idea about what the end should look like…. It is very dangerous.”

The last part is troubling, I suppose, though typical for revolutions. And I rather suspect that they have some idea. How do you say “Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy!” in Farsi? Here’s a report of gunshots. This story from the Daily Times of Pakistan wonders if the United States is behind all of this. I don’t know — and I suppose there are upsides, as well as downsides, to having people think we are. Here’s the interesting bit, though, in answer to the concerns expressed above:

The main reason for the dearth of attractive leaders outside Iran is their abundance inside it. Many, even if they acknowledge the failure of Mr Khatami’s movement, describe themselves as reformists and lean towards a version of democracy that the Bush administration would endorse.

But then there’s this:

To the frustration of expatriates living in America, few of them are inclined to use violent methods, or to lay down their lives, to end the stalemate. In this, they typify the vast majority of Iranians.

That’s usually how it is with revolutions, though, at least before the endstage.

UPDATE: Here’s more.

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