After viewing the street uprisings in Egypt and former President Hosni Mubarak’s quick departure to Sharm el-Sheikh, Americans also watching Iran’s most recent countrywide demonstrations may be thinking: “Now the Iranian people will finally get the upper hand against their autocratic mullahs and street thugs, the Revolutionary Guards.”
But sadly for the Iranian people, who are enduring human rights violations, torture and brutality at the hands of the “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khāmene’i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there won’t be a happy ending. Iran, after all, is no Egypt.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the Egyptian Revolution and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 are so different, and why the Iranian people will continue to endure the pain of authoritarianism.
The Egyptian uprising was led by a youthful and cohesive mass of young secularists and others who used social networking to band together against Mubarak’s oppressive police. The Islamic element in Egypt, symbolized by the Muslim Brotherhood, was not even part of this uprising and, in that sense, lagged behind the “people.”
Conversely, in 1979 Iran, the revolution against the shah was a partnership of discredited secular parties and Iranian theologians or mullahs who believed it was their turn to run the country. These Islamic theologians and their followers were led by a single figure, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was exiled in Paris, and sent orders to his theological lieutenants via audio cassettes.
Khomeini and his supporters, unlike the Egyptian revolutionaries, comprised a sectarian Shi’ite Islamic movement and knew exactly what they wanted to do and were willing to be ruthless about it. Khomeini wanted to discard any form of secular democracy and would lead a movement for an Islamic state that would broach no opposition.
Moreover, while the Egyptian revolution has no overt anti-Americanism, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was not only about deposing the shah, but united around anti-American policies regarding Iran, policies that had stalwartly supported the shah for more than 25 years.
The Iranians, whether they believe in the Islamic state or not, resented the United States for using Iran as a “listening post” against the old Soviet Union, rather than supporting Iranian democracy. So, it was easy for Khomeini to put a stamp of approval on the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and to continue to hold diplomats hostage for 444 days. I was one of those hostages.
Today’s eclectically banded uprisings in Iran, led by a coalition of leaders called the “Green Movement,” has its roots in the 2009 rigged presidential elections in Iran, and cannot overthrow the Islamic Republic until the movement makes a clear distinction: Do Iranians want to keep Islam as the overarching force in their lives, or do they want freedom and democracy to take precedence?
Finally, the regime in Tehran will not give up -- as has Mubarak and his cronies in Egypt. Tehran will fight to the bitter end -- the religious leadership in Iran still believes that God is on its side. That regime will continue to beat its people into oblivion, even if a majority of Iranians press for democracy. And no country in the region, especially within the Arab Sunni world in the Persian Gulf, will take them in and provide refuge. They are pariahs with no exit.
Barry Rosen is the executive director of public affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College /CUNY. He was the last press attaché in Iran when he was taken hostage with 52 other American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and held for 444 days, from 1979-1981.