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Inside Iran, a rebellion that is familiar and unpredictable

As I walk through Tehran, scenes bring back childhood memories of the 1979 revolution. But this is a very different kind of uprising.

June 18, 2009|Babak Rahimi | Babak Rahimi is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at UC San Diego.

WRITING FROM TEHRAN — Walking through central Tehran this week and taking in the shattered glass, burned garbage cans and damaged traffic signs, it was hard not to think of the 1979 revolution, when thousands of Iranians poured into the streets and called for the end of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's regime. Cries of "Allah akbar!" (God is great!) and "Death to dictator!" rang from the rooftops this week, echoes from my childhood days in the late '70s, when similar symbolic acts of defiance led to the fall of the shah's regime. Tehran, once again, has become a city of rebellion.

But this is a very different kind of rebellion. The goal of the 1979 revolution was to turn away from monarchy --and the corruption associated with the shah -- and establish an Islamic state governed by clerics. This time, the protesters seek a more democratic state, transparent in structure and accountable only to its citizens.

The hotly contested presidential race pitted hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against three other candidates, including reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In a country where two-thirds of the people are under the age of 30, the opposition candidates looked for new methods of reaching voters, employing Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The technologies not only spoke to new voters, they had the added benefit of allowing candidates and their supporters to more easily avoid scrutiny and censorship.

It is perhaps no surprise that people who were able to express themselves more strongly during the campaign than in the past are not willing to sit back now and accept election results they believe were rigged. But it's hard to predict what will happen next. The new generation of protesters, most of them born after the 1979 revolution, believes at this point that it has the momentum, that its members are riding the crest of a powerful wave of history into a more democratic future. And though this view may seem naive to older, more cynical Iranians, no one can deny the energy of the moment.

As an academic who studies Iranian politics, the recent developments in Iran have taken me by surprise. I originally left Iran for the U.S. in the mid-1980s, when the political situation in the country was highly unstable. But since 1997, when Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, was elected, I have been back frequently. This year, I traveled to Tehran in late March to study the presidential elections and how Iranians perceived the electoral politics. I have been in Iran since that time.

During the first couple of weeks after I arrived, I sensed little public interest in the election. But in the weeks before the election, the country underwent a dramatic change of attitude. I watched passionate supporters of Mousavi dance, sing and chant anti-government slogans on the streets of Tehran, despite a ban on most of these activities under Islamic law. From the southern port city of Bushehr to the northern towns of Mazandaran province, an astonishing sense of enthusiasm spread throughout the country. "I have never voted before, but I will vote this time," a resident of Bushehr told me, expressing a sentiment I heard again and again.

One major claim of those in power is that although there is some dissent in the cities, the countryside voted solidly for Ahmadinejad, which accounts for his win. But in my preelection fieldwork in a number of southern provinces, I observed major tensions between provincial officials -- especially the local imams -- and the Ahmadinejad administration in Tehran. I saw far lower levels of support for the president than I had expected. In fact, I heard some of the most ferocious objections to the administration in the rural regions, where the dwindling economy is hitting the local populations hard. As one young Bushehr shopkeeper put it: "That idiot thinks he can buy our votes. He does not care for us."

It remains to be seen if Iranians in the provinces will join with those in Tehran in contesting the election. The more vehemently Mousavi and other opposition leaders call for a new election, the more likely it is that authorities will resort to repression and violence, and it's uncertain whether the resistance will hold up under pressure.

But one thing is certain: The situation in Iran at the moment is as unpredictable as it was in 1979.

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