The Iranian uprising is not over

One year on, rage still simmers under the surface

June 24, 2010 11:48

Last summer, for the first time, the world was able to see that Iran's clerical leaders do not enjoy the support of the country's population. The widespread protests that swept Iran in the aftermath of its dubious presidential election dominated the global media cycle for days.

But did it make any difference? One year later, Iran seems very much unchanged. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his radical cronies retain their control over government and their brutal crackdown on dissent has virtually snuffed out the opposition force that came to be called the Green movement.

Well, though Iranians are no longer thronging the streets by the millions, it would be a mistake to revert to the pre-2010 caricature of Iran as nothing more than a nuclear trouble-maker. The grievances and fury that propelled those demonstrations have not evaporated. And ordinary Iranians take strength from any recognition by the outside world that they are distinct from their brutal rulers.

Young people especially are still desperate for political, cultural and social openness. They yearn for an economy that can offer them decent jobs. It is only because of the regime's overwhelming use of force that protesters have retreated from the streets - on the recent anniversary of the protests, the Intelligence Ministry sent out text messages warning that anyone demonstrating or making contact with foreign media would be "charged as a criminal". Inside Iran, people describe their lingering anger as the "fire beneath the ashes", waiting to spark again once conditions are right.

The young in Iran are impressively self-aware and bitterly oppose the current regime. They have been deeply embarrassed by President Ahmadinejad's antics on the global stage, particularly his denial of the Holocaust and the ensuing taint of antisemitism. Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel, and Iranians are proud of their history of tolerant co-existence with religious minorities.

Although anti-Israel rhetoric has been woven into the Iranian revolution's ideology for three decades now, Ahmadinejad's government has taken it to a new level. It has also made it difficult for Iranian Jews living inside the country to visit relatives in Israel, a practice that was tolerated under previous governments despite the state's official ban on visiting "occupied Palestine".

When it comes to the country's nuclear programme, while most Iranians at heart believe their country has the same right as other nations to nuclear power, many are sophisticated enough to realise that Ahmadinejad's bombastic language and defiant policies have effectively squandered Iran's sovereign rights. The Islamic Republic loves to claim that it has its people's firm backing for its nuclear ambitions. The fact is, however, that criticism of the regime's nuclear energy aims runs through broad sections of the population. Middle-class environmentalists fret over ecological dangers; working-class war veterans recoil from anything that might open Iran to future attack; and masses of educated young people see the controversial nuclear programme as an impediment to what they most desire: better jobs and a non-pariah state with visa access to the world.

Modern technology does enable Iranians to connect with the outside world. Satellite TV channels based abroad, notably the BBC's new Persian TV network, provide Iranians with objective news about what their government is up to, internally and externally. The regime desperately resents this, and does its best to filter the internet and scramble satellite channels. But there are limits to how much the state can control people's access to the truth, as last summer's events underscored.

Some observers have questioned the significance of last year's protests - could a movement that fizzled out so quickly truly have represented a majority, or did it just reflect urban, upper-class discontent?

But Iran today is an overwhelmingly urban society; at least 70 per cent of the population live in cities. The government has damaged or destroyed the quality of life of all its citizens, regardless of faith and background. The myriad of new restrictions and forms of petty harassment, along with egregious mismanagement of the economy, are affecting Iranians across the board.

Last summer's protests may seem remote but opposition is now a mainstream sentiment.

June 24, 2010 11:48

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