Faced with escalating turmoil, Iran's newly militarized regime now appears to be turning to the Tiananmen model to ensure its survival. The theocracy has signaled over the past week that it will exercise extraordinary military and judicial powers against opposition leaders, dissidents, street protesters and even sympathizers to end the growing turmoil. The regime's most urgent goal is to prevent opposition activists from turning next month's 11-day celebration marking the Shah's ouster in 1979 into a counterrevolution against his successors.
But the Chinese model of using all-out force against a budding opposition movement, as used in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, may not be as effective in the Islamic Republic of 2010. The two country's systems and societies have more differences than similarities. Yet the regime nonetheless appears intent on employing tactics normally reserved for foreign threats. On Dec. 28, the security forces for the first time fired directly into crowds of protesters as the Shi'ite Ashura religious commemoration turned into the biggest nationwide demonstration since unrest erupted after the disputed June 12 election. Hundreds of activists, students, intellectuals and relatives of top opposition officials have since been detained. Judicial officials and members of parliament are now calling for opposition leaders to be prosecuted for crimes against the state including treason.
On Dec. 30, participants at a government-orchestrated rally chanted slogans calling for the death of former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi. Both ran against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and charged that his re-election was fraudulent. The government gave civil servants the day off to attend the rally, and thousands were bused to Tehran for the event.
The regime also recently took delivery of new Chinese armored antiriot vehicles equipped with cannons that can spray water, tear gas and chemical irritants against crowds, according to pictures on opposition websites.
China's 1989 democracy movement and the current Iranian uprising share some common threads. Both were youth-driven popular movements demanding change, led by loose coalitions of disparate factions that lacked strong leadership. And in both cases, the protesters' demands grew as the regimes clamped down.
But there are important differences between the two that may result in different outcomes. In Iran, the catalyst was the charge that the authorities had stolen an election that the opposition believes Mousavi won; the Chinese protestors had no history of voting in competitive elections and were mobilized by the death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist member of the communist leadership. China used maximum force relatively early; it contained the challenge within seven weeks. Iran's regime is losing momentum after seven months; demonstrations late last month spread to at least 10 major cities. China banned the foreign press and tightly controlled state media; Iran has been unable to prevent eyewitness accounts of citizen journalists from reaching the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.
The biggest difference may be that Iran is historically more democratic than China, where public participation in politics has been restricted for centuries. Iranians have had a growing role in politics since the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution produced Asia's first parliament; they've voted for decades under both a monarchy and a theocracy. Also, China has long been a closed society; Iran's Indo-European population has long had exposure to Western ideas and education.
Rather than Tiananmen, Iran's opposition is hoping to repeat a different event from 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe's communist regimes. Despite the regime's growing threats, opposition leaders remain defiant. Mousavi warned over the weekend that the crackdown will not succeed. "I say openly that orders to execute, kill or imprison Karroubi and Mousavi will not solve the problem," said a statement on his website. Mousavi's nephew was among those killed during the Ashura protests; opposition accounts claim he was assassinated.
Iran's uprising appears to have entered a new phase after the Dec. 19 death of dissident cleric Grand Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri, and the Ashura protests a week later. The so-called Green Movement has proven both resolute and resilient, and appears to be gaining wider support from traditional and religious sectors of society once loyal to the regime.
The next key test for both sides will be the so-called 11 Days of Dawn commemoration of the 1979 revolution that begins on Feb. 1, marking the day revolutionary leader Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from 14 years in exile. The public celebrations, the most important political holiday of the year, end on the anniversary of the fall of the government installed by the monarchy, which paved the way for creation of the world's only modern theocracy.