Reza Aslan: The Spirit of '79

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Alain Keler / Sygma / Corbis

Iranian women show support for the Islamic revolution and Ayatullah Khomeini at a rally in Tehran on Feb. 10, 1979

For those of us who lived through the Iranian revolution, which toppled the government of the Shah and paved the way for the creation of the Islamic republic in 1979, there is a dreamlike familiarity to the massive riots roiling the streets of Tehran. I remember the seemingly spontaneous rallies that brought the country to a screeching halt. The young, fearless protesters daring the security forces to make them martyrs in the cause of freedom. The late-night call-and-response of Allahu akbar (God is great!) echoing from rooftop to rooftop. The strange confederacies between young students and elderly clerics, military men and intelligentsia, conservatives and reformists, all united by a common cause.

Never in the 30 years since that revolution has Iran experienced anything like the popular protests that we have seen in the past week. By now, the accusations of election fraud are fairly well known. It is implausible that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won in a landslide re-election. It is doubtful that he not only took the capital city, Tehran — the heart of the reformist movement — by a staggering 50% but also managed to win in Azerbaijan, the birthplace of his chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, by a 4-to-1 margin. (As an Azeri friend of mine said, this would be akin to Senator John McCain winning the African-American vote against Barack Obama.) It seems odd that the election was called so soon after the polls had closed, despite the many millions of ballots still to be counted, most of them by hand.

The young and the middle class are not the only ones outraged by these election results. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, perhaps the second most powerful man in Iran and certainly the richest, and former President Mohammed Khatami, by far the country's most popular statesman, have both thrown their support behind the protesters. Two of Iran's highest religious authorities, the Grand Ayatullahs Hossein Ali Montazeri and Yousof Sane'i, have issued fatwas condemning acts of election fraud. Even Ahmadinejad's conservative rival, Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guards commander and a far more hawkish figure than Ahmadinejad, has claimed the election was rigged.

The simplistic paradigms of "reformist vs. conservative," "secularists vs. theocrats," "young vs. old" that have colored so much of the Western media's perception of Iranian politics no longer apply. The unrest now taking place in Iran is about far more than a stolen election. It is about the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I've heard some in the media compare the events in Iran with the "Tehran spring" of 1999, when hundreds of thousands of young Iranians, buoyed by the reformist policies of then President Khatami, poured onto the streets to demand greater freedoms, only to be brutally beaten back by the country's security forces. Others point to 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing for a suitable historical analogy for the antigovernment demonstrations that have rocked Iran. Yet for me and millions of my fellow compatriots — both inside and outside Iran — it is the memory of 1979 that most keenly informs our perception of what's taking place in our home country. The similarities between today's protests and the events of 1979 suggest that this election represents a real turning point in Iranian history.

All of this is not to say that another revolution is afoot in Iran. The Iranian regime, despite all its multiple and often competing poles of power, is far too entrenched to be so easily dislodged. Still, whatever happens, whoever ends up leading the country, however this crisis of legitimacy is resolved, one thing is certain: Iran will never again be the same. For better or worse, a new Iran is emerging. Whether it will be more isolationist and militaristic or more accommodating and democratic remains to be seen.

Reza Aslan is the author of, most recently, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror