As Ben Ali and Mubarak eventually conceded to “their people” with reverberations being felt in other Arab countries, Iran swelled with courage and excitement to join in the democratic wave after its own momentum had abated since a year and a half ago. Pro-Democracy Iranians took to the streets to co-opt the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution to make their grievances heard. The diaspora flooded the various waves of technology to show support and make viral the pictures and videos that document the oppression and injustice the Iranian people are subjected to. However, while I do not like to be a “debbie downer”, the Iranian people do not face an oppressor like the one’s found in Tunisia, Egypt, or many other Arab countries in upheaval. They face something worse.
This might seem to be a “duh” thing to say, but what I want to point out is that the Iranian people are fighting a very, very different beast. Iranians face an oppressor on two fronts. One front includes the formal institutions of the Islamic Republic that include the President, the Majlis (Parliament), the Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader), Guardian Council, you know what, just see this picture here. The other front is the zealots, which include the Basij whom blend in with the general Iranian society and “tip off” authorities on opposition members and use indiscriminate violence to keep the Iranian people “in check”.
Unlike Iran, the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak (and most of the other Arab countries) ruled their countries through a strong, organized, and vicious security apparatus. The strength of its power relied upon a swift cracking down upon dissidents and relied very little on having “popular support”. Sure it has the well-to-do, and they put up a fight as the pro-Mubarak forces did alongside the military, but they were egregiously outnumbered and have a lot more to lose should they get injured—most pro-Mubarak demonstrators/supporters hail from the upper classes of Egyptian society. Therefore, in every sense of the phrase, they did not have popular support.
Iran on the other hand has one too many experiences with “revolution”. In fact, you could say that the current Iranian regime wrote the handbook on modern revolutions. The key players that brought the Islamic government into power knew all too well that if they wanted to dethrone the more financially and militarily powerful Shah, they would need every man, even the most mendicant. Not to say that joining forces with the poor was a novel idea, as the French have immortalized, but Islam being built on the foundation of helping the poor, encouraging an austere lifestyle, and equality before God regardless of class produced a much greater symbiotic relationship that the poor could rally behind.
This relationship not only brought the Islamic government into power, but it has maintained their power through the Basij–a volunteer paramilitary organization used to intimidate, abuse, and rape dissidents, with their downtime hobbies including study of the Qur’an and various recreational activities like soccer, cards, and slapping each other in the face.
The Basij are primarily comprised of the poorer demographics of Iranian society, where many of them receive financial support and health services through membership (akin to how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt operates). I want to clarify by saying that all those who are poor are NOT Basij, for many who are poor are on the side of the opposition. Instead, those who are members and receive benefits from the system find they have a lot to lose if the Islamic regime were to go. Their very identity lies with the organization, the Islamic Republic, which results in them laying their lives down for the Supreme Leader.
This is not to say that the Iranian people don’t stand a chance. They will emancipate themselves for the regime cannot sustain its current discourse not only politically and socially, but also economically. Yet, I believe that “emancipation” will come at the heavy price of going through years of protracted conflict. While the demonstrations after the 2009 presidential election were nonviolent and peaceful (on the opposition’s side of course), this time around the opposition is fighting back. As the government further cracks down on the opposition, it systematically radicalizes the opposition to take more extreme and potentially violent means in acquiring their rights. You add that to the resolve of the Iranian regime and the Basij who readily accept martyrdom, the conflict can escalate into something that would make Francisco Franco nostalgic.