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Post details: Velvet Revolution, the Tehran Edition

Velvet Revolution, the Tehran Edition

Persia was a jewel of civilization already when most modern states were still running their public affairs with training wheels on. But the quirky actions of its most recent president have been steadily eroding that standing. Two weeks ago Iranian people put on their democratic waders and attempted to cross the political Rubicon. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more Con than Ruby, and so they poured into streets in droves not seen since the Islamic Revolution, some 30 years ago.

I could not help noticing that some commentators dubbed this uprising the Velvet Revolution. I was in Prague in the Fall of 1989 when the original Velvet Revolution took place, so having spotted that term in the press again made me feel like a cat leafing through the Annual Report of the Federal Catnip Reserve. On November 20th, I stood in Prague's Wenceslaus Square under the Melantrich balcony where Vaclav Havel, having been silenced for 20 years, finally spoke to the intellectually starved nation. Together with hundreds of thousands of my compatriots, I kept jingling my keys in the air above my head until the Communist Frankenstein crumbled under the crushing weight of its own incompetence (and the word that Moscow was not going to interfere this time, in accordance with its redesigned foreign policy of "Thanks, but no tanks"). I have never been to Tehran, but excellent coverage in Guardian and NY Times allows me to draw some tentative parallels between the regime Iranians suffered up to this point, and the one which I suffered up to a completely different point.

First, both ideologies were based on irrefutable dogma. In Czechoslovakia, it was the Marxist philosophy, while in Iran that role was played by the Shi'a variety of the Islam religion. In either case the departures from the dogma were considered a high treason and the economic impotence caused by it was being eloquently masked by leaders' vague promises of future bliss. In my home country, that promise was implemented by a resourceful overuse of a term - "joyful tomorrows" - which was gainlessly employed every time the grumbling population started to look wistfully in the Westerly direction. When precisely would those Joyful Tomorrows materialize was left unspecified, but from the rate at which our GDP was waning, we all understood that they won't be due for at least a couple of centuries.

Second, not only had both ruling bodies sprout their own paramilitary arm that was serving to intimidate the populace, Bassij in Iran and People's Militias in Czechoslovakia, but they both relied heavily on the silent collaboration of lethargic masses. I saw an image from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally on the web and immediately recognized the old familiar setting of communist "manifestations". The same generic flags and banners manufactured in state-owned sweatshops flapping impotently above forcefully amassed throngs. Those were the people who were carrying the torch of the Bolshevik Revolution when I was growing up. I could spot them even in a dark tunnel at midnight. The same tired and largely ambivalent faces with absolutely no sparkle in their eyes. They ranged from informants who ratted on their neighbors to people who put up Soviet flags just so they could get a promotion and maybe a vacation in Yugoslavia. They were not vampires, they were their toothless butlers. Passive millions whose allegiance could turn on a dime.

Third, abstract and originally well meant ideals often deteriorate at the hands of real people, and I think that over time the purity of both Revolutions, Communist and Islamic, suffered a severe corruption. I am fairly certain that Ayatollah Khomeini never intended for his armed forces to prowl the streets of Tehran and shoot at their own people. He'd probably be appalled if he attended the Revolutionary Guards junkets, just as Marx would, had he seen the agenda of the Central Committee meetings. Many of the opposition leaders in Iran were once accomplished revolutionaries, but as time progressed and the fruits of revolution fell into more cynical and greedy laps, they had been slowly marginalized. All revolutions and upheavals seem to follow this pattern. The progress of the red plague in Czechoslovakia was a textbook example.

The communist period that started with a coup d'etat in 1948 and ended 41 years later in the Velvet Revolution was separated by the Soviet invasion in 1968/69 into two halves of nearly identical lengths. While the early communists from the 1950s were often confused zealots and would-be visionaries who believed that Socialism will cure all of mankind's social injustices, the ones from the 1970s were cold-hearted calculating opportunists, who relied more on foreign armed forces than populist doctrines.

One needs to realize that having people in the streets is not enough for a successful revolution, whether velvet, corduroy or burlap. In fact, the Prague street protests in 1968 and 1969 were easily dispersed by the combined military might of the Warsaw Pact, in an act cunningly referred to as the "Brotherly Help". It is equally important that the governing structures become sufficiently rotten and hollowed from the inside. Only then can the Vox Populi prevail. In 1968, the global communist squid was still very much alive and nimble, and its Czechoslovakian limb had merely developed a callous external shell, slowly morphing into a giant political crustacean known as the Normalization - which in reality was just its exact semantic opposite: the Abnormalization. It took twenty more years to kill the Beast.

So let's calculated some odds here. In 1968, 20 years after the communist coup d'etat, the people in the streets had wasted their time, and in some cases lives, and were clearly defeated. In 1989, some 40 years after the putsch, the system collapsed almost effortlessly. Iranians are now 30 years past their Revolution, smack midway between 20 and 40. Whether their uprising succeeds or fails should thus be a perfect coin toss with fifty fifty odds.

I sincerely hope that this time their coin falls butter side up.

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