Yesterday, Shias all over the world commemorated the 7th-century martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein's martyrdom is to Shias what the crucifixion of Jesus is to Christians: The iconic event of the faith, the story of a man embracing martyrdom for a just cause. "Blood" after all, proves victorious "over the sword," the Shia saying goes, and immortal is the one who chooses an honorable death rather than live in dishonor. Millions of men and women, young and old, religious and secular, rich and poor, went into the streets all over Iran yesterday to commemorate Hussein and to protest an unjust regime. Iranian police have confirmed the deaths of eight protesters, including the nephew of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They are the latest martyrs of the Iranian nation in its fight against the so-called Islamic Republic.
Thirty years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the regime in Tehran is neither Islamic nor republican; instead, it is fast degenerating into a brutal military dictatorship headed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia. Militarization of the Islamic Republic was accelerated after the fraudulent June 12 presidential election that secured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iranians assembled to protest the rigged electoral process--corrupt even by the Islamic Republic's low standards--shouting, "Give us our vote back!"
Rather than attend to the grievances of the public, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei arrogantly endorsed Ahmadinejad's presidency and has since indirectly authorized the IRGC and the Basij to terrorize the Iranian public into submission, though he tries not to take direct responsibility. For a time repression seemed to work, and the protest movement was losing momentum. Wave after wave of crackdowns on protesters--along with the imprisonment, rape, and murder of political activists--reduced public participation in street protests, while the activists' "confessions" of collaboration with foreign powers created an atmosphere of Stalinist terror all over Iran.
But Khamenei's efforts may prove vain.
The older generation, which led the revolution of 1979, along with the sons and daughters of the revolution, chose the commemoration of Hussein's revolt against injustice to protest the unjust regime. Facing riot police and special forces, the protesters were armed with green banners and the greatest weapon available to them: the sense of moral superiority derived from a just cause. Superior in numbers, they seized police cars and freed demonstrators held captive. They confronted the riot police, asking them why they were shooting at members of their own families. Weeping youths in anti-riot gear begged for mercy.
Those eight people who sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom have not died in vain: A week from now, a new wave of protesters will go to the streets to mourn them, no doubt igniting another round of demonstrations against the regime. Should the regime choose to kill more of its people, the cycle will continue, and members of the armed forces will eventually recognize that they are not taking aim at foreign enemies but are killing their own people. And indeed, there are already reports of policemen refusing to obey their commanding officers' orders to shoot the protesters.
But the victory of blood over the sword may not be close at hand. Members of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij have significantly greater political and economic stakes in the regime's survival than do the police and the regular army. We may yet witness another phase of the Islamic Republic as it degenerates into a naked military dictatorship, purporting to do God's work on earth and to pave the way for the Shia messiah. Revolutionary victory won't be easily attained without a long struggle. The revolution of 1979 was the result of several decades of revolutionary activity, beginning in the 1950s and accelerating through the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, 2009 is not the beginning of the end for the Islamic tyranny in Tehran. But it could be the end of the beginning of the necessary revolution.
Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at AEI.