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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Valentines Day may not be a day of love for Iran


Friday is the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, and some pretty big things may be coming down the pipeline from there over the next few days, so I’ll be shifting my focus a bit farther east to Iran for the next few posts (but I’ll try to keep you abreast of other events).

The situation in Tunisia and Egypt has placed the Iranian government in a rather awkward position. Although the religious and political leaders of Iran would like to salute the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings as a continuation of the 1979 revolution that drove the Shah out of Iran. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t really all that believable of a narrative. The events in the ground are far more reminiscent of the technology-assisted Green Movement protests that took place in the larger Iranian cities after the stolen 2009 election. In fact, there are many who argue that the 2009 protests served as a direct inspiration for the protesters in Egypt.

For myself, the connection is a more immediate one. When the protests in Iran started, facebook, twitter, youtube, flickr, email, news aggregation sites like fark.com, and online message boards were the best way to follow what was going on. The major news agencies didn’t cover the protests until the third or fourth day when hundreds of thousands of protesters had already filled the streets. The protests created thousands of windows into the streets of Tehran, and my internet skills, honed by two decades of messing around with computers and new communications media were suddenly good for something other than looking at pictures of cats with silly captions. (My academic, personal, and professional familiarity with the Middle East didn’t hurt either).

A few days ago, several people from the green movement requested a permit to have a rally in support of the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt on February 14. This puts the Iranian government in a rather awkward spot. If they allow the rally it gives the Green Movement an opportunity show that it is still viable, strong, and legitimate, but if they deny the permit it undermines their state-propagated line about how great the North African protests are. Predictably, the government has tried to link their support for the Egypt/Tunisia protests to tomorrow’s commemorations of the 1979 revolution, and denounced the Feb 14 rally as disruptive grandstanding. The Feb. 14 protests will probably take place anyway, but the degree to which they serve as a flash-point for reviving the 2009 Green Movement protests remains to be seen.  I think the regime is scared enough that they may respond with extreme violence. (Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi has been put under house arrest in anticipation of the Monday rally)

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February 14 will also be a big day for Bahrain, with a day of protest on the calendar. Bahrain is a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf that is ruled by a Sunni royal family, but has a population that is 2/3 Shi’a. The history of the island is interesting – At one time it was the home of a radical sect of Ismailis known as the Qarmatians who,  in 840AD sacked the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and even went so far as to steal the black stone from the Kaaba (It was returned two decades later broken into several pieces). As things stand, no one is quite sure what Monday's protests will look like. A unified Bahraini populace could probably topple the ruling family, but if the citizenry fragments along sectarian lines it’ll be a mess.

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