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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Iran and the Arab Spring: Tehran's Love-Hate Relationship with People Power

Event Recap

On September 27 we invited reporter and photojournalist Scott Peterson, Istanbul Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor, to discuss the latest episode of Iran’s century-old quest for democracy and freedom. Though the 2009 Green Movement failed in its revolutionary vision, Peterson credited its massive show of “people power” with providing a template for the recent Arab Spring revolutions.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of Iran’s love-hate relationship with people power, Peterson argued. Contrary to beliefs in the Western World, he said, the revolution was genuinely powered by individuals in search of democratic change, not a group of radicals. The unique Islamic republic that emerged in the wake of the revolution has been silently undermined for years by what Peterson called a “fake democratic temperament,” and only in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election was the mask covering this charade finally removed by the public. In what Peterson regarded as “the first pro-democracy street protest that Iran has seen for decades,” the Iranian population raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the republican and theological pillars of the regime.

 According to Peterson, both Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad hope to bridge this credibility gap by explaining the recent Arab Spring in terms of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Khamenei maintains that the “Islamic Awakenings” against pro-Western regimes provide evidence of a coming pan-Islamic revolution that has its roots in Iran. One crucial element, however, separates the Iranian revolution from other awakenings in the region: Arab revolutions have generally occurred in predominantly Sunni nations, whereas Iran’s took place in a Shia context. The collapse of al-Assad’s regime in Syria would considerably diminish the credibility of Iran’s pan-Islamic model. In that case, said Peterson, the Iranian regime may find itself facing another round of “where’s my vote people-power” that proves too difficult to quell.