Monday, February 22, 2010

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The Centre Daily Times /

I felt a sense of deja vu as I watched televised scenes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exhorting a huge crowd last week on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Members of Iran’s “Green” opposition were hardly visible, leading many to conclude that the protest movement had been crushed.Yet my mind flashed back to 1990, when I stood on a Moscow reviewing stand and watched Mikhail Gorbachev address a huge crowd in Red Square during May Day celebrations. Who could have imagined that, 20 months later, the Soviet government would cease to exist? Could it be that, one or two years hence, Iran’s Islamic Republic will meet the same fate? Of course, the differences between Iran and the then-fading Soviet Union are many, and I’ll discuss them. But first, let’s consider the similarities that make the comparison apt. The huge crowd in Tehran’s Azadi Square included tens of thousands of government workers bused to the scene. Compulsory attendance was combined with a free lunch and a workers’ holiday, just as with the old May Day parades in Moscow — not exactly a good measure of the regime’s strength. Members of the opposition, which arose after rigged presidential elections in June, were kept out of the square by a massive police presence, augmented by armed militia goons who blocked streets for miles and beat and arrested demonstrators. For good measure, the government also shut down the Internet.

“If people were allowed to freely assemble, there would have been crowds upward of 5 million in Tehran, and millions more in places like Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad and Tabriz,” the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour said. To repeat, you can’t judge the government’s popularity by the number of people in Azadi Square on Feb. 11 (or in Red Square in May 1990, where the military was everywhere). Nor could you judge the Iranian government’s strength by Ahmadinejad’s boasts about Tehran’s military prowess, or by his inflated claims that Iran was already a “nuclear power” and had enriched uranium to 20 percent — a serious step toward the 90 percent enrichment required for weapons. (Iran insists, implausibly, that its enrichment program is only for energy purposes). Independent nuclear experts said last week that Iran’s nuclear program had suffered serious technical setbacks, which could delay, though not halt, the program. Moreover, Ahmadinejad never mentioned his serious economic problems at home. On his watch, inflation has soared and foreign investment has dropped under the pressure of international sanctions. Lower oil prices have revealed the fecklessness of his widespread use of food and fuel subsidies that he must now cut — which risks alienating large segments of the public. All this is reminiscent of the last days of the Soviet Union, whose economic problems brought on its demise. (Read more...)