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Simmering Iran unrest could boil over with anniversary

The Jan. 16 anniversary of the fall of the Shah could spark the next round of demonstrations.

An Iranian protester, wearing a green mask symbolizing the opposition, flashes the victory sign as he holds stones in his hands during clashes in central Tehran, Dec. 27, 2009. (Stringer/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — As simmering unrest continues to sweep Iran, the country’s opposition is casting about for possible endgames to the ongoing crisis. Frustrated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi proposed a five-point reconciliation plan last week but the government appears unyielding.

In the struggle currently gripping the streets of the Islamic Republic, an upcoming anniversary could prove significant.

Jan. 16 marks 31 years since the Shah of Iran fled his country, effectively handing victory to the revolution led by Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini. Green movement activists are hoping the date could once again be the tipping point, this time for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

And as the anniversary approaches, Tehran isn't the only city to watch. Historical precedent suggests that revolutions can start in provincial cities not thought to be hotbeds rebellious activity.

On Dec. 15, 1989, a disturbance in a small Romanian team led to a massacre that became the long-awaited catalyst for the overthrow of the Ceausescu dynasty, the last Communist regime in Eastern Europe.

The protest in the town of Timisoara escalated into the shooting dead of nearly 100 demonstrators by Romanian government troops. Nicolai Ceausescu hurried back from a foreign trip — ironically enough to the Islamic Republic of Iran — just in time to be captured by revolutionary forces, put on trial and summarily executed. This may prove relevant to the current situation in Iran because it shows that a government can be toppled by demonstrations that start in provincial cities rather than the capital city.

“In that case also, most people were expecting things to mainly be driven by the capital city but heroes were discovered in the most unlikely places,” said a Tehran-based political analyst who requested anonymity for fear of a regime backlash for speaking to foreign media. “When we look back at the course of events in a few years, a lot of events like the one in Najafabad that may seem less significant at this current juncture will suddenly gain great significance.”

Najafabad is a conservative Iranian town and the birthplace of Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, one of Iran’s top religious authorities and the spiritual head of the opposition movement. His death of natural causes in December led to the traditional city erupting in anti-regime protests. At least five people were killed in the ensuing unrest and the Islamic Republic was forced to declare martial law for the first time since the 1979 revolution.

“The clergy are generally very conservative and pretty scared of taking chances so it was interesting that Qom flared up as well,” said the Tehran-based analyst. “The challenge in smaller cities is that they’re easier to control, both from a policing point of view but also because the smaller population makes it more difficult for the protesters to remain anonymous.”