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One year after Tehran erupted in protest, "nothing has changed, but everything has changed."
The movement's goals are diffuse. It has not even managed to come up with a clear answer to the most basic political question: Should the Islamic system be reformed or abolished? Instead it has pushed two demands, free elections and rule of law. These are eminently reasonable, but not enough to bring Iranians charging out of their homes to face police and armed thugs.
The Green Movement has not been able to capitalize on last year's success. Protesters have failed to build a durable mass movement. Repression has been effective. Iran is not on the brink of exploding.
This poses an intriguing challenge to the U.S. and other Western countries. If the current regime in this important country is going to be in power for at least some years, might it not make sense to engage its leaders in dialogue, rather than pursue a policy of threats and sanctions?
“The history of my country shows that Iran has always wanted to be integrated with the world,” a college student told me in the town of Mahan, “and that is what we want now.”
Although the regime managed to crush last year's challenge, it emerged from the confrontation palpably weaker. Iranians are more deeply divided than at any time since the 1979 revolution. Rival factions have emerged in the ruling group. Pressure from the United States and Europe is intensifying, with a new round of United Nations sanctions on the horizon. The economy is not producing nearly enough jobs for an increasingly alienated young generation. Social ills are spreading. This does not bode well for the Islamic Republic.
The world was shocked by the brutality with which security forces in Iran suppressed last year's protests. Even more impressive, though, were the protests themselves. At great personal risk and with remarkable discipline, millions of courageous Iranians marched to demand their democratic rights. This would have been unthinkable in most Middle Eastern countries. There are seldom post-election protests in Egypt, for example, because Egyptians expect elections to be stolen; there are none in Saudi Arabia because there are no national elections at all.
This outburst of protest was the legacy of more than a century of progress toward democracy in Iran. Since the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, many Iranians have embraced democracy as a personal choice, not as something imposed on them by foreigners at the point of a gun. At mid-century they nearly succeeded in consolidating a democratic regime. After Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil, however, the British and Americans organized a coup to depose him.
Iran's modern history offers three alternative forms of government: democracy, monarchy and religious rule. Mossadegh was the last exemplar of democracy. His overthrow in 1953 was followed by a quarter-century of royal dictatorship. Then came more than three decades of theocracy. If the cycle continues, democracy is due for another turn.
Iran has the potential to become one of the world's most democratic Muslim countries, perhaps joining a list that includes Indonesia and Turkey among others. Over generations, its people have internalized the meaning of elections, parliaments and political debate. Last year's protests showed the vibrancy of Iran's long-suppressed democratic consciousness.
The challenge for Iran is how to get from here — an increasingly repressive state — to there: a more democratic regime. Last year the Green Movement fired a powerful salvo, then was beaten back. The unfolding of Iranian political history, however, has not ended. This story is not over.
Stephen Kinzer recently completed a two-week trip in Iran, where he researched this article. He wrote the piece from his home in Massachusetts. Kinzer is the author of numerous books, including "Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future," "Overthrow" and "All the Shah's Men."