On June 10, when the Iranian opposition movement cancelled its planned commemoration of the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, commentators assumed that the Green Movement was finally finished. For months, it had been criticized as lacking strong leadership and for being unable to seriously challenge Iran’s entrenched regime.
But the history of political turmoil in twentieth-century Iran suggests that the movement may yet survive. After all, movements propelled by similar social currents have succeeded in dramatically changing Iran in the past.
Three periods of domestic political turbulence shook Iran in the last century -- the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11, which for a time curbed royal power and led to the development of Iran’s constitution; the Muhammed Mossadeq era of 1951–3, which temporarily ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which replaced the monarchy with clerical rule.
Each of these episodes was brought about by the confluence of three factors: increasing popular anger at the regime’s corruption, a rupture between the ruling and clerical classes, and dissatisfaction with Iran’s foreign relations. In each instance, two disparate camps -- one secular and liberal, the other comprised of politically active (often young and mid-ranking) clergy -- momentarily came together in opposition. Indeed, although periods of upheaval tend to be remembered today as being driven by iconic leaders such as Mossadeq, in the 1950s, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1979, it is important not to forget how broad and longstanding the popular movements behind them actually were.
In the early 1900s, for example, long-simmering outrage at the shah’s tyrannical behavior and humiliating trade concessions to Russia and Great Britain boiled over when the director of customs (a Belgian national) began to enforce tariffs to pay off Russian loans. Intellectuals were joined by clerics, for whom the concessions were not only an affront to Islam but also a threat to the economic interests of religious endowments. The two camps came together to demand the ouster of the shah’s prime minister
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