Mohsen Milani, chair of the department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.
Clashes between Iranian police and tens of thousands of protesters erupted in central Tehran on Monday as security forces beat and fired tear gas at opposition supporters hoping to evoke Egypt's recent popular uprising. The opposition -- the “Green Movement,” which held months of protests after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections -- called for the demonstration in solidarity with Egypt's popular revolt, which forced the country’s president to resign last week after nearly 30 years in office. The rally is the first major show of strength for Iran's cowed opposition in more than a year.
Msnbc.com invited Mohsen Milani, professor of politics and chair of the department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., to respond to questions about the renewed demonstrations by the Iranian opposition and the impact of Egypt’s protests on the region. Milani has written extensively about Iran’s foreign and security policies, the Persian Gulf, and Iran’s revolution of 1979.
What are you hearing about what is happening in Iran today?
So far, there are conflicting reports about the size of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran and other cities. It appears that there were no large pro-democracy demonstrations, as some people had hoped for. My impression is that there were small gatherings of protesters here and there, but the police and the security forces were conspicuously present and were determined to contain the gatherings.
Are you surprised that the protesters took to the streets despite the government telling them not to demonstrate?
Not really. Immediately after the disputed June presidential election in Iran in 2009, millions of Iranians took to the street of the country’s major cities, asking, “Where is my vote?” While it is true that Iran’s security forces crushed the June uprising, they have been unable to eradicate the roots of discontent, particularly among Iran’s highly educated, restless and computer-savvy young generation. The opponents of the Islamic Republic are looking for every opportunity to publicly express their dissatisfaction, and they thought that the Cairo uprising had created a favorable international atmosphere to revitalize their movement. But when they publicly announce their plans for demonstrations and even publicize the routes for their marches, they should not have expected that Iran’s highly effective security forces would allow them to assemble in large numbers.
What does this mean for the future of the opposition movement in Iran?
The planned demonstrations today were ostensibly in support of the uprising in Egypt. The “Green Movement” has to operate based on its own clock and must determine its own tempo depending on the conditions in Iran, and not on what is happening in Cairo or elsewhere. Tehran is not Cairo, and the Islamic Republic is not Mubarak’s regime. While the U.S. enjoyed limited influence to persuade Mubarak and the Egyptian armed forces not to rely on brute force, it has no such leverage with the Islamic Republic. This is why the pro-American regimes in the region are somewhat more vulnerable to this new wave of democracy.
Are members of the opposition in Iran in contact with protest organizers/youth movement in Egypt?
Based on Monday’s report in The New York Times, there were some contacts between the youth movements of the two countries.
Do you think what happened in Egypt will impact the rest of the region?
Yes, I do. What happened in Egypt in those eighteen days was an inspiring, momentous, authentic and heroic movement to promote democracy. It was a dignified and popular uprising that started with the youth and captured the world’s imagination, and proved that it is possible for the people to overthrow a well-entrenched regime through peaceful means. Egyptians from all walks of life and from all ideological persuasions were united in demanding an end to Mubarak’s corrupt and authoritarian rule -- a regime that deprived the people of their basic human rights and brutally suppressed all voices of dissent. Every president-for-life, king, demagogic leader and theocrat in the Middle East and beyond is probably feeling vulnerable and nervous now. And that is good. The people in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria are demanding meaningful changes from their leaders. In the medium and long term, however, the impact of the Egyptian uprising is not that clear. If democracy develops in Egypt, or if some kind of representative, parliamentary system is established there, then Egypt could become the harbinger of a much-needed democratic order in that troubled region. On the other hand, if chaos prevails in Egypt, or if the military reestablishes its rule and imposes “Mubarakism without Mubarak,” then all democratic forces in the region will suffer. We can say that a new chapter has indeed been opened in the region’s history, but the pages and the conclusions of it will be written in the coming years.