From Revolt to Revolution

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Two sites, one very large and one very small, dominate my memories of Bucharest in 1992. The very large one was the House of the Republic, a US$10-billion mammoth edifice constructed by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who wanted his Palace and his Ministries of Truth, Love, and Peace all in one place. The small site was Ceausescu's grave.

In 1989, twenty years ago last Friday, after Ceausescu and his comically evil wife Elena returned from a scheduled visit to Iran, his people put them against a wall and shot them. He never saw the building fully occupied, and as of my visit a few years later, no one seemed entirely sure what to do with a Pentagon-sized memorial to one of Eastern Europe's worst strongmen in the middle of their city. They knew what to do with his grave, though, which was to dishonor it with almost no markings whatsoever -- just a little white wooden cross on a brown dirt patch in a crowded cemetery. When I stood by the grave, a few somber ex-officials of the toppled regime visited to pay furtive respect to their patron. Beneath dark overcoats they wore medals pinned to their chests, medals they could probably not wear without social discomfort elsewhere in the city.

I thought of that grave this weekend while reading coverage of the latest spasm of democratic revolt in Tehran. I am on record as a member of the cold-water bucket brigade with respect to this revolt's chance of being upgraded, like a tropical depression brewing into a hurricane, to a full-blown revolution. My trip to Iran earlier this year showed a clerical regime with a powerful base of conservative Iranians, and a small if fervent minority of reformists.

Last weekend's protests surprised me, though, in their intensity and in their happening at all. Andrew Sullivan, of course, curates the most impressive unfiltered English-language stream of protest coverage. The site is censored in Iran. Much of it is riveting: scenes of violence in familiar locations in Tehran, places that a couple months ago during other major protests saw no clashes at all. Steve Coll, via Steve Clemons, linked to this video of what looks like a crowd storming a gallows and saving the lives of two men nearly dead from hanging. I have no idea who the men are or even whether they have anything to do with the protests, but the images are remarkable anyway:

I would very much like to know how to tell whether the weekend's protests indeed herald a Ceausescu moment for the clerical regime, or whether the government is as sturdy as it so recently seemed. One measurement, I suppose, might be the atmosphere, such as it is measureable, outside Tehran. I spent most of my trip in Tehran, Qom, and Mashhad. The last two are exceptionally conservative towns, and surely colored my impression of the regime's durability.

But even when I was in Isfahan -- a relatively mercantile and liberal city -- the feeling was not one of inexorable movement toward revolution. Rather, the young people I met whined of the corruption of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Islamic revolutionary who became a rival to Ahmadinejad. Their specific complaint: that Rafsanjani had sucked the province's rivers dry to water his pistachio orchards. They alleged that he had made a billion dollars off pistachios, and that the city of Isfahan (known for picturesque bridges over a the Zayandeh river) suffered as a result. Sure enough, the Zayandeh was parched enough for me to walk across in my sneakers:

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Of course, the testimony of a few Isfahanis jealous of Rafsanjani's pistachio scam is no basis on which to judge a revolution. But I do hope to hear more about the conditions outside Tehran, and away from the predictable sites of unrest. When I start reading reports of riots in Tabriz, Shiraz, and Yazd, the possibility of someday visiting a small grave, barely marked with the name "Khamenei," will seem considerably less remote.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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