Today was probably the closest the Iranian uprising has come to reminding the world of the Tiananmen massacre. In fact, the regime-ordered violence in Baharestan Square brought back memories of twenty years ago to many.
For a large number of Iran-watchers, the last few weeks have been somewhat bewildering. No tyranny on earth has been so careful to project a democratic image than the Islamic theocracy of Iran. By allowing discussion and argument within an infinitesimal political space, the Iranian mullahs managed to look far more favorable to the rest of the world than their Arab neighbor tyrants. This was especially the case during the presidency of "reformer" Mohammed Khatami, who managed to put the free world at ease about his fellow mullahs even as the regime continued to develop nuclear weapons, funnel aid, money, and weapons to foreign terrorist groups, and cement an alliance with the largest dictatorship on earth (measured by people imprisoned): the Chinese Communist Party.
Four years ago, the Iranian regime began its departure from the charm offensive with the "election" of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I pondered what the rise of Mahmoud the Mouthpiece meant, and I came to the conclusion that the regime was close enough to the CCP that it didn't feel the need to pretend at being democratic. It was full speed ahead to nuclear weapons, terrorism abroad, and tyranny at home. Iran had just become a large Taishi.
Now, we are once again seeing the effects of Tehran's ties to the CCP, but this time, the Iranian people refuse to play along. If anything, the events in Iran have unfolded as they have because the mullahcracy has become too close to the CCP.
The Communists had their own experiments with "elections" at a local level for roughly a decade before basically closing it down in 2006. Like the mullahs, the cadres hoped to score points with the outside world and perhaps soothe some very ruffled feathers at home. However, like Tehran, Beijing insisted on its rules, including approval of candidates and real power staying outside the elected bodies and in the hands of the local Party leaders.
However, events in small towns like Taishi made it clear to the cadres that even controlled elections can wreak havoc on their plans. Thus, they had to go. That Beijing went back to the straight dictatorial path just as Iran was relying more heavily on its CCP allies may be coincidental to the embarrassment of last month's "vote," but I'm not so sure.
After all, the Iranian mullahs couldn't help but notice the division caused by the local elections, and the factionalism within the CCP (the mullahcracy has similar factional issues). Moreover, the stubborn refusal of Hong Kong's democrats to go away had to be a shock to the mullahs in Tehran, and perhaps made them think twice about letting anyone even remotely linked to "reform" achieve the powerless but highly public role of president.
After all, something had to occur that made the regime - a group so willing to hand Khatami the reins - balk at giving Mir Hossein Mousavi the post. After all, Mousavi - the 1980s prime minister who railed against the west and cheered Hezbollah - was no less nationalist than the Mouthpiece. He never stated an intention to change the regime - even minimally. He called for greater freedoms for the Iranian people, but only within the framework of the "Islamic Republic."
To most of the rest of the world, Mousavi is hardly different from the Mouthpiece (and many believed just that), but anyone who observed Hong Kong politics would (or, in my case, should, as I did not) know better. Hong Kong's democrats are as nationalistic as the Communists; they have never expressed any interest in challenging the CCP's control across China; all they have asked for is greater freedom in their city. Yet even with these limited aims (and in no small part because of them), they still give the CCP fits, and dissidents hope.
Could it be that the Iranian regime looked out at Mousavi and saw a home-grown Kam Nai-wai? Did they see his wife as a Persian Emily Lau? Did they fear the "reform" movement - previously known for its fealty to the regime on the big issues - would someday become the Hong Kong democratic movement writ large?
Whatever their motivation, the Iranian regime lost its subtle advantages just as it drew closer to Beijing's embrace. Much like Czechoslovakia's Communist movement lost popularity, independence, and legitimacy as it moved closer to Moscow after World War II, the Iranian mullahcracy lost its deft ability to appear at least somewhat democratic just as it moved closer to a regime that came to see any democratic appearance as an unnecessary headache.
Thus, all the regime has left now are the same weapons the CCP has had since 1989: brutal military force and radical nationalism. The CCP has managed to hold itself together for two decades. Only time will tell if the Iranian mullahcracy can likewise thwart the will of the people it oppresses.