The rules for street demos are different in Iran.
Even in the most oppressive states the rulers know that outbursts of popular anger should be contained with as little violence as possible, but elsewhere the authorities always see deadly force as the final resort. Whereas in Iran, killing demonstrators practically guarantees that the authorities will lose in the end.
The demonstrations in Tehran have grown bigger every day since the presidential election results were announced on Saturday. By Monday there were hundreds of thousands of protesters on the street.
The police and the various paramilitary forces had arrested and/or beaten hundreds of them, but the first shots were not heard until Monday night. That was not just good luck.
Most Iranians are Shia Muslims, and Shias have a great reverence for martyrdom. Kill a demonstrator, and you create a martyr. Kill a hundred, and you create a revolution. That was how the Shah was driven from power 30 years ago, and everybody on both sides in Iran should remember that very well.
The crowds demonstrating against the Shah’s tyranny, his brutal secret police and his stridently secular policies in 1978-79 were almost entirely non-violent. Nevertheless, they were shot down in their hundreds and thousands by the forces of “law and order,” who could not find any other way of dispersing them.
But the protesters kept coming back, with their dead in their arms, until they were exhausted – and then 40 days later, when the mourning period was over, they were back on the streets again, offering themselves up once more to be killed.
No regime can go on for very long once that starts happening. Its own henchmen become sickened by what they are being compelled to do, and start to desert it.
That is the secret music that drives the dance in Tehran’s streets today.
The regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and recently re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (if you believe that he really won the election) knows that it must quell the protests without killing demonstrators and triggering a cycle of martyrdom. And the demonstrators know (though they will not admit it openly) that they need martyrs.
Did the regime really rig the election? There were no impartial foreign observers with free access to the polling stations to offer an unbiased opinion, but the circumstantial evidence gives cause for suspicion.
The outcome was announced much faster than usual: the normal three-day verification and declaration was skipped, and Ahmadinejad’s victory was proclaimed only two hours after the polls closed.
There was a curious uniformity in the results from very different parts of the country. For example, even in Tabriz, the home city of the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Moussavi, it was alleged that Ahmadinejad had won 57 per cent of the vote. Yet the overwhelming majority of people in Tabriz are Azeris, who normally show a strong bias for ethnic Azeri candidates like Moussavi.
Above all, the margin by which Ahmadinejad is said to have won – 63 per cent versus 34 per cent for Moussavi – seems incredible to most urban, middle-class Iranians.
They would have accepted a close result, with both the leading candidates coming in under 50 per cent and the other candidates dropping out for the second round.
They would even have accepted a narrow victory for Ahmadinejad in the second round, but this just does not ring true for them.
They may be wrong.
According to the Washington Post, an opinion poll conducted by phone from abroad on 11-20 May asked 1,001 Iranians all across the country their voting intentions, and concluded that Ahmadinejad was ahead by two to one – slightly better than his actual result.
Despite some very awkward optics, there may not have been any actual cheating. But that matters less than what people think happened, and the issue will be decided in the streets of the capital.
All the other candidates have officially protested to the Supreme Leader about the election outcome, claiming fraud. Even a staunch conservative like Mohsen Rezaie, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for 16 years, says the election was rigged.
“According to my election headquarters and my experts,” he says on his website, “in a worst-case scenario I should have had between three million and seven million votes.” The official tally gave him fewer than 700,000.
If this is only a few days of protests about a stolen election, in a country which is only half-democratic anyway, then it doesn’t matter very much. If it turns out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, then it is a very big deal indeed.
It could be, because 30-year-old revolutions tend to have a big problem with a younger generation who benefited from some aspects of the revolution (the vast majority of young Iranians are literate, for example), but who chafe at its restrictions.
In fact, generational turn-over is the biggest killer of ageing revolutions. We will know if that is going to be the case in Iran in a few days’ time.
History does not run on rails. It’s more like raindrops running down a window-pane, their course determined by tiny imperfections in the glass or fly-spots on the surface.
If more than a dozen or so protesters are killed in the streets of Tehran, then the regime will be in truly serious danger.
Even if Ahmadinejad really did win.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.