As Iranians fill the streets to protest the results of the election between hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reformist rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, it's tempting to draw comparisons with the protests that swept the country in 1979 to create the Islamic Revolution. Many people—from Tehran to Washington—have been energized by the prospect of Iranians rebelling against their government and its leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the most publicized demonstrations since 1979. In turn, Iranian-Americans in the United States—many of whom fled Iran following the 1979 revolution—have held large demonstrations of their own in New York and Los Angeles in support of Iranian voters. But despite the similarities between the June 2009 protests and those of 1979, speculation that this round will spark another revolution is premature.
The events of 1979 and 2009 do have some parallels. First, both protests consist of disillusioned Iranians rising up against autocratic governments. The irony isn't lost that Iranians are currently resisting the same government they brought to power in 1979. Both series of protests are also directed against governments that have lost touch with their people. For example, this past week, even as reports of election fraud emerged, Iran's incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held rallies to demonstrate his widespread support while Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that millions of people prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi. The reactions are similar to those of the former king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who reportedly said, "They love me," following a failed popular coup led by then-Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in the 1950s.
But many of the similarities stop there. The most glaring difference between 1979 and 2009 is that the current protests are centered on an election within the existing government framework, while the 1979 revolution was a structural revolution that shook the government's foundation. The 2009 protests are not ostensibly aiming to create a new system of government. In contrast, the 1979 protests replaced a monarchy where the king had supreme power with a theocracy where the reigning cleric is referred to as supreme leader.
In the unlikely scenario that the current protesters achieve their aim of making Mousavi the new president, the overall changes to the Iranian government will be minimal. Mousavi will still have to report to Ayatollah Khamenei, and he would be unable to make any substantial changes to the government without Khamenei's support. In fact, when Iran's last reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, won the Iranian election in 1997, the clerical establishment stymied many of his goals.
In the long run, it does not matter who wins Iran's election as long as the structure of government provides that the Ayatollah, who is appointed for life, is the country's head authority. While the June 2009 protests are remarkable in that they have continued despite Khamenei's public condemnations, the protests do not seek a completely new form of government. Though the protests defy Khamenei, they do not aim to overthrow him.
Another distinction is that unlike the 1979 revolution, which Ayatollah Khomeini led as an undisputed leader, the current protests are disorganized, without any clear leader. For years before the 1979 revolution, Khomeini sent cassettes to Iran from France, where he was exiled. He had many followers in Iran who were sympathetic to his cause. When he returned to Iran for the revolution, several foreign correspondents were on his plane. Khomeini was internationally recognized as the leader of the Iranian revolution, even before the revolution took place.
Iran does not have a similar leader for its current revolutionary movement. While Mousavi does have supporters and did manage to galvanize the youth of Iran, who came out en masse to support him, he lacks the charisma and followers that Khomeini had. In addition, he hasn't clearly stated his aims within the structure of Iranian government—beyond serving as president. Unlike Khomeini, who stated his aim of ousting the Shah to become Iran's supreme leader from the outset, Mousavi hasn't clearly stated that he has a similar aim of ousting Iran's current supreme leader Khamenei.
If Iranian history can provide any lesson in revolutions, it is that revolutionary movements in Iran can change quickly over time. This is facilitated by a facet of mourning in Shia Islam—memorials for the deceased are held 40 days after death. Several people were killed in the first protests leading up to the 1979 revolution. After 40 days, the families and supporters of the deceased held public memorials, which in turn became protests at which additional people were killed. This began a cycle of protests that occurred every 40 days—during which the revolutionary movement became more organized.
Given the unfortunate news that the current Iranian regime has shot and killed several protesters in the past week, it is likely that protests and memorial services will continue in a similar 40-day cycle. If this does happen, history may very well repeat itself and give the Iranians time to organize a second revolution. It is a point that the Iranian government should know well.