It is a truth universally acknowledged that tyrants who allow any small freedoms to their oppressed masses would eventually be in want of an army of tanks.
On August 21, 1968, such an army of tanks from Warsaw Pact countries crossed into Czechoslovakia to clamp down on a burgeoning democratic movement now known as the Prague Spring. The thawing of USSR-mandated oppressions meant the freedom of speech, the freedom to move across borders, the freedom to engage in open debate and an economy focused on the needs of consumers instead of the government, led by Alexander Dubček, head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
But, Leonid Brezhnev (then leader of the USSR) knew that if you give oppressed people a hint of freedom, they’d take the lot if not violently run down. Under the guise of killing off bourgeois tendencies in Czechoslovakia under Dubček and under a policy eventually called the Brezhnev Doctrine, 200,000 troops and 2,100 tanks crossed the Czech border and dozens of people were killed in the invasion. Dubček was arrested, taken to Moscow and forced to take it all back.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must have been taking notes, for Iran has been repeating some history. In certifying the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad almost four weeks ago, Khamenei galvanized discontent from his oppressed masses. If you give a people elections, they generally expect those election results to be carried out.
The Tehran Spring is the new Prague Spring: In this morality play, Khamenei is Brezhnev, an all-supreme power with a vested interest in maintaining the tyrannical status quo. Meanwhile, opposition party presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi is Dubček, a leader who promises greater freedom and reform.
(And no, it’s not a perfect analogy, but just let go of the minor details. The parallels hold true even though Khamenei is the domestic supreme ruler of Iran and not the ruler of a multi-republic superpower like Brezhnev was. And they hold true even though Moussavi has not been elected to office and delivered on promises of greater freedom like Dubček had in 1968.)
The Iranian government has been shutting down contact with the West, expelling journalists and trying to keep protesters off Twitter. Meanwhile, the government has acted in the streets, detaining 302 Iranians to date, subsequently releasing 78, and the confirmed death toll stands at 35 according to a running total kept by The Guardian.
And while there had been a lull in protesting, Iranians took to the streets of Tehran on July 10 yet again. It takes more than Basij militia with batons, tear gas and the threat of being crushed by the government to stop the protests. If only there were tanks.
If the drama in Tehran plays out like Czechoslovakia in 1968, the protesters will be overwhelmed by military might. Moussavi will concede the election to Ahmadinejad, and the accusations of election fraud will go uninvestigated. And even worse, Iran will backslide into an even more oppressive era with more truncated freedoms.
In revolutions, it seems that the determining factor is the use of tanks against the pro-democracy folks. People are willing to risk tear gas, batons and arrest, but not being trampled by a tracked-and-armored battling vehicle. But, evidence points to the Tehran protesters having staying power and defying the historical expectation of defeat set by the Prague Spring.
Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.