[Viewpoint] Iran protests in a Korean context

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[Viewpoint] Iran protests in a Korean context

A long time ago, I had an awkward experience in England when I was talking with a friend who was from Iran. I inadvertently said, “You, Arabs,” and my Iranian friend corrected me immediately. And a long explanation followed.

He explained he is a descendant of Persia and that Iran is not an Arab nation. He continued that Persia is where world civilization originated and that Iran is still the center of the Islamic world. As I listened, I realized that China is not the only country that proclaims itself as the center of the world.

In fact, civilization has seen the glory of the ancient Persian Empire that controlled Asia Minor, Greece and then the Western world. Iran’s pride at being the root of Shia Islam is probably stronger than that of China. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which overthrew Iran’s monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was an epic moment of the contemporary history for Muslims. Iran’s pride is extremely strong as the origin of world civilization, the center of the absolute religion and a leader in international politics.

Iran, however, is now shaking. It appears that Korea’s April 19 Revolution and the Gwangju Democratization Movement are repeating themselves.

Iran probably experienced similar corruption in the presidential election that Korea once saw during the March 15, 1960 presidential election. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw an unexpected landslide re-election victory, and there are many signs of corruption. The president’s opponent, Mir Hussein Moussavi, lost even in his own home district, where he was enthusiastically supported. That is like Kim Dae-jung losing an election in the Jeolla provinces.

In some electoral districts where Moussavi was favored, many were unable to vote because of a ballot shortage.

The supporters of Moussavi have gone out to rally on streets, just like the public did in Gwangju. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the center of the Iran’s capital city and shouted the slogan, “Allah O Akbar” or “God is great.”

As the protesters approached the guard post of the militia, which protects the president, troops opened fire. Seven died, but the number of the protesters grew.

Authorities cut off Internet and wireless communication and kicked out foreign journalists. Authorities also enforced crackdowns on dormitories at major universities.

The situation is not likely to calm down easily, because the descendents of Persia have suffered a serious blow to their pride.

According to The New York Times, an interior ministry official quoted a poem to express his feeling by saying, “If there is no Iran, let me be not.” He said he had participated in the Islamic Revolution and fought in the war against Iraq. He said his brother is a martyr. He, however, deplored the fact that his younger years devoted to his country had been in vain, the report said.

No one expected the situation to grow to this point. Iran is a “theocratic republic” and the highest religious leader’s power has been unchallenged. The Guardian Council of the Constitution, led by the supreme religious leader, reviewed the presidential candidates in advance and chose only four for the election. Two of the four were reformists, but they had a slim chance in comparison to the sitting president.

Ahmadinejad enjoyed popularity with his populist policy of spending the oil money on the low-income class during his governance. Of course, the president has been criticized for subsequent inflation, hostile foreign policy and oppressive rule, but the situation was not a compete mess.

There are various factors that worsened the situation. Problems that had accumulated over the three decades since the revolution were, in fact, deeply rooted. As Lebanon’s pro-Western coalition declared victory recently, the situation also shows the Obama effect.

In the past, then U.S. President George W. Bush’s pressure had angered Iran even further. But, President Obama’s smart power has disarmed the propaganda which had called the United States “Great Satan.”

Just like the candlelight protests of Korea last year, the communications revolution has played a role with improved information technology such as the Internet, mobile phones and Twitter.

As we see the Iran situation, two points remind us about North Korea.

First, when a pro-Western administration is established in Iran, North Korea will be the only remaining part of the axis of evil - Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The United States then will likely pay more attention to North Korea issues.

Second, a country like Iran, which has been an emotionally and militarily armed nation, can also be shaken radically when facing internal ruptures. This is an uncertainty too large to fully comprehend.

*The writer is the acting editor-in-chef of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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