Iran: Lessons From Poland’s Anti-Communist Protest

In so many ways, the scenes from Tehran look eerily familiar: the massive demonstrations full of idealistic young people demanding that their voices be heard;  the equally massive show of force by the riot police, leading to at least 20 deaths, countless beatings, and hundreds of arrests; the wrenching images of a young woman bleeding to death after she was gunned down; the government's propaganda counteroffensive, blaming the unrest on nefarious foreigners and the international media; and the obligatory airing of the "confessions" of a few Iranians that they were "provoked" into going out into the streets by the BBC and the Voice of America.

For anyone who witnessed or monitored the successive stages of protests and repression in communist Poland, the analogies are glaringly apparent. So are the intensely contradictory emotions they evoke. At one moment, there's a sense of exhilaration that people are rising up in a highly dignified fashion to claim what should be rightfully theirs. At the next moment, there's that feeling of near despair as the violent crackdown takes its toll, people are understandably intimidated, and the government is able to continue its charade, insisting that it truly represents the will of the nation. Poles experienced all of this before, but it doesn't make watching what is happening in Iran any easier.

Nor does it necessarily offer a clear-cut sense of what the outcome is likely to be there. In retrospect, the history of Polish worker and student protests and activism, all the way from 1956 up till Solidarity's triumph in 1989, looks like an inevitable progression toward that final victory. As someone who witnessed and reported on many of those protests—first as an exchange student in Cracow in 1968, and later as a reporter for NEWSWEEK—I certainly can attest to the fact that this was an outcome few people expected until the last moment. Nothing looked or felt inevitable. Similarly, we are likely to be surprised on more than one occasion by abrupt shifts in the Iranian situation.

Still, it's worth examining some of the similarities between the dynamic of protests in Iran with the Polish experience and what they may suggest about the road ahead. There are plenty of obvious differences—of religion, culture, politics, and history. But it's no accident that the behavior of both sides very often feels like they were drawn from the Polish playbook. And where they are different, they also are instructive.

Some examples:
The power of symbols.  Everyone who lived through the Solidarity era vividly recalls the impact of Andrzej Wajda's 1981 film Man of Iron depicting the workers' protests a decade earlier—in particular, the scene where the protesters carry a young man, who was killed, on a door that serves as a stretcher. It's an image as firmly etched in people's minds as the video footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, the 27-year-old woman killed in Tehran during the protests.  A government that kills its opponents always risks transforming them into martyrs. That's what happened with Grzegorz Przemyk, who had just graduated from high school when he was beaten to death in 1983, and with the Solidarity activist priest Jerzy Popieluszko, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed by security police officers a year later. Those murders may have sent a clear message about the risks of dissent, but ultimately they undermined the credibility of the regime and proved to be a rallying point for the opposition. That's likely to be true in the case of Neda Agha-Soltan as well. Both Christian and Muslim societies fully understand the power of martyrs.

Technology.  At first glance, the situations in Poland and Iran are radically different when it comes to how protesters get their messages out. The use of Facebook, Twitter, and countless other powerful Internet tools are prime examples. So are the government's efforts to block such technologies at key moments. Although the instruments are different, Solidarity and earlier Polish activists nonetheless know all about this contest. They used earlier tools such as clandestine printing presses to churn out leaflets, underground newspapers, and publications; the government tried to find them and shut them down. The Poles smuggled messages to Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and VOA,  just as Iranians are trying to get their messages to satellite TV and radio stations, which Tehran tries to jam. Since the protesters are young and often a step ahead of the government in terms of how to operate whatever the technology of the moment is, it's close to impossible to shut everything off.

Divide and rule. Polish protests were more easily contained in the early days because the protesters were divided by class. When students took to the streets in March 1968, the workers largely stayed quiet. When the workers on the Baltic coast staged their protests in 1970, the students mostly stayed quiet. But beginning with the creation of KOR, the Committee for the Defense of Workers, later in that decade, students and workers began to make common cause. While students and educated young Iranians dominated the recent protests, they weren't the only ones participating. Iran's opposition may be in the early days of forging these kinds of new class-cutting alliances.

Xenophobia. The Polish communist regime routinely painted opponents as tools of the West or Radio Free Europe. During the student protests in March 1968, they even staged the same kind of "confessions" that Iranian TV features now, showing young people who admitted that they were led astray by Western broadcasts. The message in both cases is that loyal citizens recognize the evil designs of the outside world and reject them. But a driving force of the protests in Poland then and Iran now is to break through the country's isolation, allowing their citizens to participate in a global society. The "them vs. us" argument worked with ZOMO, the Polish riot police force that was routinely sent out to bash heads, and still works with their Iranian counterparts today, but it's not an argument that is convincing to anyone who doesn't live in a completely isolated world.

Government tactics. Most dictatorships or authoritarian regimes like to present themselves as democratic and find some way to back up that claim. "People's democracies" in the Soviet bloc were notorious for only going through the motions by holding uncontested elections. When the pressure for change became too great, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's regime agreed to hold the famous partly free elections in June 1989. The party elite were convinced they had cleverly devised a way of making themselves look good by allowing people to vote freely in some contests, but guaranteeing the majority of seats in Parliament to the Communist Party and its allies. In other words, they tried to rig the outcome from the beginning. That tactic backfired when Solidarity scored such a resounding victory for the contested seats that even that the smaller parties, which had been considered puppets before, defected. 

In Iran, the rulers allowed several candidates to run for president, and then apparently tried to guarantee a landslide by fiddling with the vote count (hence the districts where there were more votes counted than registered voters).  Whether or not they will get away with this depends to a large degree on what happens within the leadership itself. Real splits are visible, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has antagonized several key political figures with his strong-arm tactics. For all the tensions within the Polish Communist Party, there was general unity on the question of maintaining power at all costs—until it became impossible to do so. In Iran, the ruling elites aren't nearly as unified on this key point.

The opposition.  The big unanswered question in Iran is where the protest movement goes from here. Unlike Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the de facto leader of the opposition is Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who was once very much a part of the governing elite. Can he rally the opposition in the face of repression, will he be willing to take the bold risks that his new role requires, or will he gradually back down? There's the classic question whether man makes history or history makes the man. Right now, history has propelled Mousavi into his new role; the next step would be for him to make history by truly taking it on. Under different circumstances, that's exactly what Walesa did.

Radicalization. Even if it is successful in crushing the protests now, the Iranian government faces the same danger that Poland's rulers did. Repression breeds radicalization, and an unwillingness to compromise. When I first went to Poland as a student in 1968, those who had participated in the March protests clung to a vague belief in the possibility of creating a democratic socialist system. After all, this was the year when Czechoslovakia's reformer Alexander Dubcek had popularized the notion of "socialism with a human face." When I covered the strikes and protests in May 1988, students I met scoffed at that 1960s idea. There was no middle way, they maintained. "What's the difference between democracy and socialist democracy?" they asked rhetorically. Their answer:  "The same as between a chair and an electric chair." Like Poland's rulers in an earlier era, the Iranian government may lose the chance to compromise with their younger generation if they rely only on repression now.

One final lesson that is worth keeping in mind: appearances can be extremely deceiving when it comes to judging what's likely to happen next. During those protests in May 1988, I watched riot police and plainclothesman break up a demonstration and make numerous arrests with relative ease. They were merciless with anyone who didn't run away fast enough, which often meant the older people, especially women. The Jaruzelski regime still felt that it could show everyone it was still firmly in charge. Even many Solidarity activists privately admitted they were right, and had a hard time summoning any hope that the situation would change anytime soon.  But within a year, the tables had turned completely. 

This doesn't mean that Iran will change just as fast or the same way. But even if President Ahmadinejad and his followers prevail in the current crisis, they should not take anything for granted. Iran isn't Poland, but it isn't immune to many of the same forces that produced the remarkable change in fortunes there. 

NAGORSKI is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute and the author of The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II. He wrote this essay for NEWSWEEK's Polish edition, NEWSWEEK POLSKA.