What’s going on in Iran right now is the result of many forces coming together. But I have little doubt that the most powerful of them are specific to Iran and its people rather than being international in scope.
The Iranian people (especially the huge percentage of the population that is young) are fed up with many things about Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, most prominent being the former’s flagrant mishandling of the Iranian economy, and the social repressions that have been going on for decades since the 1979 revolution at the hands of the latter.
The government’s transparent lies about the recent election results have merely acted as a tipping point, making it crystal clear to the people that they have no voice at all in the selection of their government, and destroying the pretense that Iran’s leaders (at least, the figureheads; not the mullahs themselves who pull their strings) were democratically elected.
That said, what of the influence of other countries? It’s commonplace to put down neocons these days, but if you look at the map you will see that Iran is situated between Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations that have achieved enhanced freedom (although differing in degree, both are freer than they were before) as a result of our interventions there. Those who think that Obama’s Cairo speech had more of an effect on Iran’s elections are dreaming; it’s much more likely that, just as the neocons said, freedom is contagious (even a little bit of it).
But I do think that Obama’s election may have played two small roles. First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people in the election, knowing that Obama wouldn’t do much to protest. In this the mullahs may have underestimated the reaction of the Iranian people and their anger at what had transpired; time will tell whether theirs was a miscalculation or not.
But I do give Obama credit for the second thing: Bush has been a very polarizing figure around the world, and Obama is definitely a more charismatic and less strident one. His tone of conciliation and apology (which I believe also communicates weakness) does have the advantage in this situation of making it much harder for Ahmadinejad or the mullahs to successly demonize him and to blame the present uprising on the US and have it stick—although Khamenei’s been trying anyway.
This doesn’t mean that, if the present demonstrations were to succeed and Mousavi were to take control, the demonstrators would get the freedom and representation they appear to crave. Mousavi himself is still somewhat of a cipher (read his recent praise of Khomeini and the glorious early days of the 1979 revolution here, for example, if you want to get a cold chill).
All revolutions are loose cannons; their courses cannot be predicted or controlled. Revolutionaries know what they intend, but they often are part of coalitions that combine forces with very different agendas. They can’t know ahead of time what they will actually build if successful in overthrowing the current regime. And sometimes (in fact, very often) revolutionary leaders manipulate the people by saying they plan one thing, and then end up doing something quite different—something that can exceed in repression what went before.
[ADDENDUM: Will a general strike be called for tomorrow?]