There’s always a certain fascination watching tyrannies coming unstuck, and the convulsions of the Iranian regime are more colorful than most, as you’d expect from such a rich and ancient culture, and from such clever and imaginative people, who specialize in illusion. Last Friday all these qualities were on display in Tehran, at a central mosque where Hashemi Rafsanjani was preaching to the faithful. As you know by now, there were millions of people in and around the mosque, and at a certain point, in a scene that would have delighted Fellini, the two sides faced off in a chanting contest. The pro-regime crowd shouted “Death to America!” And the people responded, “Death to Russia!” Then came “Death to Britain, Death to Israel!.” And the reply: “Death to China.”
Which pretty much sums up the contemporary strategic landscape, enacted in a Persian morality play in front of a mosque in Tehran. I rather think the actors understand the stakes better than we do, for they know that the Russians and Chinese are encouraging the mullahs to emulate the repression in Chechnya and Sinjiang, while blaming the actions of pro-freedom dissidents on “outside forces,” most notably the United States. The Iranians know that a victory by the regime will be understood as a terrible defeat of America, while the fall of the regime will likely reignite the democratic revolution that toppled Soviet Communism and other nasty dictatorships from the South Pole to Siberia.
It’s high drama, and the Iranians, on both sides, understand the stakes. They know that it is now too late to “fix” the political situation. There is no conceivable consensus to bind up the wounds caused by the regime’s brutality, mass repression, and slaughter of innocents. And there is no way for the United States to avoid “meddling,” since the internal conflict is over our values and our vision. As it has been for the past thirty years, we’re the target of a war declared and waged against us by the Islamic Republic. We can win or lose, but we can’t opt out of it.
At the moment, our leaders are lamenting the “lost opportunity” for striking a glorious friendship with the butchers of Tehran, which perfectly encapsulates the American failure in Iran ever since 1979. It’s just that no president before this one has been so pathetically obvious about his desire to get any sort of face-saving “bargain,” and then run away.
The crisis of the regime is luminously clear to anyone who looks past the nonsense on the evening news, and is best summarized in an eloquent declaration by Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the revolutionary forces, to Supreme Leader Khamenei: “You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements.” Those words, taken along with the evening chants of “Death to the Dictator!” from the rooftops of the country, show that the regime has failed to crush the insurrection, and the only really serious question right now is what form the next challenge to the regime will take. Mousavi himself moved to create a new political movement, but took care to say that it was not intended to replace the popular movement. And then he permitted himself a remark that is downright Jeffersonian: “power is always inclined to become absolute, and only people’s movements can put a hold on this inclination.”