Only a fool, or the ultimate insider, would try to predict the outcome of the elaborate passion play–aka “elections”–now being staged in Iran. But clearly the hatred an awful lot of Iranians harbor for the regime is now being played out in the streets of Tehran and, most likely, many other cities across the country. Reporters in Tehran are using very strong language to describe the anti-regime demonstrations:
From the London Times:
It was open insurrection, a rebellion of a sort seldom seen in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, an eruption of pent-up rage against the repressive Government of President Ahmadinejad.
“Death to the Government,” chanted the several thousand Iranians packed into a football stadium in Tehran. “Death to dictators,” roared the young men and women, draped in green shirts, ribbons, bandanas and headscarves to signal their support for Mir Hossein Mousavi.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Tens of thousands of demonstrators formed a 12-mile human chain across Iran’s capital city Monday, chanting for change, in scenes reminiscent of the 1979 revolution.
These are accounts of two different demonstrations, one in a football stadium, the other on the main street in downtown Tehran. Both cite demonstrators shouting “Death to the dictator,” “Death to the government of lies,” and other phrases that leave no doubt about their desires: they want an end to the oppressive regime.
Their candidate is the former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, an architect who designed some of the most oppressive features of the Islamic Republic when the Ayatollah Khomeini was the country’s Supreme Leader, and who has been absent from public life for twenty years. By all accounts he is an uninspiring figure, a boring speaker, and an ineffective debater (he was beaten badly in a televised debate with President Ahmadinezhad the other night). So what can account for the frenzy on his behalf?
For one thing, he is not Ahmadinezhad, for whom there is a lot of hatred. The current circus is taking place against a background of mounting repression, featuring public executions of many young people (some said to be homosexuals), mass arrests, summary closing of the few remaining quasi-independent publications, increased censorship of telephone and internet communications, and a lot of nasty action against young people who do not meet the strict dress code and decorum rules imposed by the theocratic dictatorship.
That so many people would openly defy such a regime is certainly significant, and it may well be that the reporters who see the current demonstrations as revolutionary, or at least insurrectionary, are quite right. I have long said that the Iranian people despise the regime, do not want an Islamic Republic, and wish to be part of the Western world, not part of a fanatical regime whose essence consists in supporting anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism, denying the Holocaust, and singing praises to martyrdom.
In that way, Mousavi can be viewed as similar to the failed “reformer,” Mohammad Khatami, who was unexpectedly elected president in 1997. I once wrote that Khatami was the empty vessel into which the Iranian people had poured their passionate desire for freedom. Khatami did not reform much of anything, and many Iranians came to view him as a stalking horse for the regime’s hard-liners, luring dissidents into the open so that they could be marginalized, tortured, incarcerated and murdered.
But I think Mousavi is different. And the big difference is his wife. As the Times tells us:
The biggest roar of the afternoon was reserved for the main speaker, Zahra Rahnavard, Mr Mousavi’s wife. “You’re here because you don’t want any more dictatorship,” she declared. “You’re here because you hate fanaticism, because you dream of a free Iran, because you dream of a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world.” The candidate himself was nowhere to be seen…
That Ms Rahnavard has become a central figure in the circus is a big surprise, and perhaps revolutionary in itself. As we all know, women are diminished in the Islamic Republic (as throughout much of the “Islamic world”), to an extent unthinkable in civilized countries. Women are officially worth half a man, have no property rights, have little formal say in the education of their children, have severely limited job opportunities (Khomeini ranted against the shah’s regime in no small part because women were permitted to teach boys) and of course are compelled to cover their bodies, including their hair, lest the sight of them corrupt the otherwise virtuous men. Even Shirin Ebadi, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, is regularly silenced or put under virtual house arrest when the rulers decide they’ve had enough of her prattle about human rights.
Now, all of a sudden, Mrs. Mousavi becomes a national political figure. Other women have emerged from time to time to play public roles in political melodramas, but nothing like this has happened in the history of the Islamic Republic. The very fact of her political role is explosive. In many ways, it threatens the foundations of the system, for if women are granted equality with men (and this is one very clear message of the Mousavi campaign, it is demonstrated by her presence, by the words she uses, and by the enthusiasm she has inspired), the whole structure of the Khomeinist regime can be called into doubt.
Everybody in Iran recognizes this. The mystery is why she has been permitted to do it. To put the matter bluntly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could have put a stop to it at the very outset of the campaign, but did not. Why? Does he secretly support a serious challenge to the Islamic Republic? Is this some diabolical trick, to once again lure the dissidents into the streets so that they can be crushed yet again by a crafty, murderous regime?
Many months ago I was told that Khamenei was gravely concerned about the future of the regime, that he had concluded that there was so much hatred by so many people that it was impossible to continue to govern by repression, and that Ahmadinezhad’s aggressive domestic and foreign policy threatened everything that had been constructed over the course of the past thirty years. The people telling me these things were friends of Mousavi, and they accurately predicted that Mousavi was going to run, and that he would have surprising public support, something I would not have expected. They also said that Khamenei had encouraged Mousavi to run, precisely because he, the Supreme Leader, was prepared to grant greater freedom to the Iranian people and to normalize relations with the West.
It sounded unlikely to me, but then Khamenei is gravely ill and reportedly uses large quantities of opium to ease the pain of an incurable cancer. Under such circumstances, surprising behavior becomes rather more conceivable than it would under “normal” circumstances (I put “normal” in quotation marks because there is very little about the Islamic Republic that any of us would consider normal). Thus far, Khamenei has not endorsed a candidate, and time is short (the elections are on Friday). He has limited himself to saying that candidates should mind their manners, that everyone should vote, and that they should vote for the candidate they think best embodies Islamic virtues.
One possible indicator that Khamenei favors Mousavi is the absence of the security forces in the streets of Tehran. Normally, demonstrators chanting “Death to the regime of lies” would be clubbed and beaten on the spot. That is not happening these days.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the regime will simply step back and let Mrs. Mousavi transform it into a tolerant country with friendly relations with us and the rest of the Western world. There are powerful forces–the hoodlums known as the Basij, and significant chunks of the Revolutionary Guards–whose religious fervor is genuine, and who are undoubtedly prepared to fight for its survival, no matter how many people demonstrate in the cities. And they have a lot going for them, not least of all the control of ballot boxes. As Mehdi Khalaji has helpfully detailed, it is very easy to cheat in Iranian “elections,” and the hard-liners (Ahmadinezhad’s supporters, for the most part, although some of them are working on behalf of Rezai, the former commander of the Guards) are very much in control of the mechanics of voting and vote counting. Khalaji carefully tells us that “Iran’s election procedures leave ample opportunity for massive voter fraud.”
Is it all some kind of trick? This “explanation” is favored by those who think the mullahs are so cunning, and so much in control of things, that whatever happens is to be explained by the desires and schemes of the beturbaned rulers (never mind that a lot of mullahs, and many ayatollahs, are openly opposed to Ahmadinezhad). The trouble with the explanation is that it explains too much. Indeed, it “explains” everything, and is akin to another “explanation” much favored by Iranians, both in the country and in the diaspora, namely that the CIA (aided sometimes by the Queen of England in this view of the world) makes everything happen. It totally rejects the notion that the mullahs have simply made a mistake, or don’t really know what they’re doing after all.
Yet the mullahs make countless mistakes. They were defeated by the United States and its allies in Iraq. They have just been humiliated by the Lebanese people in an election most smart people thought Hezbollah was going to win. And somehow they seem not to have developed an atomic bomb just yet, after a good twenty years of trying, and despite the best efforts of friends in Pakistan, Russia, Georgia, China, North Korea and even Germany. And they’ve wrecked the national economy, despite a tsunami of petrodollars. That’s quite an impressive record of incompetence.
The Iranian people have suffered from the effects of that incompetence, and they want an end to it. And this explains, I think, why Mousavi–who has been totally out of power for two decades–is the most attractive of the four candidates running for the presidency. I do not think Ahmadinezhad can win this thing, nor does Mehdi Karrubi, a constant fixture of the regime from the get-go. Mousavi is clearly the favorite, but if you’re looking for a dark horse, bet on Mohsen Rezai, from the Revolutionary Guards. If there’s a runoff, he might patch together a coalition to block Mousavi.
There is a further question, on which the future of Iran may well hinge: what will happen after the elections? The hatred for the regime has returned to the streets, in significant numbers, and the defenders of the regime are numerous and well armed. Is either side prepared to accept the verdict of an election that will be widely viewed as corrupt? Will those who today chant “Death to the dictator” quietly go home if Mousavi is “defeated”? On the other hand, will those who have invested their lives and their religious convictions in hatred of the West, quietly go home if Mousavi is “elected”? Or is Iran headed for open internal conflict, whoever “wins”? And in that case, what should the West do?
I think there’s a good chance of violence, starting Friday night. I don’t think either side is likely to take defeat gracefully. At that point, those security forces who have been so notably absent in recent days will almost certainly reappear, and attempt to reimpose “order” of the sort the demonstrations have been aimed against. The security forces have the guns, the chains, and the torture cells on their side. In a showdown in the streets, the anti-regime forces have only numbers. But that might be enough. Gorbachev had the KGB on his side, lest we forget. And yet, Soviet Communism ended feebly.
Iran has a revolutionary tradition (three, perhaps four revolutions in the twentieth century), and the country is certainly in a revolutionary condition. It is always surprising when a revolution occurs, but it would be less surprising in today’s Iran. I think that a successful non-violent revolution was all ready to go in 2003, when the Bush Administration, in the person of Secretary of State Powell, told the Iranians we would do nothing to help them. The air went out of the balloon.
But things are different now. The Iranians do not expect any help from the outside world. Bush did not help them, to his shame, and nobody thinks Obama would lift a finger for Iranian dissidents. They’re on their own, just as the Lebanese voters were a few days ago. I think many Lebanese decided that they’d better take a stand against Hezbollah before all hope for freedom was lost. Many Iranians may well reason the same way.
If violence breaks out, what will the West do? Probably nothing, except express concern, and call for sweet reasonableness. Good luck with that! What should the West do? Support freedom in Iran. Nothing would so transform the region as a free government, dedicated to good relations with the West. Such a government would end the profligate spending on terrorism and devote the country’s resources to domestic concerns. Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and the other jihadis, would be dramatically weakened. Syria’s Bashar Assad would suddenly find himself without his big brother in Tehran. If you want to dream of peace in the Middle East, a free Iran is at the heart of your Utopia.
Finally, for those who unaccountably continue to believe that the most important thing in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict, the best chance is once again a free Iran that worries about Iranians instead of Palestinians. There is no chance of peace so long as Tehran runs the terror movements. But if the terrorists have to raise their own money, find their own weapons, and train their own killers, things might get a lot easier.
Of course, life is full of surprises. Khamenei might endorse the sitting president, Ahmadinezhad might yet be “reelected,” and he might put down the protests quickly and efficiently. But I doubt it.