The Magazine

The June 12 Revolution

Whatever happens in Tehran, there's no going back to the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Khamenei, who worked with and struggled against Mousavi for a decade, knows the former prime minister politically as well as anyone. The supreme leader knows that what Mousavi lacks in charisma he has always made up in doggedness. That Khamenei baited the candidate, and so carelessly denied millions of Iranians the illusion that their votes mattered, shows how insular and insecure Khamenei, a politicized cleric of some intellectual sensitivity, has become in his august office. Whatever Mousavi has inside, it was enough to scare Khamenei profoundly, and not just because the supreme leader didn't want to hand a victory to Rafsanjani, Khamenei's brother-in-arms-turned-foe. Without Rafsanjani, the reformist cleric Mohammed Khatami would never have risen to the presidency, which he held from 1997 to 2005. Once Khatami was in office, both Khamenei and Rafsanjani worked to gut the reform movement that enveloped him. Regardless of their deep personal differences, Khamenei and Rafsanjani no doubt could work together in the future to gut Mousavi if the Machiavellian Rafsanjani felt so inclined.

For now, though, Rafsanjani is backing Mousavi for his own survival. Ahmadinejad dreams of downing Rafsanjani and his entire spoiled clan. For the poor-boy former Revolutionary Guardsman who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani is the quintessential target of the anti-mullah jokes that are a staple of life among Iran's poor. Ahmadinejad also undoubtedly remembers that Rafsanjani, for good reason, once tried to abolish Ahmadinejad's beloved Revolutionary Guard by folding them into Iran's regular army.

Similarly, Khamenei backs Ahmadinejad overwhelmingly for one reason: fear of Khatami. (Hurting Rafsanjani is an ancillary pleasure.) Not Khatami personally, but what he represented between 1997, when he won the presidency by a landslide, and 2000, when the regime fully recovered its authoritarian composure. Although certain American analysts like to belittle the historic importance of Khatami ("Really just Khamenei with a smile"), the movement behind him terrified Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran). Among intellectuals, journalists, academics, students, and clerics--and among women from just about every walk of life--an intense discussion began in the mid-1990s about how Iranians could honor the revolution but also leave it behind them. The scholars Olivier Roy and Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Franco-Iranian sociologist who has been the most insightful observer of his homeland, wrote a book in 1999 that captured in its title the mood and debate within the Islamic Republic, Iran: Comment sortir d'une révolution religieuse ("How do you exit a religious revolution?"). Roy and Khosrokhavar were not optimistic that the reform movement could pull it off peacefully. They were right.

Khamenei didn't, at least for a time, share the French scholars' pessimism. Not before or since have we seen such ferment among Iranians about the Western idea of civil liberties. Serious men with impressive Islamic pedigrees tried to devise an Iranian civil society with a bill of rights that could withstand the challenges posed by anti-democratic clerics hurling Islamic law and custom at the importation of Western models, clothed in Muslim dress, into the body politic. The enormous tension between theocracy and democracy, visible in the Islamic Republic from its founding and only quelled in the early years by the awesome, exquisitely Shiite charisma of Khomeini, exploded. Iranian intellectuals, including well-known and fearsomely bright members of the clergy, started to question the very foundations of the Islamic republic--first and foremost the position of supreme leader (velayat-e faqih) that Khomeini had devised for himself, the office that guarantees the marriage of church and state in the person of a nearly all-powerful divine. Anyone who had the pleasure of reading the cornucopia of fresh, provocative Iranian publications in the 1990s knows how ready millions of Iranians were to try greater democracy. There was a severe hunger in the land. There still is.