The Magazine

On Top of a Volcano

The Iranian regime, after the crackdown.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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As Ali Fathi, the pseudonymous Iranian journalist for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, has sadly observed, the most fearful words inside his homeland are now Gom shodeh ("he has disappeared"). In 1999 during student demonstrations against the regime, Fathi himself vanished into the country's secret prisons. He and some other lucky inmates eventually emerged. Many, like Fathi, left Iran, despairing of their future and remembering the fear and loneliness of being unpersons in the Islamic Republic's gulag. The regime probably believed until the elections of this past June 12 that it had eliminated the 1990s reform movement that blossomed under the presidency of Mohammed Khatami. Ali Khamenei, the regime's clerical generalissimo, now knows how difficult it is to suppress an increasingly vibrant democratic ethic that is championed by men who helped make the Islamic revolution.

Iran has not seen so much tumult since 1979. It is an odd twist of fate that, at the very moment when a wide swath of the Iranian people want an end to dictatorship, we have an American president who seeks to make peace with the country's supreme leader--if Khamenei would only make peace with him. True, every president since Ronald Reagan has been eager to get beyond the Islamic revolution. If Khamenei had ever sent his globe-trotting emissary Ali Larijani to Europe with an offer of a high-level, confidential chat, you can rest assured that George W. Bush would have had Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice on the plane to Geneva. (And he would have been right to do so.) This never happened because Khamenei and others--probably including many of the reformists who are now challenging Khamenei's rule--really do believe that the United States is "the Great Satan," "Satan Incarnate," "Global Arrogance," and "the Enemy of all Muslims."

The Obama administration is distressed by what has unfolded in Tehran. The president's tempered response to the demonstrations gradually approached outrage as Khamenei started crushing the protesters. Unfortunately there is little the United States can do to reinforce Iran's growing democratic tendencies. But there are things it definitely should not do, and President Barack Obama seems poised to err profoundly and dangerously.

Before discussing strategy and tactics, however, it is necessary to understand why the Islamic republic is irreversibly in transition, and why the internal tension that exploded after June 12 with a force few foresaw won't go away, despite the crackdown and despite behind-the-scenes efforts by Iran's two great political clerics--Khamenei and his brother-in-arms-turned foe, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--to restore stability to the Islamic Republic.

When trying to understand clerical Iran, the first thing Americans need to realize is that this is not simply a Middle Eastern Muslim power that harbors some negotiable grudge against the United States. George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, like the CIA-backed 1953 coup against Iran's secular nationalist prime minister, is only a footnote to the religious-ideological aversion that the Islamic Republic's elite has for America. When Khamenei and Larijani say they can see no difference between President Obama and his predecessors, they are being analytically accurate. For someone who believes in the Islamic revolution--who sees Iran as the vanguard Islamic nation, led by clerics who will keep the country on the divinely revealed "straight path"--abandoning the struggle against Obama's America would be the ultimate betrayal of God.

Yet President Obama so far does not appear to understand Khamenei and his allies nearly as well as they understand him. For Obama, who has turned his ecumenical autobiography, Dreams from My Father, into foreign policy, religion is not central to identity. As the French Arabist Gilles Kepel astutely noted in Le Monde, the president tried to "Americanize" Islam in his Cairo speech last month, to transform the Middle East's defining religion into something that could cohabit amicably with the West's secularized and latitudinarian creeds. Born to a fallen-away Muslim father (a sad turn of events for a faithful Muslim) and a secular mother, Obama joined a Christian church as an adult. In Cairo he promised to stand guard over Islam, to ensure that Westerners do not insult the faith. President Obama's history- and culture-bending speech was captivating, and for the tiers-mondiste crowd in the Middle East and the West who like their American oratory punctuated with apologies, it was heavenly music. But for Iran's faithful disciples of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it had no appeal. Khamenei immediately attacked Obama for his arrogance.