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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Perhaps Obama will revise his views. He and the rest of us are witnessing the gom shodeh years of Iran's painful escape from theocracy. During the postelection protests, Khamenei gave shoot-to-kill orders to his security services. At least 20 individuals have so far died. Neither the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime's praetorians, nor its more thuggish appendage, the Basij, has shown any sign of siding with the opposition. The regime has not repeated the mistakes of the shah: Where the Pahlavi king had only the imperial army to keep order, Khamenei has numerous security units with their own chains of command. No one seems to know who actually controls the Robocop anti-riot units, which Tehranis often call merrikhiyan ("Martians"). Iranians I've spoken to tell of Azeri Turkish-speaking security forces, perhaps from the provinces of Qazvin and Zanjan, being deployed in Persian-speaking areas of Tehran--a time-tested imperial practice, using "foreigners" against the natives.

Iran's religiously grounded authoritarianism has again driven the country's angry educated youth from the streets and progressive voices from the press. The bravest of the demonstrators will continue to annoy the security forces, but probably won't seriously challenge them. Prominent dissidents and hitherto loyal members of the establishment are being forced to confess their conspiracies and errors of judgment. Most of Iran's most senior ayatollahs, who have never shown any affection for Khamenei, have not actively thrown their support to Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the runner-up in the rigged elections and the de facto leader of the opposition.

Prime minister during the war with Iraq (1980-88), Mousavi continues to reject the balloting, and has strongly implied that the whole structure of dictatorial government with Khamenei's office at the pinnacle--not just the election results--is illegitimate. The odds are good that Khamenei, who has so far refrained from damning Mousavi by name, will make him pay dearly for the assault on the regime. Mousavi's lack of charisma--he makes John Glenn seem an inspiring speaker--has hurt any effort to develop a coherent opposition movement. Mousavi never had his own electoral organization--he just borrowed personnel and tactics from former president Mohammed Khatami, who during his eight years in office (1997-2005) also failed to develop an organization to match his ambitions. Khatami, like Mousavi, has shown some guts in opposing Khamenei (in Khatami's case, it's a notable change from his past meekness in front of the supreme leader). But whether the former prime minister, who probably didn't expect to win the presidential elections and was as shocked as everyone else by the magnitude and passion of the demonstrations after June 12, has the fortitude to continue his stand given the regime's fondness for targeting family members of dissidents is open to question.

The regime has regained control of the streets. Barring the unexpected (security forces shoot dead someone in one of Tehran's vast, impoverished neighborhoods, provoking a riot), Mousavi surely knows that Khamenei has, for now, decisively outflanked him. Hope for reform again appears a long-term affair: Where once Iranians--especially the highly Westernized ones who are the sources for most Western journalists and academics--could believe in the possibility of perceptible, progressive change, they now see little prospect of peaceful evolution.

In America, some within the administration are already insisting the June 12 election doesn't fundamentally change America's national-security interests vis-à-vis the Islamic republic. And recent events are unlikely to change the timeline for the clerical regime to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen's recent conjecture that Tehran would have the bomb in one to three years still seems reasonable.