The Struggle for Iran
The Islamic Republic is alive but not well
Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Assuming the opposition can hang on, it wouldn’t be surprising to see other brave souls come forward. When people are getting jailed, tortured, and killed, furious relatives in proud accomplished families can rise up. They might come from the clergy, the Revolutionary Guard Corps itself, or, like Mousavi, the lay religious notables. One day we won’t see them; the next day we will. The real issue for the opposition, and the regime, is how many Iranians are willing to die for political change. The frightened and paranoid way the regime reacted to the death of the beautiful Neda Agha-Soltan should tell everyone how scared Khamenei’s people are of women dying for the cause. Iran’s reform movement has in great part been pushed forward by women. A deeply conservative society in rapid social transition, the Islamic Republic doesn’t handle well brutality aimed at females—even highly Westernized ones. Kill a woman from the wrong family, and the regime could have hell to pay.
For the opposition, the post-June 12 tumult arrived too soon. The regime’s successful crackdown will now force the opposition to think about what it wants and when. More Iranians, especially the religiously conservative who have no affection for Khamenei but also have an acute fear of chaos, need to get a clearer vision of what the Green movement stands for. The movement will probably need to reconcile its Westernized secular wing, who carry pictures of Khomeini in the streets as defensive shields, with the religious dissidents, who sincerely shout Allahu akbar! (“God is most great!”) against theocracy. Formulating a governing philosophy while the regime’s security services are trying to throw you in prison will not be easy. But the Islamic Republic has had a vivid literary culture for an autocracy: Dissident ideas somehow get published and passed around.
Khamenei may try to suppress Iranians’ argumentative side, but it will be difficult for him to do so. A good dissident model, which the older members of the opposition know well, is Khomeini’s Hukumat-e Islami, “Islamic Government,” a collection of lectures that became his revolutionary blueprint. The more the opposition can provoke debate, the more likely it can shear off Khamenei’s supporters. The opposition certainly knows after February 11 that it’s in a long battle with Khamenei and his guards. The young and undoubtedly impatient Iranians who took to the streets after the June 12 elections, like the hundreds of thousands of Iranian exiles who have come alive watching their brothers and sisters fight the tyranny that drove them abroad, have time and probably Islam on their side. What they need most now are their poorer countrymen, the Basijis’ relatives, to join their side. Basijis cannot kill these people. They are the key to Khamenei’s fall.
Which brings us to what America should do while the Iranians fight this out. It’s an odd fate that the United States should have as president a man with Muslim third-world roots who conducts foreign policy in the manner of George H.W. Bush. Under Democratic and Republican presidents, the United States fought a cold war against the Islamic Republic, waiting for the regime to start cracking from its internal contradictions. That’s now actually happening, and we’ve heard faint praise from the administration for the Iranians who are struggling against a regime that has repeatedly shed American blood. We are witnessing the most momentous struggle for the Muslim heart and soul in the Middle East, between despotism and democracy, religious militancy and moderation, and President Obama gives the distinct impression that he’d rather have a nuclear deal with Khamenei than see the messiness that comes when autocracy gives way to representative government.
Instead of using his bully pulpit and crippling gas sanctions, which he might well be able to cajole and coerce our European allies into supporting, the president wastes energy and time in the Sisyphean task of getting the Russians and Chinese to agree to U.N. measures that won’t impede the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The president need not use the phrase “regime change,” but he should know that only through “political evolution” (that sounds better) will we see Iran forgo nuclear weapons. It really ought to be obvious by now that unless Khamenei is on his knees, he’s not going to stop uranium enrichment. His commitment to developing nukes is probably as strong as was Khomeini’s determination to destroy Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The shock that stopped Khomeini—the realization that the conflict was threatening his regime’s survival—ought to tell us what kind of shock we need now. Sanctions must complement the only thing that has so far terrified the regime: the pro-democracy Green movement.
President Obama could rightly claim that his outreach policy toward the Islamic Republic helped create the tumult that we’ve seen since June 12. But it’s a bow that the president so far hasn’t wished to take. John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary for Iran and a former hostage, wrote a wonderful little book about his favorite country. The title, Iran: At War with History, captures what’s been going on in Persia since Limbert spent 444 days in captivity there. President Obama likes to describe himself as a “student of history.” If so, he should appreciate how far Iranians have come since 1979. They are an old and great people struggling desperately to integrate the humane political traditions of the West with their own culture and faith. The American president should lend them a helping hand.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.