The modern Middle East has had numerous "game-changing" moments, when history turned. Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798, Muhammad Ali's conquest of the Nile Valley in 1805, and the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 introduced Europeans and European ideas into the region. The British discovery of oil in Persia in 1908, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Saudi conquest of Mecca and Medina in 1925, the awakening of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936, and the God-father-like victory of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo in 1954 further accelerated tradition-crushing Westernization and gave birth to nationalism, pan-Arabism, and contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. The Israeli triumph in the 1967 Six Day War, the Iranian revolution of 1979, the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the birth of Iraqi democracy two years later buried secular pan-Arab dictatorship, politically inflamed the Islamic identity, and set the stage for the growth of representative government in a more religious Middle East.
The Iranian presidential election of June 12 may soon rank with these history-making events. We may well look back on it as the "June 12 revolution" even if--especially if--the regime cracks down on the supporters of Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the candidate who ran second to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the dubious official vote tally. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), which almost destroyed the Islamic Republic and forged the reputation and character of then-Prime Minister Mousavi, most Iranians have been exhausted revolutionaries. More like sheep than foot-soldiers of a dynamic faith, Iranians have largely veered away from confronting their increasingly unpopular rulers.
Now the election appears to have stiffened their backbones and quickened their passions. They've had enough of their unpleasant, joyless lives. The election has given a wide variety of Iranians--many of whom would not voluntarily associate with each other because of religious, political, and social differences--a simple and transcendent rallying cry: One man, one vote! Even the supreme leader's favorite, President Ahmadinejad, must obey the rules. It is in some ways a bizarre situation when hundreds of thousands of Iranians rally to protest the outcome of an election that was rigged from the beginning: All candidates must pass a revolutionary litmus test, and the vast majority of contenders, even from well-respected, nonthreatening families, cannot. Yet it is in part precisely because this election was so strait-jacketed that it has become pivotal.
We don't know yet how aggressively Iran's clerical overlord, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad rigged the balloting. Ahmadinejad remains popular in small town Iran and among the urban poor. His constant attacks on the corrupt revolutionary elite--especially the fabulously wealthy cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who probably bankrolled Mousavi's run for the presidency--resonate, even among highly Westernized Iranians who align themselves with the "pragmatic" Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad's undiminished Islamic zeal, which he marries with Iranian nationalism, appeals to many, especially those who fought in the ghastly Iran-Iraq war and retained their faith. Nevertheless, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad felt compelled to cheat.
It is the crudeness of it all that is so revealing and damning. Although Iranians have a reputation for being subtle, elegant, and polite, their political manners are usually pretty rough. The government blatantly announced a majority of 63 percent for Ahmadinejad less than two hours after the polls closed. If Khamenei had only allowed a respectable delay for counting all the paper ballots, and then had Ahmadinejad win by just a few points (as he might actually have done), the massive protests probably would not have happened. Khamenei surely knew that Mousavi could be a stubborn man, blessed with a real revolutionary's sense of honor and no awe whatsoever for Khamenei's status as successor to the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Mousavi isn't an open book, which has probably redounded to his advantage among his followers. One can drape the Islamic color green (the more typically Shiite black had already been co-opted by the regime) all over Mousavi and no one, including Mousavi, probably has any firm idea of what it means--except to say, We are good Muslims, so don't shoot.
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.
Raised on a diet of mostly Western thought that the creation of the dictatorial Islamic Republic has only amplified, Iranians have had quite a bit of democratic conditioning, that prelude to representative government that "realists" believe a people must experience before they can handle democracy. As Khosrokhavar revealed in his astonishing book Avoir vingt ans au pays des ayatollahs ("To Be Twenty in the Land of the Ayatollahs"), Western ideas--especially feminism and the right of individuals to define themselves--are more powerful today in the deeply conservative holy city of Qom than they were 30 years ago. Khamenei began to realize in the 1990s what Khomeini instinctively knew from a richer understanding of Islamic law and the human condition: A majority of Muslims can do the wrong thing if given a chance.
Khamenei acted so crudely and rashly on June 12 because he'd already seen this movie. What's happening in Iran now is all about democracy, about the contradictory and chaotic bedfellows that it makes, about the questioning of authority and the personal curiosity that it unleashes. Khamenei knows what George H.W. Bush's "realist" national security adviser Brent Scowcroft surely knows, too: Democracy in Iran implies regime change. Where Iranians in the 1990s could try to play games with themselves--be in favor of greater democracy but refrain from saying publicly that the current government was illegitimate--this fiction is no longer possible. Khamenei has forced Mousavi and, more important, the people behind him into opposition to himself and the political system he leads. Unless Mousavi gives up, and thereby deflates the millions who've gathered around him, a permanent opposition to Khamenei and his constitutionally ordained supremacy has now formed. Like it or not, Mousavi has become the new Khatami--except this time the opposition is stronger and led by a man of considerable intestinal fortitude.
Everyone in Tehran may have crossed the Rubicon. It was always questionable whether the office of the velayat-e faqih would survive Khamenei; he has now pretty much guaranteed that it will not. If it turns out that Mousavi has actually had one of those life-changing epiphanies that sometimes happen on the Iranian "left"--the cases of Abdullah Nuri, Iran's boldest clerical dissident who was interior minister under Rafsanjani and Khatami, and Saeed Hajjarian, a dark lord of Iran's intelligence service who became a source for some of the nation-rattling exposés about domestic assassination teams in the '90s, come to mind--who knows what could happen if Khamenei were so stupid as to rerun the election fairly.
Mousavi would probably win, perhaps by a wide margin, since he would have already faced down Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in a head-to-head battle. The prestige, attraction, and fear of established power, what the Iranians have historically called heybat, would have vanished. And if the winning margin were large enough, it's possible that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, with whom Khamenei has made a Faustian power-sharing bargain, would back down from a military coup. The Corps is not a monolith. As it has greatly expanded in size, incorporating itself into Iran's economy and placing its graduates in every university, its rank-and-file members have probably become more attentive to the national mood of doom and gloom. The observations of Bernard Hourcade, a regular visitor to Iran and the longtime head of the Iranian studies program at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, about the pro-Khatami sympathies of many Pasdaran in the 1990s were probably sound.
The smart money should still be on a coup by the Revolutionary Guard if Khamenei does not stand firm against Mousavi and a repeat of the 1990s. But a coup is not a foregone conclusion. It is a mistake to see the Mousavi-Ahmadinejad split as one of class and education, or of urban versus rural, or more secular versus more religious. These factors are real, but so are countervailing forces that have given Mousavi a good deal of support among men and women of all classes and religious dispositions who are fed up with the spiritual depression that has been the Islamic Republic's most notable gift to its people. Modernity has been no kinder to the clerical regime than it was to the shah. Like Khatami before him, Mousavi has tapped into this profound frustration, which thanks largely to Khamenei's missteps is turning into anger.
The Guard's commanders, who are among the most ideologically committed Islamists in Iran, certainly would be willing to kill their countrymen to protect the system they cherish. But there may be cracks in the rank and file's esprit that are hard for outsiders to see. Whether Khamenei fears this is impossible to know. He's probably not so blinded by personal dislike that he fails to register Mousavi's war-gained, nation-saving reputation, which surely counts with older Guardsmen. If the street demonstrations continue and Khamenei continues to blink (asking the Guardian Council to review "possible" voter fraud and thus showing himself to be off-balance and unwilling to hammer Mousavi and his followers), then it's a reasonable guess that Khamenei does not trust the Pasdaran. He may think they will go too far in oppressing the opposition--or that they will be unwilling to do what all dictatorships must be able to do when challenged.
No matter what happens, the Islamic Republic as we have known it is probably over. All regimes need some sense of legitimacy to survive, and the Islamic Republic has rested on two pillars. One is the belief that the people of Iran continue to back the Islamic revolution and the essentials of the political system that has developed since. Cynics may say that the regime has never really believed this, that dictatorships always only pretend that they are popular but really know they are unloved. Although cynicism isn't uncommon among Iranians, the illusion of representative government backing the Islamic revolution has been inextricable from Iran's identity since 1979. The ruling elite, in their domestic and foreign propaganda, have prided themselves on the image of a country that is both more religious and more populist than any other Muslim country in the Middle East. Khamenei's speeches, unlike Khomeini's, often focus on the God-fearing, virtuous Iranian people as a source of his strength and the strength of the entire Muslim world. Khomeini really did think of himself as a long-awaited Shiite manifestation of God's will. The Iranian people weren't important to his ability to communicate with the Almighty. By contrast, Khamenei is somewhat humble and earthbound. He needs the Iranian nation's approval in ways that were utterly foreign to his predecessor. If Iran collapses into just another military dictatorship, this populist raison d'être goes with it.
The second critical pillar of support has been the republic's appeal to both traditional and revolutionary Shiism, which means most concretely the regime's embrace of the clergy as a means of legitimating the state. The differences among clerics can be enormous--many despise Khamenei for his political presumption and educational mediocrity. But the clergy is still a brotherhood. And it has been, even at its crankiest, an institution wedded to Khomeini's Islamic Republic. As much as Khamenei may scorn his more juridically accomplished and conservative brothers, he needs them. If Khamenei makes the wrong move in the next few weeks and ends up giving a green light to the slaughter of young Iranians on the streets, he'll probably lose the clergy, all but the most retrograde, who do not represent the clerical establishment.
A coup by the Revolutionary Guard would be an unmitigated disaster in the eyes of most mullahs, who have jealously guarded their preeminent position in society. Qom and perhaps even Mashhad, an important clerical and pilgrimage site where Khamenei has his financial power-base, would go into permanent opposition. Iraq's great clerical training ground in Najaf, the most sacred of Shiism's "gateways" to heaven, where an Iranian, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, presides, would likely become more assertive in expressing its views on how good Shiites everywhere should live. Sistani is already probably the most widely respected religious guide in Iran, in part because he's seen as a democracy-supporting ayatollah of moderate views who has refrained from dictating to his flock. It's impossible to know how all of this would play out, but a coup by the Pasdaran would surely make Iran a much nastier place, where the Guards would have to keep a brutal hand on society. The clever flexibility of Iran's clerical dictatorship--knowing when to oppress the dissatisfied and when to allow them room to play--would be replaced by a regime profoundly foreign to the Persian way.
It's not difficult to foresee the Islamic Republic spiritually unraveling. If it does, the most important experiment of Islamist ideology since the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood will have proven itself--to its own people, to the clerical guardians of the faith, and to the world--a -failure. Unless Mousavi withdraws and leads his followers in a renewed quietist retreat, the Islamic revolution, which shook the Muslim world 30 years ago, will now become either a real laboratory of democracy or a crude and violent dictatorship that might rival the Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria in its savagery. Either outcome would be momentous.
It's a pity that President Obama has trapped himself in a doomed outreach to Khamenei. Even if Mousavi wins the present tug-of-war, he'll probably support Iran's continued development of nuclear weapons. He was in office when the Islamic Republic first became serious about building the bomb; his powerful backer, Rafsanjani, is the true father of the nuclear program; and there is little reason why Mousavi would want to anger a pro-nuclear Revolutionary Guard Corps that had refrained from downing him.
But for there to be any chance that Iran will cease and desist from its nuclear quest, Mousavi must win the present struggle. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei triumph, they will not relent. For them, and for the Revolutionary Guard behind them, nuclear weapons are the means to become global players and secure the power they can no longer confidently draw from their own people. Triumphant, the Revolutionary Guard, who have overseen all of the Islamic Republic's outreach efforts to Arab extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah, will surely get nastier abroad as they become more vicious at home.
The principal issue right now inside Iran isn't the nuclear question. It's what it has been since Khomeini died: How do you escape from a religious revolution? Mousavi might, just might, have an answer. Even if he is not our friend--and turns out to be in many ways our enemy--we should all pray that he wins. President Obama would do well to be just a bit more forceful in defending democracy for a people who must surely have earned his respect. Iranians will forgive the president his "meddling." He does carry, after all, the name of the man--Hussein, the prophet's grandson--who long ago defined Shiism's boundless admiration for those who defend their people and their faith from tyranny.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.