Supreme leader Ali Khamenei had a good day on February 11. If the pro-democracy Green movement had managed to send hundreds of thousands of demonstrators once again onto Tehran’s streets, his heybat—the indispensable awe behind dictatorship—would have been finished. Backed by an enormous security force drawn from all over the country, the regime let the world know that Khamenei still rules. So is the opposition finished? And has the Islamic Republic’s theocracy now mutated into a crude police state, an Iranian version of the Arab autocracies that become ever more unpopular and lifeless but don’t collapse?
The answer to both questions is “no.” Although the leaders of the Green movement—Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami—and the college-educated foot-soldiers of the cause may doubt it, they, too, had a decent day. They survived. They’ve also learned a lesson that former prime minister Mousavi already knew: The opposition needs to expand its base into the poor quarters of Tehran and other large cities. The regime has essentially ceded the universities and the middle and upper classes to the opposition. This is a large strategic base. Apart from Turkey, Iran is the best-educated Muslim country in the Middle East. Education is highly valued; even the most conservative religious families send beloved daughters to Iran’s best secular universities. Although the Islamic Republic’s rulers have periodically waged war on higher education and its pernicious habit of turning “good Muslims” into inquiring minds, the revolution opened universities to the poor. The quality of an Iranian education isn’t what it was under the shah, but universities have remained remarkably resilient institutions that incubate democratic sympathies.
Odds are the opposition has an army of fans among the poor—the so-called mostazafan, “the oppressed,” whom the regime has always counted on. And when their intelligent sons and daughters go to school, they too often become democratic dissidents. But the Green movement has not figured out how to mobilize its impoverished friends (it’s barely figured out how to mobilize the educated middle class). Although the 1979 Islamic revolution, like all revolutions, was a top-down affair, local mosques and their preachers proved effective revolutionary agents among the downtrodden. The Green movement has no equivalent. Without sans-culottes—working-class organizers—it’s hard to see how the opposition can operationally outflank Khamenei’s security services, which have fine-tuned their capacity to find and intimidate those who step forward.
But one shouldn’t get too depressed. If the opposition can hang together philosophically (having family members beaten and imprisoned focuses the mind), it can afford to be patient. Iran has lots of national and religious holidays when the opposition can try again to take the streets. Although the regime can successfully deny the Internet and cell phone communication to its foes for short periods of time, the opposition can go low-tech. Older dissidents no doubt remember that the shah’s secret police were regularly frustrated by anonymous pamphleteering—the famous shabnamehs, “night letters”—that chronicled the king’s sins and helped organize the clerical and lay opposition. Oppression always produces dissident creativity. And Shiism is a faith that extols patience, suffering, and (finally) salvation.
The regime will have to keep an enormous reserve of riot-control forces ready for deployment in Tehran. This will probably leave other cities lightly covered. Although the opposition is disorganized (a virtue when the secret police are prowling), it probably possesses considerable intelligence-collection potential against the security services. Iranian families gossip, and the Iranian ruling elite, especially within the clergy, is a complex matrix of intermarriage, where pro-regime and pro-democracy relatives intermingle. It probably won’t take the opposition too long to figure out which Basij—the lower-class riot-control thugs—and Revolutionary Guard units have been deployed to Tehran and elsewhere. The opposition will have some idea of when these forces come and go. They will increasingly have a better idea of where the regime has let down its guard.
All the opposition must do is keep challenging the authority of Khamenei. This will let Iranians know that the regime isn’t omnipotent. And it will keep alive the possibility that the country’s collective embitterment about the failure of the Islamic revolution to provide prosperity and happiness could explode. A big difference between a Marxist totalitarian system spiritually running out of gas and an Islamic theocracy withering is that faithful Muslims maintain a less forgiving standard of measure: the Holy Law and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and, in the case of Shiite Iranians, the traditions of Ali, the fountainhead of the Shiite creed. Unlike Marxists, Iran’s Islamic rulers cannot just completely make it up as they go along. Although it sounds odd to Westerners, religion does not always play to the advantage of Iran’s avowedly religious government. Faithful Muslims have a deeply held sense of justice—the justice that God promises every believer through the Law. Although Western observers of Iran have a strong tendency to believe that religion has become a contrivance for the powerful, this is wrong.
Certainly, there are members of the Iranian ruling elite who “know not God.” Yet both rulers and ruled are generally men of faith. Marxism had collapsed into utter cynicism by the 1980s. It had earth-bound standards of achievement; it failed them, but Marxists could suppress with gusto any sign of discontent. Man-made morality is infinitely flexible. Iran’s theocrats—and even their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guard Corps—claim to be operating on a higher level. Their regular disregard of the Holy Law can deeply anger the religious (let alone the millions of secular Iranians who now live more or less by Western norms). This is why the regime loathed the recently deceased Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who passionately denied the regime religious legitimacy. The more Iran becomes like a classic police state, the more the regime’s religious base cracks. Even the instruments of oppression—the faithful Guard Corps and the Basij—could have debilitating doubts. In Iran, the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun must contend with long-established Shiite Islamic ethics, which checks totalitarianism and gives the opposition, even the godless Westernized wing, some maneuvering room.
This is why the revolutionary regime has always lived in fear of the unexpected spark, something that would set in motion a tidal wave of disappointment. Historically, Muslims have regularly risen up because of a burning sense of justice denied. Former prime minister Mousavi, a passionate lover of the Islamic revolution, has this sense in spades. It’s a good guess that the regime now sees the potential for sparks in many more places than it did before the fraudulent June 12 elections. The opposition certainly intends to play on this fear. Despite its success in squelching street demonstrations on February 11, the regime remains in a precarious state. It can use brute force to stay in power, but each time it threatens the use of force it risks making a fatal mistake. Iranian culture is martyr-obsessed. If the wrong person gets killed, it could galvanize the opposition. On February 11, the regime deployed overwhelming force and didn’t have to—so far as we know—kill anyone. This was ideal. But if the opposition takes to the streets again, in large numbers or with greater audacity, a deadly collision may be unavoidable.
So far the regime has been lucky in a Shiite way: No really charismatic personality has taken center stage within the opposition. Former prime minister Mousavi is a stubborn and brave man, and he is not without friends inside the Revolutionary Guard. But he does not capture the imagination. And although Karroubi is a live wire capable of scathing criticism of the ruling elite, he, like former president Khatami, always gives the impression that he wishes the post-June 12 tumult had never happened. He has no compelling vision of the future. Khatami, however, does. Alone among the opposition’s VIPs, Khatami could probably play the role of an Iranian James Madison, sketching out a practicable vision of a new republic. But Khatami is conflicted. He remains respectful of Khamenei and the ruling clerics even though he often gives the impression that he hates both. And his fan club has shrunk appreciably since 1997 when he captured 69 percent of the presidential vote.
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.