The Magazine

The June 12 Revolution

Whatever happens in Tehran, there's no going back to the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.