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

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.