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.