Iran's Green Wave
Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Just before midnight on a Friday evening a week before Iran's much-disputed June 12 election, the initial tremors of the earthquake that has shaken the country to its core were palpable deep in south Tehran, a gritty, working-class section of the city with a reputation for being a stronghold of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Past shuttered shops and empty, debris-strewn sidewalks, a late-night stream of cars, trucks and motorcycles, engines revving, horns honking, roared along the wide boulevard. From open car windows emerged shouts and cheers, raised fists and hands brandishing posters of opposition contender Mir-Hossein Moussavi's bearded, smiling visage. In the traffic ahead of us, a ramshackle open-air panel truck transported at least two dozen Ahmadinejad supporters clad in T-shirts, jeering at their opponents. As I traveled north from sprawling Imam Khomeini Square up to Ferdowsi Square and on the miles-long Vali Asr Street, the scene was similar. In a country not known for street politics, the tableau was stunning. My Iranian companion, an older man with years of experience in his country's affairs, smiled and shook his head. "This is something new," he said.
Indeed. Just over a year ago, when I visited Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Qom on the eve of the March 2008 parliamentary elections, I spoke to scores of Iranians who were glumly considering whether to drag themselves to the polls and vote for the least-bad candidate or, more likely, not bother to vote at all. In 2009 the contrast could not have been more stark. The city was electric. Into the wee hours tens of thousands campaigned in a citywide free-for-all. Every morning Tehran was abuzz with the latest election news. Men crowded around newsstands to read the headlines and to discuss the previous night's candidate debate. Just inside the main gate to Tehran University, two days before the election, a middle-aged guard who had lost a leg in the war with Iraq in the 1980s marveled at the thousands of students marching past, flying green banners in support of Moussavi's reformist movement. "Enghelab!" he said, nodding. "It's a revolution!" It's a word I'd hear over and over again, from students, office workers, taxi drivers and passersby--before, during and after the election.
Of course, it's not a revolution--not yet, anyway. Although opposition crowds swelled from several tens of thousands at pre-election rallies to perhaps a million or more afterward, the regime controls a vast repressive apparatus. It includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); the police; the paramilitary, mosque-based Basij; vigilante groups like Ansar-e Hezbollah; the army; and a much-dreaded intelligence service, VEVAK, which was responsible for the assassination of hundreds of dissidents and activists in the 1990s. It's a fearsome machine prepared to enforce the dictums of Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the rahbar (Leader), who warned a week after the election that street protests would no longer be tolerated.
And the opposition's leaders are not exactly revolutionaries. The coalition ranged against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a kind of counter-establishment representing a huge split within Iran's secular and clerical elites. It includes the reformists, led by Moussavi, who served as prime minister during the tumultuous and violently repressive 1980s, and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and former speaker of Parliament, both of whom ran against Ahmadinejad. It includes relatively moderate, pragmatic conservatives and the wealthy business elite, typified by the behind-the-scenes role of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily billionaire mullah and wheeler-dealer who was president in the 1990s. And it includes many hardline conservatives from the so-called "principlist" faction, which previously lined up behind Ahmadinejad but this time rallied behind opposition candidate Mohsen Rezai, a founder of the IRGC, who has been bitterly critical of the president and who at least initially claimed election fraud.
But there's no denying that for the first time since the1978-79 revolution, which led to the Islamic Republic, Iran's leadership is confronted with an explosive and unpredictable challenge: from below, a mass movement whose street energy and high-tech organizing savvy spread from Tehran to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and other cities. And within the elite there is a swelling wave of dissatisfaction with the narrow-minded radicals in power, who are blamed for having squandered the country's oil wealth, mismanaged its economy and forced Iran into a crippling regime of sanctions that have walled it off from the technology and foreign investment it desperately needs.
As a result, Iran is at a crossroads.
In one direction is a slide toward greater xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, in part because the radical forces stirred up among Ahmadinejad's electoral base will be hard to put back in the box. The broad consensus behind Iran's system of rule-by-clergy has been shattered, and the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime has lost its legitimacy. To shore up support, it's blaming various greater and lesser satans in the United States, Europe and Israel for Iran's troubles, making it exceedingly difficult for the country to re-establish ties to the West. At best, Iran will remain embroiled in the stalemate it has faced since 2005, with the economy continuing to unravel. At worst, it could fall into North Korea-like isolation, with fundamentalists and the security establishment preaching that subsistence-level economic privation must be endured for the sake of Islamic purity.
At the very least, the clergy-run, quasi-democratic Iranian state has been replaced by something that looks a lot more like a military dictatorship. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has installed scores of ex-commanders from the IRGC throughout government ministries and as governors and local officials in all thirty provinces. Ahmadinejad's cronies have created a powerful clique loyal to Khamenei but, at the same time, encircling the office of the Leader. The conventional wisdom--that the Leader is the all-powerful commander in chief, while the president is an elected figurehead with little real power--may be tilting, if it has not already been turned on its head.
In the other direction, a victory by the opposition--as unlikely as it appears in the wake of the regime's crackdown--might let in a lot of fresh air. It could smooth the path for an accord with the West, pave the way toward greater cultural and civil liberties, and reverse the downward economic spiral. Under this scenario, Iran could still cling to much of its current form of government, though it would be less rigid. But what scares many conservatives, and no doubt much of the establishment, is that this time it might not be so easy to stuff the genie of reform back into its bottle. A large number of those supporting Moussavi--it's impossible to know how many--want far more than reform. They want an end to the very idea of an Islamic Republic. Their hero is Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister who nationalized Iran's oil in 1951, challenged the shah and was toppled in a coup by MI-6 and the CIA in 1953. Reform in Iran is a slippery slope, and once reforms get started the very fabric of the Islamic Republic could unravel.
It's that scenario that Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their IRGC and Basij allies are determined to resist at all costs. And they're prepared to unleash Tiananmen Square levels of violence to make sure it doesn't happen.