Last June, when I was in Iran to cover the presidential election for The Nation, I happened to run into a middle-aged Iranian war veteran on the street. I was on my way to President Ahmadinejad’s campaign office to in a vain effort to arrange an interview with his campaign manager. Nearby was Ahmadinejad’s presidential office complex, and the man who approached me worked in that office. He pulled up his shirt to show me his war wounds, suffered during his service in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Without much prompting, he told me what he thought of the clerical regime that controls Iran.
“The mullahs are like idols,” he said. “They must be broken!”
In today’s Iran, that is not an unusual sentiment.
A year earlier, during another visit to Iran, dozens of Iranians told me point blank that it was time for regime change. Walking into the vast and sprawling Tehran bazaar, a centuries-old marketplace, two brothers pulled me aside. “Do you know the mullahs?” one of them asked me. “We hate them. They are stupid.”
At rallies for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister who led the Green Movement, it wasn’t uncommon for rallygoers to tell me that the problem wasn’t Ahmadinejad, but the whole concept of an Islamic republic. Many of the supporters of Mousavi supported the bearded intellectual and his activist, artist wife in spite of their professed allegiance to the clerical regime, seeing a Mousavi victory as a stepping stone to far more sweeping change.
The story in the New York Times today by Robert Worth reflects that sentiment. Called “In Iran, Protests Gaining a Radical Tinge,” Worth reports that many of the protestors in the current round of demonstations are adopting outright regime-change demands. In one case, he says, protestors did the unthinkable: they “burned an image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution.” Last June, I flew into Tehran airport with Worth, who’d been assigned to cover the Iran story because Michael Slackman, the paper’s bureau chief in Cairo, was persona non grata in Iran, adn he now covers Iran from Beirut. Worth’s story today ought to be read in full, but here’s an excerpt:
“During Monday’s demonstrations, the civil tone of many earlier rallies was noticeably absent. There was no sign of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, a moderate figure who supports change within the system, and few were wearing the signature bright green of his campaign.
“Instead, the protesters, most of them young people, took direct aim at Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chanting, ‘Khamenei knows his time is up!’ They held up flags from which the ‘Allah’ symbol — added after Iran’s 1979 revolution — had been removed.”
For some time now, it’s been clear that even many of the reformists and establishment figures who form the opposition have been caught in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, they’ve found themselves leading a mass movement for change that was building momentum even before the fraudulent, June 12 election results were announced. On the other hand, most of them are regime loyalists who want to preserve the system, if not its leaders. As a result, there is a growing chorus inside Iran of moderates and reformists demanding that the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seek to compromise with the opposition before the entire edifice comes crashing down. So far, at least, there isn’t a shred of evidence that the leadership of Iran is compromise-minded — quite the opposite. In fact, it’s increasingly apparent that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad represent a government that looks like a naked military-authoritarian one, and they seem ready to use force, including stepped-up assassination and harassment of Iranians abroad to preserve their rule.
But here’s the point.
The political earthquake shaking Iran is far more important than Iran’s quixotic quest for nuclear weapons. I’ve noted in this column that the “political clock” in Tehran is ticking faster that the “nuclear clock.” Put another way: Iran’s political superstructure is likely to collapse long before Tehran can find its way to becoming a nuclear-armed power. That’s a view that is fairly widely accepted; in fact, last summer a very senior Israeli official told me that he is convinced that Iranian politics is now moving more quickly than nuclear development.
For the Obama administration, what this all means is that the so-called nuclear crisis over Iran isn’t really a crisis at all. Certainly, Iran has the right to conduct nuclear research and to enrich uranium, on its own soil, for peaceful purposes. It isn’t at all clear that the current rulers of Iran have peaceful purposes in mind, of course. But they might not be around long enough to worry about. Whether the regime survives depends, in no small part, on what Obama does. If the United States pushed too hard to crippling economic sanctions, while deemphasizing the diplomatic engagement with Tehran, it will only strengthen the hardliners, weaken the opposition, and push Iran into a closer alliance with China and Russia. The turmoil in Iran is cooking away. Like a souffle, it needs time to rise. Jumping up and down on the kitchen floor, banging the pots and pans, and other signs of violent impatience won’t help.