There is only one conflict in Iran today, to paraphrase Viktor Yushchenko — and it is between the regime and the people.
You wouldn’t know that from watching the news channels on TV in America today, or from reading sites like CNN World, featuring lonely wire service stories on what’s going on in Tehran. But news and images streamed in all day from Facebook and Twitter with reports from individuals on the ground — reports of students standing up to the onrushing military and police forces, of rocks and fire and tear gas, and even of clerics protesting the election’s result. Taken together, the scene appears to be the most violent protests in Iran in decades.
Many of these reports are unverified, as everything from within the fog of war tends to be. But the images and videos coming through are not. And Agence France Press has reported that at least ten leaders of two Iranian reformist political groups have been arrested. And throughout the day, access to means of communication were restricted.
Of course, the ludicrousness of this situation is that anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Iran knew in advance what the result of this election had to be: the mullahs determine who wins and who loses, a fact that has nothing to do with the actual votes cast at the ballot box. So even though the majority of Iran’s 84% turnout may have intended a very different outcome, the result is not so much a coup as politics as usual. As one Iranian voter told Time magazine through tears of frustration: “They tricked us into this whole thing. They got us out in droves, only to fool us and credit themselves…I even got five of my family members who had not voted since the revolution to come out and vote. Shame on me!”
Yet this result comes at a moment when the younger generation in Iran, now grown old enough to rebel with more organization and effect than when they were just upset college students, is at a turning point. John Podhoretz provides a summation:
For more than a decade, we’ve been hearing about the real Iran—the one whose youth is Westernized, desirous of connection with the United States, and tired of living in a theocracy. It’s too soon to know whether the protests today in Iran represent the fruition of the ideas about popular sentiment and the possibility of an uprising. But it is clear that this is a time of testing for the idea that the mullahcracy can be shaken to its foundations by an aggrieved populace. If it can’t, then the regime will prove itself stronger than some of its most heated critics say it is, and the world will have to adjust accordingly. If this is Tienanmen II, and the regime crushes it, there will be no easy approach to regime change. And there will be no pretending any longer that Iran’s regime isn’t a unified, hardline, irridentist, and enormously dangerous one.
Unfortunately, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is not exactly the paradigm-shifting reformist the Western press has made him out to be. The reason neoconservatives like Daniel Pipes have professed support for the current president is that Ahmadinejad’s extremist statements exposed the blatant radicalism of the Iranian regime, ruled by Spiritual Leader Ali Hoseini Khameini (the president is merely his flunky in Iran’s system of rule). Even if given the presidency, the reform-minded Mousavi will not have any real impact on nuclear policy or other areas that threaten America’s interests in the Middle East.
Yet this does not make him any less important. At the moment, Mousavi has become a symbolic expression of the disenfranchisement of the populace, his victimhood the fuel for a social uprising that resembles in so many ways the Tiananmen student movement whose anniversary the world marked just days ago. Supreme Leader Khameini has officially endorsed the Ahmedinejad victory, meaning that the revolt going on in Iran at this moment is not a revolt within the system, but against it. Mousavi is no longer just another politician, but he has by his actions become an enemy of the Islamic Republic — a republic in name only — and the protesters today have joined with him in this action. This is not the sort of thing that the ruling authorities will forget or forgive. There will be consequences, and they will almost assuredly be bloody.
Secretary of State Clinton has voiced her concerns about the election result, while the White House reiterated its offers of dialogue with the Iranian regime. It is a strikingly disturbing thought that President Obama would do such a thing, in the wake of the events of the past few days — granting legitimacy to the Mad Hatter of Tehran — but this is obviously his decision. Let us hope someone will call the president’s mind to a higher purpose, to catch hold of a moment when his support for freedom has the potential to have a very real impact.
“Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders. In such cases, the very repressiveness of the state ultimately drives people to resist it, if necessary, by force. While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”
Ronald Reagan said it nearly 27 years ago. The world needs to say it today.