The shrinking number of loyalists around the Ayatollah Khamenei are shaken by their failure to break the will of the opposition.
By Michael Ledeen
June 12, 2010
Today is the first anniversary of the fraudulent election that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, igniting huge demonstrations all over Iran. At the time, very few outside observers believed that most Iranians hated the regime of “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad and were willing to risk their lives to bring it down.
Having failed to recognize the intensity and dimensions of the opposition, many Iran observers performed a neat about-face, concluding that the regime was doomed and would be brought down in the near future. Yet while there have been many demonstrations this past year, the regime has brutally fought back, killing or arresting hundreds if not thousands of real or suspected critics. Although not a day goes by without protests (typically at universities), large, organized demonstrations are too risky.
So is the new Iranian revolution fizzling? Has the regime taken firm control? The reality is that the regime’s leaders are frightened, and everyone from the Ayatollah Khamenei down the dark labyrinths of this remarkably cheerless state knows that the only hope for the regime’s survival is to intimidate the opposition.
Thus, the mass arrests of workers, intellectuals, filmmakers and any woman who shows a bit of hair under her veil. (Much of this brutality has been carried out by foreign forces, notably Hezbollah thugs brought in from Lebanon and Syria, adding to Iranians’ rage.) Thus, the unprecedented ban on laughing or telling jokes recently promulgated at the Shiraz Medical School. Thus, the epidemic of executions, five and six a day of late. Many go unreported; the bodies simply disappear. The regime fears the dead almost as much as the living.
To say that the regime is unpopular is a gross understatement. A week ago Friday marked the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah and established the theocratic tyranny that’s ruled the country ever since. Leaders called for a massive turnout to celebrate the Islamic Republic, and they bragged that millions of supporters would come to the Tehran cemetery where Khomeini’s remains are interned. More than 50,000 buses were deployed for the effort, and supporters were offered free food and drink as well as free subway transportation to the shrine.
The event was a fiasco. There were more buses than demonstrators. And when Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan, rose to ask why there was such a pitiful turnout in honor of his grandfather, he was shouted down by the thugs of the Basij, a paramilitary security force recently elevated to full standing in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, lest he publicly expose their failure to mobilize any meaningful support.
The failure to mobilize even 100,000 of the faithful was duly noted by the leaders of the opposition Green movement, who issued a challenge to the interior minister: Let’s have two days of celebration of your so-called electoral victory. You get this Friday, a holiday, and we’ll take Saturday, the beginning of the work week. Let’s see what the turnouts tell us about the wishes of our people. The regime’s response was automatic: Stay off the streets or we’ll crush you.
Meanwhile, Iranian human-rights organizations tirelessly report on the dreadful treatment of political prisoners, and Green movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi ceaselessly demand their release. In the past year, the Greens have rapidly expanded their movement, reaching out to workers’ organizations, women’s groups, ethnic and religious minorities, veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, and a plethora of brave clerics including the Ayatollah Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, who continues to denounce the Islamic Republic from a cell in Evin prison where he’s been confined since October 2006.
The clearest indicator of the strength of the opposition is that the regime has not moved directly against its leaders. There are endless warnings, most recently from the Ayatollah Khamenei at the Khomeini tomb, where he pointedly observed that even some of those who had accompanied Khomeini in 1979 on his triumphant return from exile were later executed for treason.
Despite the threats, Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi remain politically active. And while they are careful to insist that all they want is respect for the Iranian constitution, it’s clear to anyone who reads their words or hears their underground broadcasts that the Islamic Republic would not survive their victory.
But such limited actions are not likely to bring down a regime prepared to kill any number of its own people. The Green movement may well be larger than before, and regime leaders may well fear for their survival, but sooner or later there will be a showdown, most likely sooner. The regime is riven by internal conflict, and some of the past heroes of the Islamic Republic are openly siding with the Greens. This was seen in a dramatic television interview last week with the former defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, who enraged his interviewer by supporting many Green demands for greater freedom.
The shrinking number of loyalists around the Ayatollah Khamenei are clearly shaken by their failure to either mobilize significant support or break the will of the opposition. What will they do if, as seems inevitable, there are significant challenges from the Greens today and in the weeks hereafter? Protests could intensify leading up to the July 9 anniversary of the savage 1999 massacre of thousands of students and critics.
The regime is hollow, but it kills a lot of Iranians. Eventually the Greens, who have preached and usually practiced nonviolence, may fight back. There have been reports of antiregime violence already: A petroleum refinery in the south was recently torched, and the head of the Iranian Automobile Industries in Syria—in reality one of Hezbollah’s top logistics officers—was gunned down in Damascus a few weeks back.
The West has a lot at stake in the outcome of the Iranian crisis. Were the regime to fall, a Green successor government—most likely to be headed by Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi for at least a while—would end support for terrorism in such hot spots as Iraq and Afghanistan and, at a minimum, cut back on the deals that the Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad have made with Venezuela, Syria and Turkey. The Russians were active players in that game for several years but have recently chastised the mullahs, perhaps foreseeing a change in regime.
Western support for the Greens would do wonders for opposition morale, catalyze the undecided, and perhaps contain the looming violence. Yet no Western government is even talking to the Green leaders, let alone embracing their cause. This fecklessness advances neither our interests nor those of the brave Iranians who are fighting to join the civilized world. Even the watered-down sanctions enacted this month by the U.N. Security Council represent a challenge to the regime, although they do not touch its Achilles’ heel: crude oil and petroleum products. We should do much more.
One can imagine the Green movement’s leaders quoting Martin Luther King Jr., speaking a half-century ago of another struggle for freedom and respect: “In the end,” he said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Mr. Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is the author of “Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).