These are hopeful and perilous times in Tehran. Ever since the blatant fraud of Iran’s June 12th presidential election, popular opposition to that country’s ruling clerical order has been on the rise, leading more and more observers to wonder whether Iran could really be on the cusp of another revolution.
Maybe so. But any analysis of the current situation in Iran must begin with the acknowledgement that revolutions, properly understood, are notoriously hard to predict. Almost no one in the West accurately forecast the single largest totalitarian collapse in modern history, the fall of the Soviet Union, despite a plethora of Kremlinologists who made it their stock-in-trade to understand the levers of Soviet power. Still, as great thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Eric Hoffer have detailed, there are at least two variables that are useful for gauging the strength and viability of a revolutionary movement over time.
The first is leadership. Ideological movements need charismatic personalities capable of harnessing popular discontent and channeling it in a coherent direction. Three decades ago, Iran’s Shah was swept from power by just such a leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose fiery sermons and radical ideas about Islamic government ignited the imagination of dissatisfied Iranians.
Today, things are very different. The mass protests visible on Iran’s streets are certainly emotional and evocative, but for the moment they remain chaotic and unfocused. The Iranians participating in them are doing so as individuals, driven by justifiable personal outrage over a stolen election and regime repression, rather than as a collective animated by a coherent political vision. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the soft-spoken “reformist” presidential challenger at the center of the current controversy, has proven to be little help on that score. In his speeches and pronouncements, Mousavi has made clear that his goal is not an abandonment of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, but what amounts simply to a cosmetic reform of it. More authentic opposition leaders, meanwhile, are notably absent — a casualty of the West’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear pursuit in recent years, which has allowed the regime to systematically eliminate potential opponents unnoticed and unhindered.
The second variable has to do with the use of force. In authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the guys with the guns matter a great deal. When those forces remain loyal to their government in the face of public unrest, as they did in China in 1989, the results are often brutal. When they do not — like, for example, in the case of Ceausescu in Romania — the regime in power invariably totters and falls.
So it is with the Islamic Republic. Since taking power in 1979, Iran’s ayatollahs have put a premium on the use of force as an instrument of domestic politics and foreign policy. Their weapons of choice are the feared Revolutionary Guard and its domestic derivative, the Basij, which cumulatively serve as the enforcers of clerical doctrine. And so far, neither organ shows much sign of parting ideological ways with their longtime leaders, nor do its members give any indication of having second thoughts about turning their weapons on their own countrymen. Until they do, the possibility of a repeat in Tehran of China’s bloody Tiananmen Square massacre remains real.
Iran’s clerical leaders have said as much. “It must be determined at the ballot box what the people want and what they don’t want, not in the streets,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned on Friday. “I call on all to put an end to this method…. If they don’t, they will be held responsible for the chaos and the consequences.” The regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters over the weekend, and the specter of worse yet to come, has made clear that he is a man of his word.
It is still to early to tell if the revolutionary stirrings visible on Iran’s streets will wither on the vine. What is already clear, however, is that a struggle is underway for Iran’s soul. It will be determined by the coherence and organization of Iran’s political opposition — and by the ruthlessness of the regime that it is confronting.