What we learned about Iran – and our world – since June 12

It is yet too early to take full stock of what has happened in Iran, but it is likely to have a direct bearing on the fate of our region for years to come. We learned a lot—some of it heartening, much of it depressing, all relevant to the challenges that lie ahead:
  • Iran is a complex and dynamic place, totalitarian and at the same time vibrant and politically mobilized, within the limits of the ideological cage built by the Islamic Revolutionary regime. As one dissident journalist put it, it is not that there is no freedom of speech; rather, there is no freedom after speech. There remain many Iranians, numbering perhaps in the millions, who refuse to internalize the expectations of the regime and fall into line, even under threat of repression. This is not the “Republic of Fear” (Kanaan Makkiya’s chilling description of Saddam’s Iraq) or the North Korean ant colony, where having an opinion is akin to suicide. Iran is a modern, multi-layered society, with a broad range of links beyond its borders; Los Angeles, after all, may be the second largest Persian urban center after Tehran. Iranians struggle over real issues, and express anger and frustration over what the present regime has brought upon the country.
  • It turns out that Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, Iran’s “Guide” (another chilling term) and supreme leader, was right all along when he expressed, again and again, his fears of a “velvet revolution” – drawing on the images of Czechs and Poles, East Germans and Hungarians in 1989, bringing down the Soviet Empire without a shot being fired. His regime is unstable. The people—particularly the young—can imagine alternative ways of life, and yearn to emulate their generation in the West. They are aided and abetted by post-modern communications.
  • On the other hand, tragically, we have also learned that crude and brutal repression by goons on motorbikes or by regular police does work, especially with the murderous might of the well-armed Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, held in reserve but hovering menacingly over the protesters’ heads. Fear can deter the masses from taking to the streets, and break the body and spirit of the few who persist. For the time being, Khamene’i still holds sway, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be sworn in as president once again.
  • Israel, like the rest of the West, faces a painful diplomatic dilemma: if it obeys the moral imperative to speak out against evil, it could only help the bad guys. Just as Iran ascends to a position of ominous power in the region, our capacity to influence events is severely limited. The North Korean example adds another frightening layer of meaning to the already scary scenario of a violent regime in possession of the Bomb.
Still, even if the protests subside under the boot of the regime’s countermeasures, the events of the last fortnight have left their mark. The Iranian Revolution has been shown to be much more fragile than many thought. And when the turmoil in Tehran is added to the humiliation of Hezbollah in the Lebanese elections, the spell is broken and the rise of Iran and her proxies to dominance does not seem quite as inevitable as before. Moreover, within Iran itself a regime whose power rests upon intimidation of the political classes—the elements of the population that normally carry on the country’s economic and social activity—is weakened. The Western coalition, as it contemplates the next step (“engaging” with the rulers of Iran is clearly a hopeless exercise), must devise a coherent strategy that will:
  1. 1. Win over reluctant votes in the Security Council (Russia, above all) and present the Iranian leadership with a unified and angry front. European reactions to the gory sights on TV and YouTube may make this easier to accomplish.
  2. 2. Prove to the many who voted against Ahmadinejad that they were right: he is indeed driving Iran toward disaster, and they should take to the streets again.
Israel’s quarrel is not with the Iranian people (they were, after all, once our friends), but with an ideologically motivated regime that places the destruction of Israel at the top of its failing revolutionary agenda. Real change in Iran will truly transform the region, but for this very reason all actions and statements need to be carefully weighed for their impact in the real world.
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC