September 18, 2019

A Point of No Return

There is a rhythm to every nation’s history — a pattern that repeats over the centuries, that creates forward movement, pulls back, pushes ahead. So it is with Iran in modern times: about every two to three decades, major change — a war, a famine, the overthrow of a dynasty — occurs with unmistakable ramifications. The cadence is at once hopeful and terrifying in its consistency. No matter what the status quo, an upheaval is always in the works. The ground is either shaking or about to shake. The 20th century, therefore, began in Iran with the Constitutional Revolution of 1901; 24 years later, Reza Shah’s ascension to power brought a second wave of change; although officially installed in 1941, his son, the late Shah, actually ruled Iran from 1946 (when occupying Soviet forces withdrew) to 1979 — when the mullahs took over. In February of this year, they celebrated their 30th anniversary. If the past is any measure, their time is up.

Can it be that the end of its third decade is also the death knell of the Islamic Revolution?

That may be too much wishful thinking — yes. Iran’s mullahs have many a second act in their repertory. Their unrelenting claim to the reins of power in Iran, their unwavering reach for absolute control has defined the fate of the Iranian nation for a millennium and a half. This most recent crop — Khameini and his children — have proven exceptionally adept at ensuring their own survival. But for all the uncertainty that surrounds the outcome of the current unrest, it is clear that Iran’s Holocaust-denying, fire-and-brimstone-breathing, we have no homosexuals in our country incumbent president has dealt himself and his hard-line supporters an irreversible blow.

Whether a result of the so-called Obama effect, or a consequence of major economic and social collapse under Ahmadinejad’s watch, or, as is most likely, a combination of those and a number of other factors, what has come to be known as the Green Movement in Iran is, more than anything else, a repudiation of the forces of the status quo — of its “guardians” and apologists, its foot soldiers and motorcycle-driving thugs. In the weeks leading up to the election, Mousavi’s popularity with the electorate, especially the younger generation, was a clear message that the hard-liners within Iran have, once and for all, lost legitimacy in the eyes of at least a sizable portion of the nation. His apparent victory on Friday should have served as a stern warning to the mullahs that, to remain in power, they must surrender some control. That they clamped down harder than ever before is painfully telling of the extent to which they feel their own survival endangered. (It is true that the mullahs have never allowed truly free or democratic elections to take place in Iran, but nor have they resorted to falsifying results on the scale that is apparent this time around.) For them as for Ahmadinejad, the only eventuality worse than losing fair and square would have been to defy the will of the people and, by doing so, deride whatever remains of their own legitimacy, by attempting to steal the elections.

That train, ladies and gentlemen, has now left the station.

What happens from here on will depend greatly on the opposition’s willingness to continue to contest Ahmadinejad’s claims of victory. If they refrain from doing so, they will, once and for all, lose the faith of their followers and therefore their mandate. The alternative, however, is hardly more appealing to Mousavi and his allies: they may be reformists by comparison, but they are all creatures of the same political and religious infrastructure that is today being threatened. If they go too far in challenging the establishment, they risk cutting their own legs from under them. So it was, a decade ago, with that other reformist president — the turban-wearing, aba-donning, looks and walks like a duck Khatami who talked a good game, enough to give hope to the restless youth to go into the streets and stage protests, then kept silent as the hard-liners behind him arrested or murdered the opposition.

But this very quandary facing the reformists today, the fact that the biggest threat to their longevity comes from within, that it springs from a vast and nearly universal discontent within the same masses that, 30 years ago, brought the mullahs to power — this same predicament is also that the mullahs’ best years are firmly behind them. The pillars that have so far held up the regime are being chipped at and hollowed from the inside out. With Obama in charge, promising an open hand and sending Happy Norouz messages to the people of Iran, the Great Satan is no longer the boogeyman that it once was.

As they looked back on the events leading up to the fall of Shah in 1978 and ‘79, many Iranian exiles lamented the fact that he was, ultimately, too “soft-hearted,” too dependent on orders from the Carter White House and too afraid to shed as much blood as it took to quell the unrest. Whatever the moral implications of massacring his own people, those exiles insisted, they paled in comparison with the crimes that would be committed by the mullahs. A story then circulated within the exile community in the United States — about the Shah one day deciding to take his generals’ advice, defy Carter, and send the tanks out into the streets. When the queen got word of this, the story went, she rushed into her husband’s office and threw herself at his feet, begging him to reconsider. There was a point, she said, beyond which no return was possible — for her, for the Shah, or for his crown prince.

I don’t know if there’s any truth to that story, but I do believe in such a concept as a point of no return. I think the hard-liners in Iran have crossed that line.

This article first appeared this week in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.