Sunday, December 27, 2009

Another month, another fissure within the Islamic Republic. In the six months since Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections brought protesters out into the streets en masse, the Iranian regime has weathered a profound and sustained domestic crisis of confidence.

The latest sign of this discontent began on Dec. 7, when tens of thousands of students clashed with regime security forces on university campuses throughout Tehran in days of unrest. This protest and numerous others like it serve as a telling reminder that the rift between the Iranian people and the thuggish theocracy that rules them remains as deep as ever.

Still, the tenor of these displays has changed considerably over the past half-year. Today, they are about much more than simply President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s blatantly rigged re-election. Instead, every new outbreak provides additional proof that Iranians of all political stripes are increasingly antagonistic to the current clerical regime - and looking for some sort of fundamental break with it.

All this goes a long way toward explaining why Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - previously the “reformist” standard-bearers for Iran’s opposition - no longer figure quite so prominently on the Iranian political scene. By now, Iranians understand full well that the goal of both longtime establishment politicians is not to end the current regime, but to preserve it, albeit in a form more palatable to the international community.

It is also why Iran’s ayatollahs are increasingly worried about the long-term transformative power of Iran’s democratic opposition. “The gaps are being deepened because some of our elite are not careful,” former parliamentarian Saeed Aboutaleb cautioned recently in an editorial in Iran’s Etemaad newspaper. “This problem won’t be solved as time passes; rather it will be increased.”

He may be right. Critical assessments of Iran’s “Green” movement have tended to downplay its chances of success. Skeptics have pointed to the lack of viable opposition leaders and the rising power of the regime’s ideological army, the Revolutionary Guards, as signs that the current opposition’s chances for success are slim to none.

But these criticisms miss a crucial point. Revolutions are not born overnight. It took the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of the Islamic Revolution, years to generate the political and ideological momentum necessary to sweep the shah from power in Tehran. A post-theocratic transition in Iran today could take just as long, or even longer.

Likewise, the lack of evident leadership among the Iranian opposition is deeply worrying - but not necessarily fatal. It is useful to recall that, at its start, Poland’s powerful “Solidarity” movement lacked clear and cohesive leadership. Figures such as Lech Walesa emerged over time, bringing with them the ideological cohesion and political power that helped Poland ultimately shrug off the communist yoke. At least some recent instances of grass-roots revolution, such as the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and “Cedar” uprising in Lebanon the same year, have followed similar evolutionary paths (albeit with very different results).

What is needed, in other words, is time - as well as the attention of the outside world. Today, the operative question is whether Iran’s nascent democratic forces will be able to count on either. Since this summer, the regime in Tehran has become increasingly ruthless and repressive at home, a clear sign that Iran’s ayatollahs no longer feel so comfortably in control. The talks now under way over Iran’s nuclear program, however, have worked in favor of the status quo, signaling to Iran’s leaders - and everyone else - that the international community is willing to negotiate with the tyranny it knows at the expense of more pluralistic alternatives. So Iran’s opposition bides its time, hoping that it can capture the attention of the outside world before it runs out of steam.

More than anything else, this means Washington. When the Obama administration launched its bid for “engagement” with the regime in Tehran this fall, it traded the promise of an Iran in ferment for the elusive prospect of a tactical accommodation with one of the world’s radical regimes. In doing so, the White House consciously downplayed American support for Iran’s opposition, putting itself on the wrong side of the power struggle now playing out on Iran’s streets.

Now, as that negotiating track draws to a close, Iran’s opposition leaders once again have reason to hope that President Obama will understand at long last that, when it comes to supporting those seeking freedom, the leader of the Free World should never remain silent. Here’s wishing that they will not have to wait long.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. His latest book is “Winning The Long War: Retaking The Offensive Against Radical Islam” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

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