Iran's Democratic Moment
Protestors now demand an 'Iranian Republic, not Islamic Republic'
by Amir Taheri, Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2009
A month ago, Gen. Muhammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, vowed to stop further antiregime demonstrations in Iran and break what he termed "this chain of conspiracies." But this week the "chain" appeared to be as strong as ever: Students across the nation defied the general and his political masters by organizing numerous demonstrations on and off campus.
The various opposition groups that constitute the pro-democracy movement have already called for another series of demonstrations on Dec. 27, 2009, a holy day on the Muslim Shiite calendar. Meanwhile, the official calendar of the Islamic Republic includes 22 days during which the regime organizes massive public demonstrations to flex its muscles. Since the controversial presidential election last June, the pro-democracy movement, in a jujitsu-style move, has used the official days to undermine the regime.
Antigovernment demonstrators at Tehran University, Dec. 7, 2009. Getty Images
On Jerusalem Day, Sept. 18, officially intended to express anti-Semitism, the opposition showed that Iranians have no hostility toward Jews or Israel. One popular slogan was "Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah! I give my life for Iran!" Another was "Forget about Palestine! Think about our Iran!"
On Nov. 4, 2009, the anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the opposition distanced itself from the regime's anti-American rhetoric. The democrats instead expressed anger against Russia and China, which are perceived as allies of the Islamic Republic. One slogan was "The Russian Embassy is a nest of spies!"
Most significantly, the movement that started as a protest against the alleged rigging of the election that gave a second term to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been evolving. The crowds' initial slogan was "Where Is My Vote?" and the movement's accidental leaders, including former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, tried hard to keep the protest confined to demands such as a recount of the votes and, ultimately, a runoff in accordance with the law.
The slogans of the protestors are no longer about election fraud. Today they include "Death to the Dictator," "Freedom Now," and "Iranian Republic, Not Islamic Republic!" One slogan is a direct message to President Barack Obama: "Obama, Are You With Us or With Them?"
In short, the protestors no longer regard the present regime as the legitimate government of the country.
Both Mr. Mousavi and Ayatollah Mahdi Karroubi, another defeated presidential candidate, tried to prevent attacks on the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the hope of eventually making a deal with him. As part of such a deal, they promised to defend the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, according to sources close to the opposition. The crowds have rejected that by shouting: "Abandon uranium enrichment! Do something about the poor!"
It is clear the democracy movement is in no mood for deals with Mr. Khamenei, who they castigate for having betrayed his constitutional role of arbiter by siding with Mr. Ahmadinejad even before the official results of the election were declared. The demonstrators now burn his effigies, tear up posters showing his image, and chant violent slogans against him. One popular slogan goes: "Khamenei is a murderer! His guardianship is invalid!"
By cracking down ruthlessly on the protestors, the regime has only radicalized the movement. Even such notorious dealmakers as Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president now opposed to Mr. Ahmadinejad, have made it clear they would not accept any formula that would leave the "landslide winner" in place.
Last week, Mr. Rafsanjani refused to attend a much-publicized "reconciliation event" concocted by Ali Ardeshir Larijani, the speaker of Iran's ersatz parliament. The reason? Mr. Rafsanjani did not wish to be seen under the same roof as Mr. Ahmadinejad. Later, in a speech in Mash'had, Mr. Rafsanjani spoke of the regime's "long, deep and, potentially lethal crisis."
To judge by their most popular slogans, demonstrators across Iran are bent on regime change. Even rumors that the regime is working on scenarios for ditching Mr. Ahmadinejad—ostensibly on "health grounds"—after the Iranian New Year in March, have failed to halt the spread of regime-change sentiments.
Given the nation's mood, Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi have abandoned their earlier talk of "realizing the full potentials of the existing constitution." An adviser to Mr. Mousavi tells me that "They wanted to make an omelet without breaking eggs. They now realize that [the people] have moved faster than imagined." More significantly, perhaps, Mr. Mousavi appears to have put his plans for an ill-defined "green organization" on the backburner. He is beginning to understand that the antiregime movement is too wide to fit into a centrally controlled framework.
Over the past six months, thousands of people have been arrested and hundreds killed in the streets. And yet, despite promises to squash the movement by Gen. Jaafari, it persists. To make matters worse for the regime, the Shiite clergy, often regarded as the backbone of the Islamic Republic, is beginning to distance itself from the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad tandem. Some ayatollahs, such as Messrs. Montazeri, Bayat, San'ei, Borujerdi and Zanjani, are especially annoyed at Mr. Ahmadinejad's claim of being in contact with the "Hidden Imam"—a messiah-like figure of Shiism whose second coming is supposed to occur at the end of times.
Mr. Ahmadinejad claims that the "return" is imminent and that he, as one of the "pegs" designated by the Hidden Imam to prepare the ground for the advent, has a mission of chasing the "Infidel" out of Muslim lands and liberating Palestine from "Zionist occupiers." In a speech in Isfahan last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad claimed that the pro-democracy movement was created by the Americans to sabotage his mission and thus prevent the return of the "Hidden Imam."
In response, a mid-ranking cleric in Qom tells me: "The way Ahmadinejad talks, he must be a sick man . . . by backing such a man, Khamenei has doomed the regime."
The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei tandem is also coming under attack for its alleged incompetence. The regime is now plagued by double-digit inflation, a massive flight of capital, and unprecedented levels of unemployment. Divisions within the ruling clique mean that the president has been unable to fill scores of key posts at middle levels of government. Rapidly losing its popular base, the regime is becoming increasingly dependent on its coercive forces, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
Revolutionary Guard commanders appear on TV almost every night, presenting themselves as "guardians of the system." Gen. Jaafari himself says he is attracted by the "Turkish model" in which the army acts as a bulwark of the republic.
However, the general may not have all the time in the world to ponder his next move. The pro-democracy movement is deepening and growing. Much work is under way to connect it to independent trade unions and hundreds of formal and informal associations that lead the civil society's fight against the evil of the Islamic Republic.
Iran has entered one of those hinge moments in history. What is certain is that the status quo has become untenable.
Mr. Taheri's new book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is published by Encounter Books.