The sight of hundreds of thousands of Iranians protesting the rigging of their recent presidential election instilled hope in many that the Islamic Republic of Iran might be going the way of the Shah. This is now looking less likely, but whatever happens it is clear that Iran is never going to be the same again.
This is because Iran is currently caught between two revolutions. The revolution which devotees of democracy hope to see prevail is that called for by so many of Iran’s population in recent days – a real democracy, with all the civil rights that implies. However, these protests were actually sparked by a different revolution already in swing. This second revolution, the one that will complete its work should the street protests fail, is a slow, silent, ruthless coup d’état, which is gradually tranforming the Islamic Republic from a Muslim theocracy to an Islamist military dictatorship.
If the protests fail, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will remain president. But this result will not simply be another in Iran’s long line of undemocratic elections. It will signal a major step forward in the takeover of the country by the Revolutionary Guard. Formed in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Guard is charged with protecting the clerical regime, governed by the principle of the ‘Rule of the Jurisprudent.’ However, what we have seen under the presidency of Ahmadinejad is an increasing level of people loyal to the Guard being emplaced within and dominating Iran’s ruling bodies. Thus, already almost half of Iran’s parliamentarians are former Guards, as are 60% of the cabinet.
The Guard has also been given key contracts and monopolies across Iran’s economy. With financial, military and political influence, the Revolutionary Guard and those loyal to it have become increasingly powerful – and increasingly assertive – in Iranian politics.
It is clear that, willingly or not, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose backing for ex-Guardsman Ahmadinejad has been politically unprecedented in Iran, has thrown in his lot with the new military forces increasingly controlling Iran. Clerical insiders not completely obedient to him, such as former President Rafsanjani, are being sidelined.
The slow takeover by the Guard of areas once reserved for the clerics does not mean the regime is becoming more secular or moderate. On the contrary, the world has witnessed Iran increasingly back militant Islamist movements in the Middle East, and become bolder in its own foreign policy.
This confidence is probably one reason for what appears to be the brazen and surprisingly crude fixing of the election.
As we go to print, the turmoil on Iran’s streets – the silent marches, the peaceful protests, the strikes, and the resultant crackdown by the Revolutionary Guard – continues. We pray for the best, but fear the worst. But while the protesters might be defeated yet again this time round – with much blood and many victims – their impact will have profound consequences. Their unprecedented protest campaign erupted despite the regime’s best efforts. It serves as a valuable lesson for all concerned – ‘people power’ exists in Iran, and the regime has difficulty stopping it. Iranians overwhelmingly do not want repression, they do not want the bad name the Holocaust denial and aggression of Ahmadinejad branded on their country. Moreover, the regime has created economic chaos, and failed to improve the economic welfare of Iranians, whose standard of living today is lower than in 1979, despite huge oil wealth.
Given this, popular unrest will likely recur and the regime won’t be able to violently suppress it forever.
If the protests succeed, either now or in a future round of disquiet, this would dramatically change the Middle East. Terrorism and extremism would lose one of their main sources of support, a major stumbling block to Israeli-Palestinian peace would be removed, and an additional major model for democratisation would encourage the populations of the various autocracies that dominate the region. Meanwhile, a different Iranian regime would likely be less strident in its desire for nuclear weapons, and be more willing to agree to the compromise packages the West has offered, which include Iran having nuclear power stations.
However, even if the security forces suppress the “people power” movement for now, the West still has a unique opportunity to both help Iranians achieve their ‘Velvet Revolution,’ and prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry.
Many have pointed out the difficult choice facing the world vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program. Resigning oneself to a nuclear Iran, as some advise, opens the door to a greatly destabilised Middle East, replete with resurgent Islamist forces and a nuclear arms race between Iran and the Sunni Arab countries. However, a last resort military strike would also be risky, dangerous and destabilising.
Yet, arguments suggesting that the Iranian regime is basically benign and only seeks security for itself ring hollow in the wake of recent events. Western publics should now be prepared to implement the tough sanctions that alone have a chance to succeed, even at some economic costs to themselves.
It has been argued that the limited sanctions already in place against Iran have created tension in the educated class, which played a part in the current unrest. If stronger sanctions were imposed, in particular against Iranian refined fuel and petroleum industry technology imports, this would be widely felt, likely leading to further unrest. Either the regime would have to cut a nuclear deal as a means of protecting its own survival, or else risk collapse.
Either way, such an outcome would dramatically improve the Middle East. The events of recent weeks have shown policymakers dealing with the Iranian conundrum that they have a great ally in their efforts to curtail the dangerous and illegal international behaviour of the Iranian regime – the Iranian people.