The images coming out of Iran are nothing short of horrifying: Peaceful protesters savagely beaten by black-clad police. University dormitories ransacked by the regime’s thugs. Demonstrators shot and killed by Basij militiamen.
Other images, though, have been heartening: Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians taking to the streets, at genuine personal risk, to demand, “Where is my vote?” Denied democracy on election day, Iranians are now voting with their feet, indeed with their entire bodies.
It remains to be seen which images will carry the day: Will we witness a Velvet Revolution? Will the streets of Tehran be the next Tiananmen? Or will the outcome be more ambiguous?
Yet for all the uncertainty, this is also a moment of clarity: By brazenly stealing an election, the Iranian regime has removed its republican mask. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose apologetics for the Islamic Republic have drawn no small amount of Jewish ire, conceded, “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.”
But it is not only the wishful thinkers who misread the situation on the ground. Some of those who have been most outspoken about Iran’s nuclear menace argued that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election would actually be the preferred electoral outcome. They noted that any Iranian president would play second fiddle to the country’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A win by challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, therefore, would simply have served to diminish international concern about the Iranian threat, without lessening the threat itself. At least with Ahmadinejad, a scary regime was presenting a correspondingly scary face to the world.
These arguments are not without logic. There is no reason to believe that a President Mousavi could have stilled Iran’s centrifuges, even if he had wanted to — the nuclear portfolio being the purview of the supreme leader. And Mousavi himself is no liberal. He was a protégé of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — no humanist he — and publicly backed Khomeini’s barbaric 1989 fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie.
But the notion that a Mousavi presidency would have been nothing more than a convenient cover for the hardliners is belied by the great lengths to which Iran’s actual hardliners have gone to deny him the office. There is something to be said for the notion that the enemy of our enemy is, if not exactly our friend, at least the enemy of our enemy.
Moreover, the brave Iranians taking to the streets of Tehran and Isfahan are not, first or foremost, marching for Mousavi. They are marching for a freer Iran — Mousavi’s candidacy having emerged as the unlikely vehicle for their hopes and dreams.
With its nuclear ambitions and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s current regime is a danger not only to Israel but to the entire region. That is today’s harsh reality. Ultimately, however, a more open and democratic Iran is the best hope for a safer tomorrow. The demonstrators facing down the guns and goons of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Co. are putting their lives on the line in pursuit of that goal. Amid the uncertainty, one thing is crystal clear: They deserve our sympathy, and our solidarity.