No one knows, or can know, what the short-term result of the uprising in Iran will be. The demonstrations may continue, frequently or intermittently, or darkness may again descend on the land. But it is well to remember — as one interesting precedent — that Poland’s Solidarity movement, which ultimately led to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, was founded in 1980. The government’s response, in 1981, was the imposition of martial law, and then several years of oppression, but the movement persisted until finally the government entered into negotiations with it. In 1989, via a semi-free election, Solidarity formed a coalition government.
Iran is not Poland, but it is hard to imagine that the Iranian regime will be able to regroup and delete the events of these days from the national memory. Even in China, the memory of Tiananmen Square still lingers. So it may be useful to consider what it would mean were Iran to abandon its 30-year-old experiment in theocracy and rule by a “supreme leader.”
Someone once wrote, “Prediction is dangerous, especially about the future.” One can imagine a very wide variety of Iranian futures. So, for example, in order to promote a post-revolutionary consensus there could easily be a continuing emphasis on the core idea of the current regime, the interweaving of religious and secular authority, albeit with some relaxation of religious orthodoxy. Some millions of Iranians would surely prefer that to Iran’s radical secularization. After all, Iran’s experience with secular democratic politics lasted for all of two years and ended (brutally) 56 years ago. Few Iranians have any memory of democracy nor deeply embedded democratic instincts. It is important these days, with all the attention that’s been lavished on Twitter and such, to bear that in mind. Nor are the putative leaders of a new Iran exactly committed pluralists or democrats at heart. Neither Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and the opposition’s most powerful ally (and allegedly the power behind the deadly bombing of the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires in 1994) nor Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main rival in the recent disputed election and for eight years Iran’s prime minister, is a principled democrat eager to unwind the original Khomeini revolution. Ahmadinejad is surely a profound embarrassment to them, but their short-term goal would be an Islamic Republic with a more human face. What such a turn would mean for Iranian nuclear ambitions, or for Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas, is anyone’s guess.
A longer shot but not beyond imagining: The current uprising will move Iran much father from its recent past, will, for example, more closely follow the Turkish precedent. (Not easy without an Ataturk, but then we do not know who may be waiting in the wings.) A continuing debate over the proper role of Islam, but within a formal secular state. That would seem a consummation devoutly to be wished, but we ought not be carried away by the prospect. Iranians may have very little memory of democracy, but they have very sharp memories of both the United States and Israel.
The United States is not merely the “Great Satan.” It is also the country whose CIA, together with the British, engineered the violent ouster of the immensely popular Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, thereby ending Iran’s brief democratic experience. It is the country that actively supported Iraq during its eight-year long war with Iran. It is the country that has pressed for sanctions and, until Obama, essentially refused to talk directly with Iran. And it is the country that has an “unbreakable” relationship with Israel.
And Israel itself, after all these years of Iran’s demonizing of Zionism? In his major address to the nation on June 19, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, mentioned Zionism and Zionists (“dirty Zionists”) six times. Many Iranians know how pleased Israel was to see the Iraq-Iran war drag on for so many years. They read Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of the other day, “There is no conflict between the Iranian people and the people of Israel and under a different regime the friendly relations that prevailed in the past could be restored,” and wonder what Kool-Aid he has been drinking, since the last time such friendly relations prevailed was when Israel’s Mossad was in bed with the Shah’s secret police. And they realize that there are many in Israel who would prefer that Ahmadinejad remain in power. After all, he and his policies provide the most compelling rationale for both Israel and America to “keep all options,” including a military response, “on the table.”
It is not only some Israelis who prefer the loathsome Ahmadinejad. The possibility of a genuine turn towards popular democracy in Iran is likely more disquieting to Hosni Mubarak than to any other Middle East leader, since such a turn would so powerfully show a truth that Mubarak — and others, too — would prefer not to acknowledge, would vastly prefer not be out there for all to see. Armed with democracy, Iran would be infinitely more powerful — and, to some, more threatening — than any number of nuclear bombs would render it.
In the meanwhile, there’s President Obama and the fatuous posturing of those who urge him to adopt a more muscular response. The president has been circumspect in his comments, which, given America’s unfortunate track record with Iran, perfectly suits the occasion and is exactly what the Iranian protesters desire. Plus: If there’s to be any chance at all of a productive outcome to the nuclear issue, Obama cannot dynamite the rickety bridge that might enable such an outcome. Under the circumstances, bombast is no substitute for restraint. There will be time to contemplate dynamite; that time is not now, lest the explosion destroy a movement in Iran that inspires real shock, real awe.