John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” JFK was speaking about Latin America in the wake of the Cuban revolution in the early 1960s, but the broader point he made – that disallowing non-violent political and social change ultimately undermines those who seek to prevent it – still stands today. Roger Cohen’s indefatigable reporting from Tehran over the last several days makes it clear that no matter how the current unrest pans out, the regime’s days are numbered: “All the fudge that allowed a modern society to coexist with a society inspired by an imam occulted in the 9th century has been swept away, leaving two Irans at war.”
Up until now, the regime has been able to survive so long because of its relative flexibility. Khomeini continued the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war for six years beyond the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Iran, but agreed to a UN cease-fire after becoming convinced the United States was about to intervene more directly after the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian airliner in 1988. He ruefully called his acceptance of the cease-fire resolution “more deadly than taking poison.” His successor, the current Supreme Leader Khamenei, allowed a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, to win the presidency twice, but undermined his efforts toward liberalizing Iranian society and politics whenever he and the conservative establishment could.
Apparently Khamenei couldn’t face the prospect of another reformer winning power, no matter how moderate and committed to the system, and decided to fix the election. But he didn’t count on hundreds of thousands of average Iranians wanting their votes to mean something and demonstrating in the streets of major cities to make sure they did. Even then, though, the regime could have showed flexibility and maintained the general contours of the system. After all, the main challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, has solid credentials as a member of that system, and the framed his objections to the rigged vote in the context of fidelity to the 1979 revolution’s ideals.
Mousavi’s framing and the recent bloody crackdown have probably done deep damage to the regime’s legitimacy. Khamenei prevented President Khatami from making any real changes to the Iranian system when he was in power from 1997 to 2005, and prevented Mousavi, a committed disciple of the revolution, from winning the presidency by the system’s own rules. And when Iranians then protested peacefully and framed their demands in accordance with the system, Khamenei denounced them and then sicced the state’s security forces on them. What the Supreme Leader and his allies have done is made peaceful change within the regime’s system impossible.
While I can’t read minds (I’m no Charles Xavier or Emma Frost), I think Roger Cohen hit the dynamic on the head in another recent column: “…the loss of trust by millions of Iranians who’d been prepared to tolerate a system they disliked, provided they had a small margin of freedom, constitutes the core political earthquake in Iran. Moderates who once worked the angles are now muttering about making Molotov cocktails.”
These two Irans – the vibrant, diverse coalition that voted for change and then demonstrated in the streets versus the authoritarian, rule-by-force regime – will remain in conflict no matter if the government manages to disperse street protests in the short run. Khamenei and his successor(s) may be able to hold onto power by force for years, but they must do so now knowing large swaths of the population find their rule illegitimate and their system discredited. As Cohen wrote earlier, “Whatever happens now, all is changed in Iran.” We can only hope that the change is positive for the Iranian people, and that it comes sooner rather than later.