(Updated June 22) Last week’s demonstrations do not appear to have shaken the resolve of Ayatollah Khameini and the Iranian establishment, much less overthrown the Islamic Republic. Those who hoped for a Persian Spring probably will go home disappointed. In the excitement of the mass demonstrations in Tehran, a great deal of overwrought commentary spilled out of the conservative camp, hoping for proof that democracy would triumph in some important Muslim country and thus validate the strategy of the Bush administration.
The young people of Tehran who threw themselves in frustration at the security forces seem to be the group that in the great High School Yearbook of the Civilizations would have been voted least likely to succeeded. They are a suppurating mass of social pathologies. Oil wealth has made prostitution an acceptable way for a young woman to earn university tuition. Perhaps 5% of the adult population is addicted to opiates. About two-fifths of them say they would emigrate given the chance. This generation, particularly the young people of Tehran, refuse to have children. They do not seem to believe in Islam—their attendance rates at prayers are extremely low—and they show no sign of believing in anything. Like the youth of the former Soviet Union and its satellites after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the hypocrisy of the revolutionary generation before them has extirpated most traces of faith.
Iran will not undergo a democratic renewal. It is going through an implosion, and the only question is whether the implosion will be fast or slow. It is also a regional, and not only a national, implosion. As M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in the Asia Times June 19,
Alas, the political class in Washington is clueless about the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy. Egged on by the Israeli lobby, it is obsessed with “regime change”. The temptation will be to engineer a “color revolution”. But the consequence will be far worse than what obtains in Ukraine. Iran is a regional power and the debris will fall all over. The US today has neither the clout nor the stamina to stem the lava flow of a volcanic eruption triggered by a color revolution that may spill over Iran’s borders.
Of course, the Israeli lobby, contrary to Bhadrakumar’s gratuitous insult, does not want a “color revolution” in Iran. The Israelis prefer Ahmadinejad, and will tell this to any journalist who takes the trouble to telephone them. But the regional issue remains paramount. For example: if Iran breaks up in civil war, what happens to the substantial stockpile of nuclear material the country already has accumulated? The Israeli spook cite Debka raised that issue today.
In a small way, the problems of winding up the affairs of the dying Islamic Republic of Iran bear comparison to the fall of the Soviet Union. The difference is that seventy years after the Russian Revolution, there were no Communists left in Russia. Stalin had killed most of them. Careerists with no more commitment to Marxism-Leninism than a pet parrot has to its vocabulary had no stomach for a fight. The young people of Russia and its satellites were cynical beyond description.
Iran appears to have instilled the same degree of cynicism among the young people of Tehran, but it is a generation away from retiring the Islamic revolutionaries of 1979. On the contrary, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and most of his peers were young toughs in the service of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979, and this is their moment. It is the time for the long-oppressed Shia to rise and claim what is theirs — for if not now, the opportunity never may come again.
If they dither and stall, Iran will fall to pieces under their fingers. As Ayatollah Khameini now is aware, the revolution has raised an unreliable generation, and it is the last generation, for Iran’s fertility rate is too low to produce another.
This makes Iran all the more dangerous for the events of the past week, and the delusion that the Islamic Republic can be persuaded to accept a regional power-sharing agreement all the more insidious.
Monday morning update:
M.K. Bhadrakumar at Asia Times Online, the only commentator of note to openly side with Ahmadinejad, adds the following this morning:
Looking back at the past four years, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad restored the connectivity of the regime with the radical populist discourse. “Four years ago”, [exiled Iranian journalist Amir] Taheri writes, “the image of the regime was one of a clique of mid-ranking mullahs and their business associates running the country as a private company in their own interest. The regime’s ‘downtrodden’ base saw itself as the victim of a great historic swindle. Under Ahmadinejad, a new generation of revolutionaries has come to the fore, projecting an image of piety and probity, reassuring the ‘downtrodden’ that all is not lost.”
Ahmadinejad’s populism is a double-edged sword. If carried too far, it may undermine the legitimacy of the regime, which included corrupt sections of the clerical establishment. But Ahmadinejad is a clever politician. He has certainly grown while on the job these past four years. Although he self-portrayed with gusto as a locomotive that charges ahead without brakes or reverse gear, he knew where to stop and when to glance over his shoulder. Thus, he hit at many corrupt practices and threatened to bring key figures to justice, but stopped short of landing the big catch. The big question is whether Ahmadinejad will cast his net wide in his second term.
Translate this into plain English: most of Iran’s population are barely literate, miserably poor peasants dependent on the public dole for basic necessities, resentful of the both the super-rich Rafsanjani and the modernizing students of Tehran. The regime can recruit enough loyal soldiers for its security forces to suppress any student-based uprising. Ahmadinejad is their man. When Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 I wrote the following in Asia Times:
Iran’s poor want more of the same policies, albeit with less skim for the elites, and that is what Adhmadinejad promised them. Rural Iran will support the Islamists, because the Islamists will support them for ideological reasons. The young people of Tehran may look to the West with hope, but their cousins in the countryside see only the ruin of their way of life. If the traditional economy disappears, will Iranians produce better manufactures than China, or program computers like the Indians? Their fate would be economic emigration, like their neighbors the Turks.
Poverty is not the issue. The 17 million Iranians who cast their ballots for Ahmadinejad voted to remain in poverty, with a bare minimum of security provided by the Islamic state. On the contrary, they cannot imagine their lives outside of traditional society, in which Islam regulates every facet of existence. Fewer than three-quarters of Iranian women can read, that is, fewer than half of rural women are literate. The country has only one phone line for every five people, a fifth as many as France. Most of the country remains sunk in misery, but the humblest Iranian farmer still has the pride of a conqueror in his heart.
Now, Ahmadinejad probably lost the election this time around, or at least failed to gain the majority required to avoid a runoff. Parenthetically, the reports I hear from strictly neutral countries whose intelligence people have studied the results suggest that Ahmadinejad really might have lost. That’s not the point; I doubt we will ever know. What counts is that he still has enough support among the elite, the hard men who came of age during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and now are in senior leadership position in their 50s and 60s. He also has enough support among the immiserated rural poor to keep the feckless youth of Tehran at bay.
Where I disagree with M.K. Bhadrakumar — and in the extreme — is his supposition that everything will normalize. Nothing will be the same, for Iran’s vulnerability is plain for the world to see. The enemies of the Shia in Iraq and Pakistan will take note and sharpen their knives. The Israelis will look hungrily across the Latami River at Hezbollah and wonder what surprises they might prepare for Iran’s puppets on the ground. The Syrians will wonder if their best interests still are served by an alliance with Tehran and send secret emissaries to Riyadh. Egyptian intelligence will refresh its files on Hezbollah supporters in Egypt and dust off the electrodes. Iran knows all of this. As I wrote in Asia Times a week ago, the seemingly clownish decision to award Ahmadinejad an improbably large majority was intended to send a message to Iran’s adversaries overseas. From the Mediterranean to Waziristan, Western and Central Asia are dangling over the mouth of the meat-grinder.
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