The demonstrations that shook Iran for the better part of two weeks have died down, but the aftershocks continue to unnerve the mullahs in the run-up to the general strike called for the 9th of July. Even today, the Shiite storm troopers at the service of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and ex-president Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani prowl the campuses and go door to door from one youthful leader to the next, arresting and imprisoning all those believed capable of mobilizing a national uprising against the failed regime.
From this distance it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next ten days, which is another way of saying we do not know the political consequences of the demonstrations. There are those, like Columbia University’s Gary Sick, who describe the demonstrators as “a rag-tag bunch” who were merely upset at the prospect of having to pay college tuition. Sick and others of his ilk were not impressed by the repeated calls for an end to the regime, and the remarkable tenacity and courage shown by the demonstrators in the face of the lethal violence unleashed upon them.
The mullahs were more impressed. The government itself now admits to having arrested 4,000 demonstrators, of whom some 800 were students. The student movement says the numbers were even higher, and the actual number could well be upwards of 6-7,000. Many were killed. Iranian websites carry the piteous cries of parents whose college-age children have disappeared without a trace, as well as reports from students who describe being thrown into cells of incredible crowding, and then subjected to psychological and physical humiliations.
Regimes do not react this way to a rag-tag bunch. This is the reaction of a regime that fears its days may be numbered. Look at its own numbers: less than a quarter of those arrested were students. The rest came from other walks of life. In other words, the demonstrations were not restricted to a single sector of Iranian society, but were, for the first time, a truly national protest, both sociologically and geographically. No major city, not even the holy city of Qom, was free of demonstrators. And, perhaps most menacing of all, there were reports of angry confrontations in the oil fields, and rumors of sabotage. I cannot confirm them, but the stories themselves have circulated widely, and are symptomatic of the national mood.
Meanwhile, some of the things I have been reporting and predicting for more than a year have been confirmed by the regime in recent days. The most interesting of these is the admission that al Qaeda leaders have been in Iran for some time. Of course, the mullahs do not say it that way. They suddenly announce that they have arrested hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists, refuse to identify any of them, but promise that if any of them are identified they will be sent back to their country of origin.
This is rather like the old joke of the woman accused of stealing a neighbor’s pot. “I never took it,” she protests. “And anyway it was a very old pot,” she continues, “and I gave it back in better condition than I found it,” she concludes. Thus the Iranians, who first denied there were any al Qaeda personnel in Iran, then claimed they were in fact in jail, and then promised to return them (with the usual provisos that would protect any Egyptians — like Osama’s right-hand man, Zawahiri — from extradition).
And in Iraq, the mullahs’ offensive continues unabated, to the apparent indifference of the leaders of the Bush administration. The newspapers are full of stories about Iran-based religious fanatics calling for an uprising against the Coalition. At least ten Iranian-run radio and television stations are broadcasting anti-American and anti-Semitic venom throughout Iraq, while we have yet to organize a single radio or TV there, to our great shame. And the Iranians brazenly sabotage our reconstruction efforts, as in the case of the monster water treatment plant in southern Iraq, which was dismantled and carted off across the border, or the several factories that were broken up and either smuggled into Iran or sold to them.
And am I the only person to smell a connection between Tony Blair’s call for the civilized world to support the democracy demonstrators one day, and the murder of seven English soldiers the next?
This administration clearly has no stomach for any sort of campaign against the mullahs, at least for the moment. But it can no more avoid the showdown with the mullahs than it can cause Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to surrender; this is a fight for survival, and they will not permit us the luxury of setting the timetable at our convenience.
That means there must be regime change in Tehran. In their hearts, or perhaps at a somewhat lower level, our leaders know that. Even the admittedly limited information in the hands of our intelligence community shows the pattern of Iranian skullduggery, and it is only a matter of time before the mullahs pull off some murderous assault large enough to compel us to act. They still fondly remember their glory days in Lebanon, when they killed hundreds of Americans in a single suicidal stroke, an event incautiously recalled by Bashar Assad in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That is what undoubtedly awaits our fighting men and women if we do not move first to support the freedom fighters in Iran.
But even if Iraq were peaceful and flourishing and headed towards democracy in the near future, indeed even if there had been no September 11 and thus no war against the terror masters, our refusal to call for regime change in Tehran would still be a disgrace. Blair and Bush have warm words for the demonstrators, but no Western government has called for an end to the Iranian tyranny. Hell, they haven’t even called for the release of the thousands of political prisoners or for the release of the many journalists rounded up during the demonstrations of the past two weeks.
July 9 is coming soon. Nothing would encourage the Iranian people more than a clear declaration that the United States is with them, and against their oppressors.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.