Politics & Policy

The Iranian Revolution, 2003

Regime change in the air.

You never know what will provide the spark for revolution. The most you can expect from a good analyst is the recognition of what the Marxists used to call a “revolutionary situation,” but the crucial ingredient is impossible to measure (which is why the so-called social scientists have never been very good at predicting revolutions). It can only be sniffed out, and the revolutionaries are the first to know. They smell rot and fear coming from the corridors of power. They smell tell-tale odors coming from the undergarments of the doomed leaders. And they sense a wavering of will, a growing pattern of panicky response.

Those odors are beginning to waft through the air of the central squares of Iran’s major cities, and have stimulated the people to an increasingly open challenge to the reigning mullahs. There have now been six consecutive nights of demonstrations all over Iran, and although Western reporters there are on a tight leash — the regime has banned all journalists and photographers from the sites of demonstrations, so the “reports” are almost always based on second-hand information — and although there do not seem to be any Western reporters covering events outside Tehran itself, several facts are dramatically clear.

First, the demonstrators are not just “students” (the word itself is rather misleading in context, since many of them are in their thirties or forties). Some estimates reckon that up to 90 percent of the demonstrators are non-students.

Second, the regime is flustered, and misjudged its response. It reminds me of Gorbachev’s ham-handed response to demonstrations in Lithuania towards the end of the Soviet era. He sent in just enough soldiers to enrage the Lithuanians, but not enough to put an end to the protests. The mullahs in Tehran did just the same, unleashing the most unruly and undisciplined members of the vigilante security forces, the Basiji. But the demonstrators fought back effectively, which was an enormous boost to the morale of the democratic forces. As of Sunday night, the regime had sent in some of the shock troops of the Revolutionary Guards, who were more effective, but the situation may well have gotten out of hand.

Third, the brutal assaults on the demonstrators (female students were hurled out of dormitory windows, and survivors were beaten savagely as they lay on the street) provoked the police to intervene against the Basiji, showing once again that the regime cannot count on its own security personnel to put down the freedom movement. This is one of the prime reasons for the smell of fear coming out of the mullahs’ mosques and palaces.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the anti-regime demonstrations are not limited to Tehran. On Sunday night, for example, the biggest demonstrations to date — anywhere in the country — reportedly took place in Isfahan (where my informant said virtually the entire city was mobilized against the regime), and other protests were staged in Mashad, Shiraz (where three distinguished scholars were thrown in jail last Thursday, following an extorted “confession” from a 14-year old) and Ahvaz. This is doubly significant, both because it shows the national character of the rebellion, and because Isfahan has historically been the epicenter of revolutionary movements (and indeed some of the harshest critics of the regime are in and from Isfahan).

Fifth, the leaders of the regime are acting with open incoherence. While Supreme Leader Khamenei and Information Minister Yunesi accused the United States of financing the uprising, strongman Rafsanjani publicly offered assistance to America in fighting terrorism. He announced that Iran had abundant information on various terrorist groups (now there’s a real revelation for you) and would be willing to share it with us in exchange for a friendlier attitude. Put in simple terms, he’s negotiating for his survival. Meanwhile, the speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, demanded that Yunesi document the regime’s claim that Iranian officials had been paid off by the Americans, and threatened to impeach the information minister if he didn’t carry out an exhaustive investigation. To be sure, Karrubi is a mere figurehead, but his willingness to openly and melodramatically challenge the regime speaks volumes about the determination of the opposition and the contempt held for the leadership.

Sixth, there is mounting violence against the regime. We are no longer talking about purely peaceful demonstrations. The protesters know they are going to be attacked with guns, clubs, knives, machetes and chains, and they are responding with Molotov cocktails and guns of their own. In some of the recent street fighting, the demonstrators strung wires across the streets to bring down the Basiji, who were on motorcycles.

The regime is in a real jam. The mullahs know the people hate them — even the timorous correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor in Tehran says that 90 percent of Iranians want democratic change, and 70 percent want drastic change — and they also know that their own instruments of repression are insufficient to deal with a massive insurrection. Many leaders of the armed forces have openly said they will side with the people if there is open civil conflict. Members of some of the most powerful institutions in the country have said that they believe more than half of the Revolutionary Guards will support the people in a frontal showdown. Ergo, the mullahs have had to import foreign thugs — described as “Afghan Arabs” in the popular press — to put down demonstrations.

On the other side of the barricades, the pro-democracy forces seem to have passed the point of no return. They know that if they stop now, many of them will be subjected to terrible tortures and summary execution. Kamenei and Rafsanjani are not likely to embark on a domestic peace process. Just as they have sensed the rot within the regime, the mullahs are desperately sniffing the air for similar odors from the university areas and the homes and offices of the other leaders of the insurrection.

As usual, President Bush has been letter perfect in his praise for the freedom fighters and his condemnation of the repression in Iran. And the State Department spoke in similar terms through its spokesman, Richard Boucher. It would be good if Secretary Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, threw their prestige openly behind democracy (and hence regime change) in the next few days. There has been considerable criticism — which I have joined — of the administration’s lack of a formal Iran policy, but it seems that the president himself has clearly formulated it. He should now ensure that the whole choir is chanting from his hymnal.

Part of the reason for the failure to agree upon an explicit endorsement of Iranian democracy is a lack of good information from inside Iran, and a consequent lack of accurate analysis. At this point, there is nothing that can be done about the failure of the intelligence community to obtain an accurate picture of the forces in play within Iran. It is not to be blamed on the current CIA, or on its personable leader, George Tenet. The truth is that the United States has had rotten intelligence on Iran ever since the run-up to the 1979 revolution that removed the shah and brought the awful mullahs to power. But even so, there is no excuse for the misunderstanding of revolutionary change that dominates the thinking of the intelligence and diplomatic communities.

The spooks and dips believe that democratic revolution in Iran is unlikely because the revolutionary forces have no charismatic leader — no Walesa, no Havel, no Robespierre, no Jefferson — and without revolutionary leaders, revolutions do not occur. Our deep thinkers fear that if we supported the rebels, we would risk a replay of the abortive uprisings in Poland and Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s.

But Iran today is not at all comparable to Central Europe half a century ago, or for that matter to revolutionary France of America in the 18th century, or Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. In all those cases, the revolutionaries were a distinct minority, and only a combination of dynamic leadership and foreign support could bring down the regimes. In Iran today, the revolutionaries constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, while the tyrants only glean minimal support. Thus, the Iranian people hold their destiny in their own hands. They share a common dream of freedom, and need only transform it into a common mission to liberate themselves.

Finally, our analysts should be more modest when they pronounce on the lack of revolutionary leaders in Iran today. The democracy movement has been growing for years, and has clearly attracted mass support. That does not take place without good leadership. The leaders are there, we just don’t know their names and faces. But if we stick to our own guiding principles, and support the democratic revolution under way in the streets of Iran — and if the revolutionary momentum is as strong as it now appears — we will get to know them soon enough.

— 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.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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