Someone few Americans had ever heard of one week ago now stands poised to alter history. His name is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and his case utterly debunks the school of historians who insist that history is made by large impersonal forces rather than by key individuals. While it is certainly true that Iran’s current crisis had many antecedents, it is equally true that the decisions of this one man will play a decisive role in the outcome.
Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accepted the congratulations of Syria’s Bashar Assad and Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev on his wonderful victory. Many people find it wonderful, though not in the sense he or Supreme Leader Khamenei would prefer. Ahmadinejad has assured observers that “Iran is the most stable nation in the world.” But on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other Iranian cities, a broad alliance of Iranians are literally shouting from the rooftops that they will not accept the risible vote tallies announced by the government — a two-to-one landslide for Ahmadinejad. “Death to the Dictator” is on many lips.
The unfolding drama in Iran is at once thrilling, disturbing, and ambiguous. It’s thrilling because for the first time since the Khomeini revolution in 1979, a spontaneous, grassroots movement threatens the rulers in Tehran. The mullahocracy, deeply unpopular with the Iranian people, has held power through violence and terror for 30 years. As much misery as Iran has spread worldwide through its sponsorship of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it has visited even more wretchedness on its own people. The economy, despite Iran’s oil wealth, is crumbling, with double-digit unemployment. Corruption is endemic: Freedom House reports that even mail is not delivered unless the postman gets a payoff. Repression on a totalitarian scale is a fact of daily life. Though Iran’s people have repeatedly given evidence of their disgust with the clerical leadership, they have been unable to escape the boot on their necks. Particularly during the past four years, shortages, corruption, and privation have plagued Iran. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Intelligence for the Majlis (parliament) a few months ago found that only 13 percent of Iranians would vote for Ahmadinejad.
But popular uprisings often end badly. They did in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in China in 1989. As we watch smuggled amateur video of Basij militia clubbing peaceful demonstrators with batons from the backs of motorcycles, and government thugs descending upon Tehran University to the sound of screams and breaking glass, we reflect that this junta has been preparing itself for resistance. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was recently overhauled to focus on “domestic foes” and placed in command of an estimated 2–5 million Basij militia. Foreign press are being hustled out of the country in a possible prelude to more savage repression.
Alternatively, if a severe crackdown does not materialize, then what? The millions of Iranians thronging the streets are testimony to the yearning for reform among the people. But what shape that reform would take is anything but clear. Mir-Hossein Mousavi has become the repository for the people’s hopes. He is, for better or worse, the face of the resistance movement. He ran for president of Iran as an alternative to Ahmadinejad. But now, with an unprecedented popular uprising at his back, can he become an alternative to the whole clerical establishment? Does he possibly have such ambitions? Reportedly a “favorite” of Ayatollah Khomeini, Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 to 1989, during which time he oversaw Iran’s initial moves toward obtaining nuclear weapons. He has served in a variety of advisory posts since then. He has never by word or deed signaled any willingness to depart from an Islamist-dominated state.
His campaign was Gorbachevian in that he promised to make the Iranian government more transparent and permit more freedom of the press (“glasnost”), as well as to examine laws that discriminate against women (“perestroika”).
But in one week everything has changed. What seemed impossible last week seems very possible today. So much now depends upon what Mousavi does with his de facto mandate from the people. He calls the demonstrations. He delivers the speeches. It is his photo they carry and his color (green) they wear. If he is a true reformer, this could be a turning point in world history. But we don’t know yet what he believes or intends.