September 20, 2007


The Next Iranian Revolution: How armed exiles are working to topple Tehran's Islamic Government (Michael J. Totten, October 2007, Reason)

Opposition to the regime is widespread, deep, and open—an unthinkable situation in Saddam’s Iraq. It’s impossible for the Iranian government to crack down on everyone. The police don’t even try anymore.

“You can complain about the government,” Mohtadi said. “You can insult them. But America is a red line. Khomeini himself is a red line. The Israelis are a red line, absolutely.” Iranians can’t buck the party line on certain topics, but they are brave enough, or just barely free enough, to protest the government to its face. “When [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad spoke to students,” Mohtadi pointed out, “hundreds of students stood up and called him a fascist and burned his picture.”

Iran’s Genocide of Islam
Sealing the rugged Iran-Iraq border is all but impossible in the north, where like-minded Kurds live on both sides of it. People, as well as goods, cross every hour. Alcohol is smuggled into Iran. Gasoline and drugs are smuggled out. Komala’s location in the area makes it the perfect place for a vast, sprawling safe house. Activists, underground party members, and dissidents from Iran—the Persian heartland as well as from Iranian Kurdistan—slip through the mountains to visit every day.

I’ve stood on the border myself and contemplated walking undetected into Iran. Komala leaders even offered to take me across and embed me themselves. “We can get you inside Iran and leave you for weeks, if you want, among our supporters and among our people,” Mohtadi said. “It is very easy.”

If I were caught in Iran without a visa or an entry stamp in my passport, I would almost surely be jailed as a spy. Tempting as the offer was, I had to pass. Anyway, I could speak to Iranian dissidents, if not necessarily ordinary Iranians, in the Komala camp just as easily as I could have inside Iran. As it happened, a famous Persian writer and dissident had arrived there just before I did.

Kianoosh Sanjari is a member of the United Student Front in Tehran. At 23, he has been imprisoned and tortured many times. His last arrest was on October 7, 2006, after he wrote about clashes between the Revolutionary Guards and supporters of the liberal cleric Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi. Charged with “acting against state security” and “propaganda against the system,” he was released on $100,000 bail last December. Some months later, he fled to Iraq and moved to the Komala camp.

Unlike most Iranian visitors who use Komala as a safe house, Sanjari didn’t bother remaining anonymous. He told me his real name and said I could publish his picture. If you can read Farsi, you can read his blog at “I’m just now coming out of Iran,” he said. “It’s a hell there. I know the sufferings. I am inclined to accept any tactic that helps overthrow this regime.”

“Does that include an American invasion of Iran?” I asked.

“Maybe intellectuals who just talk about things are not in favor of that kind of military attack,” he said. “But I have spoken to people in taxis, in public places. They are praying for an external outside power to do something for them and get rid of the mullahs. Personally, it’s not acceptable for me if the United States crosses the Iranian border. I like the independence of Iran and respect the independence of my country. But my generation doesn’t care about this.”

Sanjari has fierce and intimidating eyes, the eyes not of a fanatic but of a deadly serious person who is not to be messed with. He spoke slowly and with great force. “They repress people in the name of religion,” he said. “They torture people in the name of religion. They kill people in the name of religion. The young generation now wants to distance themselves from religion itself.”

Islamists seem to fail wherever they succeed. Perhaps Islamic law looks good on paper to Muslims who live in oppressive secular states, but few seem to think so after they actually have to put up with it.

More than 100,000 Algerians were killed during the 1990s in a horrific civil war between religious insurgents and the secular police state. As a consequence, Islamists are more hated now in Algeria than at any time since they rose up. Al Qaeda is trying to reignite the war there, and it is failing spectacularly.

Iraqis are turning against Al Qaeda faster and harder than Iranians turned against the Islamic Republic. Harsh as the Islamic Republic may be, Al Qaeda is worse by an order of magnitude. Its now infamous warnings to street vendors in Iraq’s Anbar Province not to place cucumbers next to tomatoes in the market because the vegetables are “different genders” is one of myriad reasons why most Sunni Arab tribes in that region recently flipped to the side of the hated Americans.

Islamist law is so widely detested and flouted in Iran that it’s a wonder the regime even bothers to keep up the pretense. In June 2005 Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair that every person he visited there, with the exception of one single imam, offered him alcohol, which is banned.

Everyone I met at the Komala compound said the Iranian regime itself wallows deep in the post-ideological torpor that inevitably follows radical revolutions. Except for the most fanatic officials, the government cares only about money and power. “Followers of the regime are not ideological anymore,” Sanjari said. “They are bribed by the government. They will no longer support it in the case that it is overthrown. Even among the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards, there are so many people dissatisfied with the policies of the regime. Fortunately there aren’t religious conflicts between Shias, Sunnis, and different nationalities.”

Mohtadi concurred. “The next revolution and government will be explicitly anti-religious,” he said.

The Iranian writer Reza Zarabi says the regime has all but destroyed religion itself. “The name Iran, which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism,” he wrote. “When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”

It’s certainly possible to be overoptimistic. Iranian dissidents have been predicting an imminent revolution for several years running. Michael Hirsh wrote recently in Newsweek that women in Tehran have “gone defiantly chic” in style and that the men are looking “less and less menacing and more and more metrosexual,” which makes the place sound more like freewheeling Beirut than an Islamist theocracy. But the state, he added, could still endure for some time. “It is an old, familiar umbrella of oppression that now stays just distant enough to be tolerated, even if it is little loved,” he wrote. “The success of this oppressive but subtly effective system should give the regime-change advocates in Washington some pause.”

Whom to believe? Hirsh’s analysis has been the correct one so far, but Iran is notoriously unpredictable even for those who are supposed to be experts. The 1979 Revolution shocked even CIA agents who lived in Iran while it was brewing. They insisted the Shah was firmly entrenched and could not possibly fall.

The Middle East is so rife with conflict, factions, murky alliances, foreign interventions, multisided civil wars, and wild-card variables that trying to predict its future is like trying to forecast the weather on a particular day three years in advance. There’s a reason the phrase shifting sands has become a cliché.

If the Islamic Republic is overthrown, almost anything might happen. Iran could become a modern liberal democracy, as most Eastern European states did after the fall of the Soviet Empire. It could revert to a milder form of authoritarian rule, as Russia has. It could, like Iraq, face chronic instability and insurgent attacks. Or its various “nationalities” could tear the country to pieces and go the way of the Yugoslavs. Optimists like Sanjari and Mohtadi may have a better sense of what to expect than those of us in the West, but still they do not know.

The only thing that seems likely is that a showdown of some kind is coming, either between factions in Iran or between Iran and the rest of the world. Predictions of the regime’s imminent demise have been staples of Iranian expat and activist discourse for years, so it’s hard to take the latest predictions seriously. But authoritarian regimes increasingly seem to have limited shelf lives. As Francis Fukuyama’s flawed but compelling book The End of History points out, there has been a worldwide explosion of liberal democracies since the 18th century, from three in 1790 to 36 in 1960 to 61 in 1990. (In 2006 Freedom House classified 148 nations as free or partly free.) History isn’t over and never will be, but it hasn’t been kind to dictatorships lately.

The Iranian state is soft and vulnerable compared with the worst abusers out there, and it constantly faces resistance from citizens. Something will give.

The very softness makes it unlikely that the successor will be actually anti-religious and if Ayatollah Khhamenei and Rafsanjani lead an economic liberalization they could even preserve the Islamic Republic. But the region has hardly been characterized by the moderation of its revolutions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2007 2:53 PM
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