Dawn of a new republic in Iran?

ISLAM AND THE WEST By Daniel Brumberg On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to his native land aboard … Continued


By Daniel Brumberg

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to his native land aboard an Air France jumbo jet. Ten tumultuous days later the Islamic Republic was born.

Iran is now witnessing the 31st anniversary of this dramatic period, which Iran’s founding revolutionaries once heralded as the “Days of Dawn.”

But there’s a small problem: many of those revolutionaries, including several young idealists who accompanied Khomeini on his return to Iran, are now in open revolt. These disillusioned, gray-haired leaders are calling upon their young followers to transform February 11–a day of ritual of mass obeisance to the state –into a political sacrament of peaceful resistance to tyranny.

True to form, the regime has pledged to meet such defiance with brute force. Telegraphing that promise–and by way of a follow-up to the hanging of two protesters–the regime appears ready to execute another 10 young protesters. Council of Guardians Secretary Ayatollah Jannati has even declared that anyone who assails the government is a moharrab–an “enemy of God” who deserves death.

These threats will surely backfire. Indeed, in recent days the leaders of the opposition have moved quickly to reassure their young supporters that there will be no retreat from the struggle for justice. In fact, Mir-Hossein Mousavi has suggested that this struggle is nothing less than a revival of the 1979 revolution, a struggle to destroy “all those structures through which despotism could be recreated.”

Former President Khatami has echoed this defiance. “How wonderful it would be,” he observes, “if all the loved ones who are in prison were among us and we could all participate in the 22 Bahman February 11 rally together.” Clearly, these political veterans envision a very different dawn than the one the regime intends to celebrate on February 11.

But what kind of dawn, what kind of new day? Karroubi, Mousavi and Khatami seek a transformation within the system, brought about by a non-violent civil rights campaign that, in Khatami’s words, seeks “the freedom we are all talking about…the freedom of speech..and assembly.”

However, this goal may not be sufficient for their increasingly impatient followers, many of whom seek to topple rather than reform the Islamic Republic. Thus Khatami and his allies face a tricky balancing act: how to maintain credibility with the street while extending a hand to those in the regime who might still favor compromise.

Of course, there may very well be no objective basis for a strategy of conciliation. Still, from a purely tactical perspective the opposition may have much to gain from reaching out. This, after all, may be the only way to widen whatever fissures exist in a regime that not only still commands support among crucial segments of the populace, but which also has a massive security apparatus led by Revolutionary Guard commanders who view any compromise as the slippery slope to oblivion.

Rather than play into the hands of the hardliners, the leaders of the democratic opposition are seeking to discredit and isolate them. For Karroubi and allies, non-violent mobilization in the streets is not an alternative to compromise: instead, it is a basic prerequisite for shaming the regime into stepping back from the brink.

Do those who occupy high positions in the ruling apparatus feel such shame, and what is more, do they have the capacity to push back against the hardliners?

On this score, in the short and even medium term, there is little reason for optimism. Indeed, the one Iranian leader whose capacity for shame matters most–Supreme Leader Khamanei–is echoing Jannati’s hard-line. A revolutionary stalwart, Khamanei’s instinct is to punish anyone in his ranks daring to call for a negotiated settlement.

For this very reason, radical opposition forces probably see Khamane’i as a necessary evil. For them, his intransigence merits an all out campaign to topple the regime. But if some are betting on the Leader’s obstinacy to deliver Iran from the hands of tyranny, they may be disappointed. Given the hardliners’ determination to survive, and their ample means to do so, a polarized, regime/opposition confrontation could reinforce the former, thus postponing even a small measure of political decompression.

Anything could happen on February 11. If on that day the streets run red with the blood of hundreds of Iranian youth, Mousavi’s effort to portray the regime as nothing less than a rebirth of the Shah’s despotism might ring true in the highest reaches of the state.

This is precisely why Iran’s rulers will do their utmost to avoid the kind of public massacre that splintered the Shah’s regime– thus setting the stage for the 1979 revolution. Yet even if such a fateful day should come to Iran’s current rulers, a cracking of the regime could produce a myriad of outcomes, some of which (such as civil war), may be far worse than a negotiated settlement and narrow political opening.

What then is the way forward? As long as the current Leader remains in power, or as long Khamanei has no close confidant who can convince him to drink from the chalice of compromise, the road ahead will be long and difficult. The opposition must prepare for a protracted struggle, one in which non-violent defiance of injustice prompts from within the regime itself the shame and even desperation that points to the logic of conciliation.

Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and Acting-Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

By Daniel Brumberg | 
February 9, 2010; 12:53 PM ET

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Islam and the West

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  • YEAL9

    Until the Koran’s passages that call for world domination, female oppression and death to all apostates and infidels are deleted, Iran and other Muslim theocracies will continue to be a significant roadblock to world peace no matter who is in charge. Hopefully someday soon, the acting-director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace will make this demand of the Muslim world.