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Iran: The Tragedy & the Future

The least that could be said, in the sunny morn after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s emphatic reelection as president of Iran, was that festivities of the kind associated with a victory by two thirds of the vote were on hold, discarded in favor of a putsch-like lockdown. Baton-wielding riot police in thigh-length black leg guards swarmed from the shuttered Interior Ministry in the early hours of June 13. They went to work beating people. Voting had closed the previous night in Iran’s tenth presidential election of the revolutionary era. Within hours, the national news agency, IRNA, had announced a landslide first-round victory for Ahmadinejad. Tehran was changed, changed utterly, and there was no beauty to the terror born.

A festive city awash in revelers and agog at the apparent vibrancy of democratic debate in the thirty-year-old Islamic Republic had morphed overnight into a place of smoldering eyes, insidious fear, and rampaging state-licensed thugs. People looked dazed, as anyone would, so thrust into desolation from delight. All the preelectoral freedom and debates suddenly looked like cruel theater controlled by a perverse puppeteer. “It’s a coup, a coup d’état,” people whispered.

Outside the already upended campaign headquarters of Mir Hussein Moussavi—the opposition candidate whose campaign had blossomed late in great thickets of green banners and bandannas—whining phalanxes of police, two to a motorbike, swept up and down. To loiter was to be targeted. “Throw away your pen and notebook and come to our aid,” a sobbing woman shouted at me, before vanishing into the eddying crowd.

I was still using a notebook then. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had not yet pronounced foreign correspondents “evil” agents, thus granting heavenly sanction to their manhandling, expulsion, or arrest, which duly followed. Like everyone that morning I was perplexed. The Iranian government proceeds with cautious calculation. The revolution’s survival has not been based on caprice. Had this government really invited hundreds of journalists to a freedom fest only to change its mind? I lingered when I could, ran when I had to, bumping into another railing young woman in tears. As we stood talking, a middle-aged man approached. “Don’t cry, be brave and be ready,” he told her.

I will call him Mohsen. He showed me his ID card from the Interior Ministry, where he said he’d worked for thirty years. He’d been locked out, he said, as had other employees, many of whom had been fired in recent weeks. We ducked into a café, where patriotic songs droned from a TV over images of soldiers and devout women in black chadors—had we just witnessed an election or the imposition of martial law?—and Mohsen talked about his brother, a martyr of the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war, and how he himself had not fought in that war, nor endured a sibling’s loss, to see “this injustice against the Revolution, conscience, and humanity.”

Iran’s dignity had been flouted, he said, the alleged election results emerging from the Interior Ministry plucked from the summer air. Why, I asked, had he admonished the young woman? “Because the best decisions are needed in the worst of conditions and crying is not the answer.” Mohsen told me he’d also admonished the police: “I asked them: if Ahmadinejad won, why is such oppression needed?”

His inquiry was reasonable in the face of unreasonable numbers. In great clumps of two to five million votes they emerged throughout the morning, without attribution to region. (A full geographic breakdown took ten days to emerge, presumably because reverse engineering takes time.) Throughout the unmonitored process Ahmadinejad’s share scarcely wavered, showing a near-perfect consistency across areas of vast social and ethnic diversity, and ending at 24,527,516 votes (62.63 percent), or almost 20 million more than the 5,711,696 he won in the first round in 2005.

This staggering gain was trumpeted after a campaign in which the incumbent’s record—of rising inflation, growing unemployment, squandered oil revenue, and, in Moussavi’s words, a “provocative and adventurous” foreign policy—had come under critical scrutiny from Iranians not insensitive to their pocketbooks or to proud Persia’s place in the world. Khamenei himself called the result “divine,” a miracle.

An insulting farce was the general verdict in Tehran, where, it is true, foreign correspondents were largely confined in ever more restrictive conditions (although my colleague Bill Keller went to Esfahan four days after the vote and found himself in the midst of a pitched battle between protesters and security forces). It is also true that Ahmadinejad allotted countless hours and handouts to winning over small-town folk, who may have been susceptible to what they heard in local mosques about his fast-forwarding of Iran’s nuclear program, transformed by the President into a patriotic symbol as potent as the nationalization of oil.

But it was in cities, not rural areas, that Ahmadinejad secured his triumph in 2005, a pattern for conservatives since 1997. That he built his landslide in the countryside is far-fetched. Even the twelve-member Guardian Council—empowered to oversee legislation and elections—which is stuffed with the President’s men, found irregularities in fifty towns and with more than three million votes, or over 7.5 percent of the total. This did not prevent the council, after cursory inquiry, from pronouncing the election “healthy” on June 30.

It looked sclerotic. The plunge in support for the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, from more than five million votes in 2005 to just over 300,000, or 0.85 percent of the vote, was just one of many details as preposterous as Ahmadinejad’s surge. Too many printed ballots, some 14,000 movable ballot boxes, and a dearth of observers—Moussavi’s were pushed out of most precincts—prepared fertile ground for fraud. Is there a smoking gun? Not quite. Was this a free and fair election by the United Nations standards to which Iran itself subscribes? No, emphatically not.

I’d talked on the eve of the election to Kavous Sayed-Emami, a respected political scientist who had done some polling. He was sure of only one thing. “Given the 180-degree turnabout from a month ago, when the election was dead and I expected a 55 percent turnout against the 80 percent I expect now, it’s become impossible for Ahmadinejad to win 50 percent in the first round. And that means a second round.”

He proved conservative: 85 percent of the electorate voted. Another week of campaigning, however, would have meant more freewheeling debate and green waves redolent of the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia. A statement four days before the election from Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard political office, should have drawn more attention: if Moussavi had a velvet revolution in mind, he would see it “quashed before it is born.”

The quashing, on that first topsy-turvy morning, was vicious. Anyone there knew something was rotten in the state of Iran. The fraud was in the air. That evening, on Vali Asr, the handsome, plane tree–lined avenue that cuts north to south across the city, I ran into a trembling Majr Mirpour, a raw welt across his back, wounds on his upper arm and thigh, and he told me how he’d been beaten “like a pig” as he bent to help a wounded woman. I was shocked and in truth, over the ensuing ten days, that shock never entirely abated as I saw the clubbing of women, usually by a Basij militiaman, who had been given a shield and a helmet and a stick and told to do his worst.

Weeks later I am still shaken. Iran lurched. The lurching was violent. Still, certain truths have emerged with some clarity from the enduring opacity of the country’s revolutionary power structure. The Islamic Republic, always beset by the clerical–liberal tension implied by its very name—one that has existed in Iran since its people first demanded a constitution in 1905—will never be the same.

Millions of Iranians have moved from reluctant acquiescence to a system over which they believed they had some limited, quadrennial influence into outright opposition to a regime they now view with undiluted contempt. The clerical and political establishment is more split—and more volatile—than at any time since the bloody postrevolutionary years, when scores were settled as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outmaneuvered those who had fought for democracy rather than theocracy.

Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has undermined the core concept of Velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the Islamic jurist. He has forsaken his role as divine arbiter—a man standing in for the occulted twelfth imam until his expected reappearance—in favor of a partisan role at the flank of Ahmadinejad. This carries none of his former aura—the French translate his title as le Guide —or former plausible deniability. No longer a representative of heaven, Khamenei is now implanted in the trenches.

There he finds himself alongside his second-born son, the cleric Mojtaba Khamenei, whose role in the violent repression appears to have been significant, not least in the control of the marauding militias. “Death to Khamenei” was the most extraordinary protest cry I heard, a measure of just how taboo-shattering recent events have been. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guards, led by Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, have moved to center stage in what Jafari himself has called “a new phase of the revolution and political struggles,” where his elite force “took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest.”

In short, a more fragile, contested, fissured, and militaristic Iran—its recent regional ascendancy undermined by falling oil prices, rising dissent, and more flexible and probing American leadership—has emerged. It begs many questions. Will solidarity outweigh friction among the mullahs? How will greater instability affect the country’s onrushing nuclear program? Can Moussavi organize effective political opposition? And might Ahmadinejad, now the most divisive political figure in the Islamic Republic’s short history, prove expendable in the name of compromises to shore up a shaken system? Given the political, religious, and social chasms now apparent, I would not rule out the President’s eventual defenestration. Nor, however, should anyone, least of all American policymakers, bank on it.

The Alborz Mountains soar above the north side of Tehran, their peaks arousing dreams of escape in people caught by the city’s endless bottlenecks. For young Iranians—and 65 percent of a population that has more than doubled since the revolution to 75 million is under thirty-five—the mountain trails are a physical escape but also a mental one: from self-censorship, from monochrome dress, and from the morality police ever alert for a female neck revealed or hair cascading from a headscarf.

Toward the end of a three-week visit earlier this year, in January and February, I hiked in the Alborz and found that frustration—about female dress codes, scarce jobs, and rising prices—was paramount in several conversations that depicted Iran as engaged in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse: a clerical superstructure sitting atop a society that has in many ways become secular, with repressive laws straining to hold back women emancipated by the education the revolution brought. Today, 60 percent of university students are women. It took ayatollahs to tell traditional Shia families that they should educate their daughters.

At the time, Nasser Hadian, a political scientist, told me: “I say to my students, it’s hard to wait but you should be patient. The laws of the country cannot forever lag behind the reality, and Iran’s reality today is that women have been empowered and secularism has spread.” Nor, I thought, in an election year, could politics forever lag behind these facts.

The June 12 election offered a potential bridge between this youthful Iran in rapid evolution, curious about the world and increasingly connected to it online, and revolutionary institutions that had veered in a conservative direction under Ahmadinejad. Presidential votes have served as safety valves in the past. They have provided modest course corrections that have made the term “Republic” not altogether meaningless. Iran was distinguished in a despotic region by its unpredictable elections, as when the reformist Mohammad Khatami won in a landslide in 1997.

Khatami, who ended up changing more tone than substance, said he would stand again this year, before desisting in favor of Moussavi, a former prime minister of impeccable revolutionary credentials, a distant relative of Ayatollah Khamenei, a staunch nationalist, and seemingly the very embodiment of unthreatening change. Khamenei, as president, had worked with Moussavi in the war-ravaged 1980s. Their relationship was uneasy but survived eight years. Allergic to another Khatami presidency, the supreme leader appeared to have made his peace with Moussavi, even if his preference for Ahmadinejad was clear.

But Khamenei’s acquiescence was to the Moussavi of early May: drab, detached, and dutiful. By early June, he had become the energized anti- Ahmadinejad. Apathy among Iranians had yielded to the activism that would produce the 85 percent turnout. Moussavi had been propelled in part by his charismatic wife, Zahra Rahnavard, whom I saw just before the election at a big Tehran rally where, in floral hijab, she began with a resounding “Hello Freedom!” and proceeded to warn that “if there is rigging, Iran will have a revolution.”

Green ribbons and banners were everywhere as she warmed to her theme: “You are looking for a new identity for Iran that will bring you pride in the world, an Iran that is free, developing, and full of vitality. We seek peaceful relations with the rest of the world, not senseless attacks and uncalculated friendships.” This was heady stuff. But those were heady days, and nights, marked by charges and countercharges in presidential debates watched on television by tens of millions of people. Opacity, on which the regime had depended, appeared to have evaporated with giddying abruptness.

There was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, no less, long the éminence grise of the regime, the head of the Assembly of Experts that oversees the supreme leader’s office, fulminating in a letter to Khamenei that Ahmadinejad could face the same abrupt downfall as the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, because he had “lied and violated laws against religion, morality, and fairness.” Ahmadinejad had accused Rafsanjani and others in the clerical hierarchy of enriching themselves. None of the rabid electioneering would have been out of place in Chicago.

So what happened to this pluralistic gale gusting across the republic until the night of June 12? We may not know exactly for a long time, if ever. But this much is clear. A fundamental battle between nationalist-revolutionaries and reform-minded internationalists played out, stirred by President Obama’s overtures. At its core lay the issue of Iran’s self-confidence.

Thirty years after the revolution, would the country continue to stand apart from the forces of economic and political globalization—indeed position itself as a revolutionary counterforce in the name of a new “social justice”—with the aim of preserving its Islamic theocracy? Or was it confident enough of its Islamic identity, its security alongside a now Shia-dominated Iraq, and its firmly established independence from America (another revolutionary achievement), to drop the tired nest-of-spies vitriol of Great Satanism and a self-defeating isolation?

The answer, in the end, was unambiguous. I think back to the severely disabled intellectual and journalist Saeed Hajjarian standing bravely beside Zahra Rahnavard at that rally—now thrown in jail and grievously ill. I think of the economist Saeed Leylaz, whom I saw the day before—now thrown in jail—and of Muhammad Atrianfar, another reformist I spoke to, also in jail. I think of Newsweek‘s Maziar Bahari, whom I saw at Ahmadinejad’s postelectoral press conference devoted to ramblings on Iran’s “ethical democracy,” now imprisoned.

Most of the reformist brain trust has been rounded up. Anyone who, like Rafsanjani, believes strongly in a “China option” for Iran—the possibility of opening to America and the world while preserving the Nezam (system)—has been beaten back for now. Mistrust of opening, and of the very rapid social developments brought about by the revolution, won at the last.

I say “at the last” because I believe it was a close-run thing. The Moussavi wave came very late, and it was colored green, setting off alarm about color-revolution at the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia. It also came with an unsettling offer of dialogue from Obama sitting unanswered on the table. As a conservative cleric and Ahmadinejad supporter, Mohsen Mahmoudi, told me a week after the election, “We would never allow Moussavi or Khatami to restore relations, because they would then have heroic status.”

America is popular with most Iranians, who would welcome a now remote normalization. So Iran’s New Right, gathered around Ahmadinejad, discerned two specters—velvet rumblings and a rapprochement with Washington over which it might lose control. It opted, probably in the last seventy-two hours, for the sledgehammer.

Everything looked clumsy and improvised in the days after the vote: the top-down way the outrageous results were announced; Khamenei’s appeal to Ahmadinejad to be the president of all Iranians, followed immediately by a radically polarizing speech from his disciple dismissing all those who didn’t vote for him as hooligans worthless as “dust”; the unpersuasive bussing-in of Ahmadinejad supporters who made a lot of noise but were outnumbered.

On June 15, three days after the vote, the ire of Iranians coalesced in the most dignified demonstration of popular will I have ever witnessed. Seldom has silence been deployed with such force. From Enqelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square, over several miles, some three million people formed a sea of green. With cell phones and texting blocked, and Internet access spotty, they had gathered through word of mouth in a city of whispers.

Slowly they marched, students and shopkeepers, old and young, with arms raised to signal a “V” for victory sign. “Sokoot “—“Silence”—they said if even a murmuring arose. “Raise your hands,” they whispered to the police. “Where is the 63 percent?” asked one banner. A young woman, Negar, told me, “We were hoping that after thirty years we might have a little choice.” From beside me, an insistent male voice: “We are dust, but we will blind him.”

In that moment, the crowd seemed irresistible, too large to be harmed, too strong to be cowed, and it was as if the whole frustrated centennial Iranian quest for some form of democratic pluralism, some workable compromise between clericalism and secularism that denies neither the country’s profound Islamic faith nor its broad attraction to liberal values, had welled onto that broad avenue.

The immense tide was pushed back. Every day crowds gathered, but never again in quite such numbers. Moussavi, confined, was neither visible enough nor vehement enough to seize the moment. At a big demonstration on June 18, he and his wife passed four feet from where I stood. He waved to the crowd but said nothing, a leader constrained. Obama, too, was constrained, rightly mindful of poisonous history, but still perhaps two days behind the curve with each of his escalating denunciations of the violence.

At Friday prayers a week after the election, Khamenei showed no such constraint, explicitly aligning himself with Ahmadinejad and saying street protests must cease or the resultant bloodshed would be on Moussavi’s hands. I watched blood get duly shed the next day, beaten women limping, tear gas swirling, screams rising, as pitched battles erupted between security forces now acting with divine endorsement and tens of thousands of protesters defying the Guide. That evening the murder by a single shot of twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, caught on video that went global, defined the reckless brutality of the moment: the image of eyes blanking, life abating, and blood spilling over her face will forever undercut Ahmadinejad’s talk of “justice.”

He is a weakened president. Force got the upper hand, at least temporarily, but at a heavy price. Ahmadinejad canceled trips to the city of Shiraz and to Libya as pressure mounted. Ali Ardeshir-Larijani, the influential speaker of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, attacked his suppression of opposition. Both men are moderate conservatives close to Khamenei. Larijani, who has presidential ambitions, will, I suspect, be a useful barometer of political sentiment in the coming months. Within the Majlis, criticism has also been severe. A majority of members opted not to attend a celebration party. Rafsanjani’s comparison of Ahmadinejad to Bani Sadr—the first postrevolutionary president who was ousted by clerics—still hovers in the air and, of course, Rafsanjani still holds powerful positions.

If political opposition has been clear, religious disquiet has been even clearer. In Qom, the country’s religious center, two important associations of clerics have denounced the election as fraudulent. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri—who fell out with Khomeini and, later, with Khamenei in part over the concept of the guardianship of the Islamic jurist—called the election result one “that no wise person in their right mind can believe” and dismissed Iran’s rulers as “usurpers and transgressors.” Ayatollah Sayyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, who was chief prosecutor under Khomeini, said protesters had the right to demonstrate. “The Shah also called the demonstrating people rioters,” Tabrizi said. “It was due to such reasons that the Shah’s regime was illegitimate.”

Ahmadinejad, a volatile radical, thrived on the radical Bush White House. Consigned to the axis of evil, he proved nimble at fighting back, identifying himself with the disinherited of the earth against the “arrogant power.” But damaged by the violence at home, facing a black American president of partly Muslim descent who has reached out to the Islamic world, and irretrievably discredited in the West through his Holocaust denial, he may now prove more of a liability than an asset. If Obama is able to coax Syria, Iran’s chief Arab ally, into an Arab–Israeli peace process, Tehran’s regional position could begin to look a lot less powerful, especially with oil at $60 a barrel, the economy in a downward spiral, and resistance stiffening in Iraq to Iranian interference. I heard the example of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani invoked several times after the election as an instructive example of powerful Shia religious leadership that respects the democratic process.

But of course Ahmadinejad’s victory reflects a harsh reality: the ascendancy of a hard-line coterie that is now fighting for its life and wealth, the latter sustained in part by the President’s channeling of no-bid contracts in oil drilling and construction to the Revolutionary Guards. A couple of days after the election, a member of Rafsanjani’s inner circle took me into an elevator and told me that the four men behind the fraud and repression were Hassan Taeb, the commander of the Basiji militia; Mujtaba Khamenei, the leader’s son; Saeed Jalili, the head of the National Security Council and Iran’s chief negotiator on nuclear issues; and Khamenei himself. He did not mention Jafari, the Revolutionary Guard commander, but the centrality of that 125,000-strong elite to the regime’s structure is evident. The clerical backing for these forces comes chiefly from Ahmad Janati, the secretary-general of the Guardian Council, and Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, a former head of the judiciary and Ahmadinejad’s spiritual leader.

A central question over the coming months will be whether this group is able to tough it out. Or will it seek to co-opt moderates into a new Ahmadinejad government in a bid to calm popular ire and signal conciliation to the world? Moussavi, Khatami, and Karroubi have all continued to denounce the violence used against continuing street protests, and Moussavi has hinted at the formation of a new political party. But his real room for maneuver in an atmosphere of near martial law remains unclear.

In fact, flux is the new state of Iran. The ricochets from June 12 are far from over. They are impacting an alienated society and a divided regime. Nationalist business people who talked up the pliability of the Islamic Republic to me in February now download manufacturing manuals for Molotov cocktails. An enraged popular push for a recount or rerun of the fraudulent election has expanded into something broader. This volatility was underscored when street demonstrations attended by thousands resumed on July 9, the tenth anniversary of the suppression of student protests in 1999. One student was killed then; at least several dozen have been killed since this year’s disputed election. Martyrdom is a powerful force in Shia Iran, with its three-, seven-, and forty-day mourning cycles for the dead, and its parade of ceremonies commemorating in self-flagellating grief the death of members of the Prophet’s family. It is certain that the martyrs of this ballot-box putsch will live and reverberate in Iran’s collective memory.

Meanwhile the centrifuges spin. There are close to seven thousand of them now, and Iran has produced about a ton of low-enriched uranium. Israeli officials have stated that their red line is close and indicated more than once that Israel is prepared to bomb Iranian facilities to prevent the country becoming a nuclear, or virtual nuclear, power. Joe Biden said this is Israel’s sovereign right, but Obama appeared to distance himself from the vice-president, saying that the US wanted to resolve the nuclear issue “in a peaceful way.” Little would be left of the American president’s pivotal outreach to the Islamic world if Israeli bombs rained down on Natanz: the distinction between Israel and the United States would be lost on hundreds of millions of Muslims from Cairo to Tehran and beyond.

Obama says his overture still stands. A path to normalization exists if Iran is willing to compromise on its nuclear program. But the whole putative process has clearly become more difficult: the Iranian government is of very dubious legitimacy, has blood on its hands, and is under destabilizing pressures that could prove explosive. Obama and leaders of the major industrial powers have now demanded an Iranian response on nuclear talks by September, moving up a loose deadline that had been set for the end of the year. There’s official international “impatience” with Iran. But nobody can control or time the fallout from Ahmadinejad’s power grab, and business as usual is clearly impossible as long as people are being clubbed in the streets.

The strategic imperative for engagement with Iran remains, evident from Iraq to Afghanistan and Gaza. The moral imperative to stand with democracy-seeking Iranians being beaten for protesting peacefully is also clear. This double, and conflicting, imperative argues for a period of coolness that could increase Ahmadinejad’s vulnerability. Obama is good at cool.

Iran overwhelms people with its tragedy. At night, I would go out onto a small balcony off my bedroom or onto rooftops with friends, and listen to the sounds of Allah-u-Akbar and “Death to the Dictator” echoing between the high-rises. Often, Iran’s brave women led the chants. Tehran is not beautiful, but spread out in its mountainous amphitheater, it is a noble and stirring city. Unrequited longing is a Persian condition. I’ve felt it in the Iranian diaspora—Iranians were globalized by Khomeini—and I feel it in the many Iranians I know who still quest for the freedom that their country has sought since people rose to demand a constitution from the Qajar dynasty in 1905.

A great desire and a great rage inhabited those rooftop cries. I hear them still. Iran, thanks in part to the revolution, now has many of the preconditions for democracy, including a large middle class, broad higher education, and a youthful population that is sophisticated and engaged. If Khamenei and the revolutionary establishment deny that, as they did with violence after June 12, they will in the end devour themselves. When that will be I do not know, but Iran’s government and people are marching in opposite directions. I do know that if the hard-liners maintain their current tenuous hold, the one way they will lock it in for a long time would be if bombs fell on Iran. Offers of engagement have unsettled the regime. Military confrontation would cement it.

—July 16, 2009

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