Watching the current turmoil in Iran following the recently concluded presidential election, on television, I can’t help getting the nagging feeling that I’ve seen it all before. It’s the common malaise that seems to inflict dictators and autocratic rulers all over the world – inevitably leading to their downfall. They overreach themselves with insufficient provocation. Recent history is replete with examples of this.
In the early 1990’s, Gorbachev was under tremendous international pressure to give Communism a more human face. He did make a start with glasnost and perestroika, but he remained a traditional communist at heart – and the Soviet Union remained intact. However, that wasn’t enough for the old style Communist oligarchs who longed for a return to the glory days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. They staged an abortive coup which proved to be the final nail in the coffin of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Empire.
Back in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was chugging happily along, looting the treasury and allowing his wife Imelda to become the undisputed shoe queen of the world. There was no need for him to do anything drastic, but he couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had opposition leader Benigno Aquino murdered and the rest, as they say, is history.
Then there was America’s favorite bete-noire, Saddam Hussein. For three decades, he had lorded it over his countrymen like a latter day Nebuchadnezzar. He had unlimited power and everything money could possibly buy. In short, he was set for life, but that wasn’t enough for him, Like Nebuchadnezzar, he dreamed of conquest. So he invaded Kuwait and started procuring weapons of mass destruction, thereby giving the two Bushes a great excuse to bump him off.
Let’s now get back to Iran and the King of Kings, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who faked his lineage to claim descent from Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago. I happened to be living in Tehran during the final two years of the Shah’s reign, so I can add a little personal perspective on this. Although a Muslim, the Shah considered himself a modern ruler and had no patience with the trappings of traditional Islam – like the veil. His people grumbled about being spied upon by the Shah’s secret police – and resented the fact that hordes of Westerners were invited to run Iran’s infrastructure projects and were given preferential treatment, but they tolerated it. The upside was that the country was flush with petrodollars; and they were reasonably well off. The economy was booming: a dollar was worth 70 Rials; now it will get you around 6000 Rials. He had things under control. Then Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Iraq, began spewing venom at the Shah and wounded the most vulnerable part of his anatomy – his ego. The reality was that Khomeini in Iraq could do little more than rant: Saddam made sure of that. He was no real threat. But in a fit of pique, the Shah persuaded Saddam to kick the bearded one out of Iraq. A fatal mistake. Khomeini ensconced him self in Paris, where there were no restrictions on his actions – and that lead directly to the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Coming to the present, there was never any real hope of the moderate Moussavi becoming President. Iran’s ruling clerics and their captive militia would have seen to that. If there is one thing, Iran’s theocratic rulers fear most, it’s even a hint of liberalism. 30 years ago, they came to power by convincing the majority of Iran’s populace that the Shah had strayed disastrously from the tenets of Islam; and that they were needed to bring the country back to the true faith. That myth has become stale now. To put it in perspective, one must understand that Iranians are not Arabs. Their brand of Islam, which seems repressive to the West, is in fact far more liberal than the Wahabbi strain practiced in Saudi Arabia – and by Al Qaida and the Taliban. For example, women may have dress restrictions, but they have a much more powerful voice than their counterparts in many Arab countries. 60 percent of students in Iran’s universities are women.
And Iranians have always had an individualistic streak in them. They resent being dictated to and made to conform to the mainstream. The present generation, while remaining committed to the Islamic faith, has come to realize that it is not an acceptable substitute for a degree of prosperity; and for being treated by a pariah by the world’s developed countries. They are no longer hoodwinked by the ruling clergy’s demonizing the United States as the Great Satan, for example. Thanks to the opening up of the internet – and despite the establishment’s attempt to impart only selective information of the world around them by the largely state-controlled media – Iranians, especially the younger generation, now can see for themselves what sort of life their counterparts in the West lead – and by and large they like what they see. Many of them may be uncomfortable with what they perceive as Western licentiousness and easy interaction between the sexes, but they envy the freedoms Americans and Europeans enjoy. Thanks to internet access to online versions of newspapers like the New York Times, Iranians have come to realize that, contrary to the propaganda they have been fed for decades, America is not out to get them and, in fact, Iran hardly registers on the radar of the average American. This is the base for the surge of support for moderates like Moussavi.
Of course, this new found liberalism is perceived as a grave threat by the ayatollahs. Therefore, Ahmedinejad’s “victory” was inevitable. Where the regime goofed was in the ham handed way they set about accomplishing this. The smart thing would have been to portray the electoral contest as a close one, with Ahmedinejad just inching ahead at the finish line. This would, no doubt, have disappointed Moussavi’s supporters, but they would have forced to concede that the result, though improbable, was not outside the bounds of possibility. Instead, by blatantly apportioning two-thirds of the votes to Ahmedinejad, thereby making it obvious that large scale rigging was involved, the establishment has shot itself in the foot. It is this monumental fraud that has angered many Iranians, far more than the actual result.
So what comes next? It is very difficult to predict anything in Iran with a degree of accuracy, but it seems that the establishment will be forced to slacken the reins. People power can be glorious and terrifying to behold. In the past, Iran’s Islamic rulers have used it against Israel and the Great Satan. Now, for the first time, that power and rage is directed against themselves – and they are deeply worried. It is difficult to predict how much the ayatollahs will concede, but it seems inevitable that they will have to give up something. It may soon become a matter of survival. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. The Islamic Republic of Iran will not remain in its present form.