The Free World's Guess

18 August 2005

"Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary state." This quote is from an August 1978 CIA assessment of a government five months away from being toppled by the first modern Islamic revolution.

The phrase, however, could easily belong to many of the Bush administration's top analysts regarding the regime that replaced the shah in January 1979. According to Newsweek, a recent National Intelligence Estimate for the Islamic Republic concluded "that near-term regime change appeared unlikely." The International Crisis Group earlier this month reached a similar conclusion in a paper on Iran, finding that "any reform movement will need time to revive." And the historian Niall Ferguson in Sunday's Daily Telegraph wrote, "Far from being on the brink of democracy, Iran is now on the brink of becoming the single biggest threat to democracy in the world."

Brave leaders of Iran's democracy movement, men such as Akbar Ganji, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, and Ahmad Batebi, should not be discouraged by the free world's recent guesswork.They would do well to recall a meeting that America's ambassador to Hungary, Mark Palmer, had in 1989 with Secretary of State Baker. Mr. Palmer arranged for the president, George H.W. Bush, to meet with some of the members of the country's opposition fighting the communists. After the meeting, Mr. Baker told Mr. Palmer, "Mark, I know these are your friends, but they will never run this country." By the next year, one of those oppositionists who met with Mr. Bush,Viktor Orban, was Hungary's prime minister.

The point here is that civilian resistance movements are rarely, if ever, given much of a chance by outside observers. Who among the experts last fall said there would be tent cities in Beirut by the spring? Or that millions of Ukrainians would rush into Kiev in November and December 2004 to protest the poisoning of the opposition's leader?

The failure or success of nonviolent revolutions hinges on two crucial elements: the strategy employed by its organizers and the errors of the leaders these movements seek to depose. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri was a grave error for the Syrian occupiers of Lebanon. Bashar Assad's henchmen may have thought they were snuffing out the leader of a growing anti-occupation movement, but in doing so they unleashed a popular anger that more than anything forced their armies to retreat. When Slobodan Milosevic announced prematurely that he had bested Vojislav Kostunica in the 2000 presidential election in Serbia, it also turned out to be a major error. Few people ahead of time predicted that this widely expected voter fraud would be met with crowds rushing the parliament in Belgrade.

Iran's unelected leaders may be in the process of making a miscalculation today. Since the accession of President Ahmadinejad, three of his rivals have openly charged his campaign and the supreme leader with rigging the vote. Kurds in the last six weeks have rioted in the country's western province, blaming the new president for masterminding the murder of the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, in Vienna, a killing that took place in 1989. The unrest has forced the regime to impose martial law in Kurdish cities. There have also been reports of temporary strikes in the oil fields throughout the summer, in some cases from workers who have not been paid in months.

Importantly, Kurdish leaders have expressed support for hunger-striking dissident Akbar Ganji, who is under house arrest in Tehran's Milad Hospital and has sparked numerous demonstrations from his supporters and student organizations, even as universities are out of session. If pursued, these statements of solidarity could lay the foundation to unite Iran's secular and largely Persian democrats with non-Jewish or non-Christian minorities in the country who have had longstanding grievances with the regime.

The fate of Mr. Ganji has proved to be a dilemma for the mullahs who on the one hand have taken extraordinary measures to make sure he does not die by force-feeding him when he is unconscious but on the other hand have refused - despite calls from his political targets like the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - to release him from prison. So far, Mr. Ganji has refused to apologize for his so-called crimes, which include publishing articles and a book pinning a string of murders of prominent intellectuals in the late 1990s on the regime's leaders. While on hunger strike, his public letters have included bold calls for the supreme leader,Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down from power in nearly identical phrasing as Ayatollah Khomeinei's calls for the shah to leave office.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of the drama over Mr. Ganji. If the supreme leader lets Mr. Ganji starve to death, he may find himself in the position of the shah in 1978 when he tried to stifle a public funeral for religious philosopher Ali Shariati,only to find 20,000 turn up at his memorial and blame the current regime for his death. If Mr. Ganji is released from his detention, he will likely embolden other intellectuals and political leaders to challenge the legitimacy of the unelected clerics who hold the real power in Iran.

The mullahs may weather these storms just as they weathered the 1999 Tehran university uprisings and the 2003 commemoration of those demonstrations. But then again they may not.The American intelligence community did not predict the last Iranian revolution; what is to say they will predict the next one?

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