By ROGER COHEN
Change Iran at the Top
It has come to this: The Islamic Republic of Iran killing the sons and daughters of the revolution during Ashura, adding martyrdom to martyrdom at one of the holiest moments in the Shiite calendar.
Nothing could better symbolize Iran’s 30-year-old regime at the limit of its contradictions. A supreme leader imagined as the Prophet’s representative on earth — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s central revolutionary idea — now heads a militarized coterie bent, in the name of money and power, on the bludgeoning of the Iranian people. A false theocracy confronts a society that has seen through it.
The emperor has no clothes.
Still, let us give this theocracy credit. It has brought high levels of education to a broad swathe of Iranians, including the women it has repressed. In a Middle East of static authoritarianism, it has dabbled at times in liberalization and representative governance. It has never quite been able to extinguish from its conscience Khomeini’s rallying of the masses against the shah with calls for freedom.
The result, three decades on from the revolution, is precisely this untenable mix of a leadership invoking transplantation from heaven as it faces, with force of arms and the fanaticism of militias, a youthful society far more sophisticated than the death-to-the-West slogans still unfurled.
Nowhere else today in the Middle East does anything resembling the people power of Iran’s Green movement exist. This is at once a tribute to the revolution and the death knell of an ossified post-revolutionary order.
Something has to give, someone has to yield. If the Islamic Republic is incapable of honoring both words in its self-description — that of a religious and representative society — it must give way to an Iranian Republic.
The former course, of reform rather than overthrow, would be less tumultuous and so, I suspect, more attractive to a people weary of tumult and flanked by mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yes, something has to give. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose death this month carried heavy symbolism in a land where symbols are potent, intuited the revolution’s unsustainable tensions two decades ago. It was then that the cleric once designated as Khomeini’s successor lambasted an earlier round of bloody repression and then that he began to criticize the office of the supreme leader.
Montazeri had been instrumental in 1979 in the creation of the system of Guardianship of the Jurist, or velayat-e-faqih, placing a leader interpreting God’s word atop circumscribed republican institutions. But he later apologized for his role in the establishment of the position and argued that he had conceived of it as exercising moral rather than executive authority.
His anger came to a head after the June 12 election, hijacked by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Montazeri then declared: “Such elections results were declared that no wise person in their right mind could believe, results that based on credible evidence and witnesses had been altered extensively.” He lambasted what he called “astonishing violence against defenseless men and women.”
I witnessed that violence — a putsch in the spurious name of God’s will grotesquely portrayed by Khamenei as a glorious democratic moment — and it was clear at once that Iran’s leadership had taken a fatal turn. It had shunned the pluralistic evolution of the Islamic order in favor of a lockdown by the moneyed cadres of the New Right, personified by the Revolutionary Guards with their cozy contracts and pathological fears of looming counter-revolutions of the velvet variety.
You can do many things to the Iranian people but you insult their intelligence at your peril. The astonishing, taboo-breaking cry of “Death to Khamenei” echoing from the rooftops of Tehran signaled a watershed.
It is time to rethink the supreme leader’s office in the name of the compromise between religious faith and representative governance that the Iranian people have sought for more than a century. It is time for Iran to look West to the holy Shiite cities in Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, places from which Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani exercises precisely the kind of moral authority and suasion — without direct executive authority — that Montazeri favored for Iran.
If the Guardianship of the Jurist can be rethought through compromise the Islamic Republic can move forward. If not, I cannot see the current unrest abating.
The Green movement is a loose coalition of divergent aims — much like the revolutionary alliance of 1979 — but is united in its demand for an end to the status quo.
A commander-in-chief transplanted from heaven is not what the Iranian people want, not after June 12; a moral guide, rooted in the ethics and religion of Persia, a guarantor of the country’s independence, may well be. It is time for a Persian Sistani.
The sons and daughters of disappointed revolutionaries do not seek renewed bloodshed. They seek peaceful change that will give meaning to the word “republic.” Khamenei, bowing to superior learning, in the best tradition of Shiism, should listen to the wisdom of Iran’s late turbulent priest.
Iran would thereby preserve its independence, the proudest achievement of the revolution, while better reflecting the will of its people, who overwhelmingly favor normalized relations with the United States.
It is time to retire the stale slogans of a bygone era. It is time for Iran to follow China’s example of 1972 in adapting to survive. Perhaps Khomeini, like Mao in Deng Xiaoping’s famous formula, was 70 percent right — and some brave Iranian leader could say that. He would thereby open the way for one of the Middle East’s most hopeful societies to move forward.
Speaking of tired slogans, it is also time for the United States — and especially Congress — to set aside formulaic thinking on Iran. Shiite Iran is not America’s enemy; Sunni Al Qaeda is, whether in Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan. New sanctions against Tehran would only throw a lifeline to Khamenei and further enrich the Revolutionary Guards. President Obama’s outreach is still the smartest approach to Iran, a nation whose political clock has now trumped its erratic, wavering nuclear clock.
Back in February, I wrote: “The Islamic Republic has not birthed a totalitarian state; all sorts of opinions are heard. But it has created a society whose ultimate bond is fear. Disappearance into some unmarked room is always possible.” That was too much for the Iran-as-Nazi-incarnation-of-evil school, who cast me as an appeaser.
I also wrote that, “The irony of the Islamic Revolution is that it has created a very secular society within the framework of clerical rule. The shah enacted progressive laws for women unready for them. Now the opposite is true: Progressive women face confining jurisprudence. At some point something must give.”
With the birth of the Green movement, and in the spirit of Montazeri, something has given. The further, critical “giving” has to come in the supreme leader’s office, where the 30 percent error of 1979 has entrenched itself and so denied Iran the governance and society its vibrant population deserves.