OpinionIran in the World PressLet the usurpers writhe

Let the usurpers writhe


ImageNew York Times: Think of normalized relations with the United States as the big prize. Who gets to deliver it? One thing is certain: Iran’s ruthless usurpers are determined to ensure reformists are never in a position to claim the breakthrough.

The New York Times


Published: July 1, 2009

ImageTEHRAN — Think of normalized relations with the United States as the big prize. Who gets to deliver it? One thing is certain: Iran’s ruthless usurpers are determined to ensure reformists are never in a position to claim the breakthrough.

That at least is the view of Mohsen Mahmoudi, a 34-year-old conservative cleric I ran into at a post-electoral rally for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and got to know over the ensuing week.

Rightist yet drawn to America, a card-carrying Basij militiaman from the University of Qom, a prayer leader at an Islamic cultural center in north Tehran, Mahmoudi backs the regime’s brutal clampdown but concedes there will be a cost.

“This is going to cause a huge gulf between generations,” he told me. “I was talking to a young woman who was a good friend of mine before the vote and she said she doesn’t respect me any more. She’s so angry she’s ready to die.”

Mahmoudi looked surprised. I’m not. Sentiment has shifted radically in Iran as multiple security forces deploy in defense of a lie. For Ayatollah Ali Khamouenei, the supreme leader, the question of how to win back support will in time arise. Enter America, the target of Great-Satanism but dear to most Iranians.

“Relations with the United States are the big taboo, and whoever breaks the taboo will be a hero,” Mahmoudi said. “The real fight is over whether the right or the left should rebuild ties.”

Referring to the opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, the cleric explained: “We would never allow Moussavi or Khatami to restore relations, because they would then have heroic status.”

Two weeks after Iran’s ballot-box putsch, mysteries still envelop it. Why have a pre-electoral freedom-fest, bring hundreds of journalists to Tehran to witness it, then put on a horror show, throwing them into jail or out of the country? Everything I saw — the sheer brazen clumsiness of the vote theft and its hysterical, club-wielding aftermath — suggest a last-minute decision.

I think there were two determining factors — one internal and the other external — behind this violent gamble, this historic error.

Nobody predicted the Moussavi surge in the last two weeks of the campaign. Even in mid-May, he was dead in the water. Then his why-spurn-the-world message connected, delivering millions of young Iranians from apathy to activism, and sparking the green wave that had “Velvet Revolution” alarms flashing in every Ahmadinejad acolyte’s zealous little mind.

You can hear the militia and Revolutionary Guard commanders conspiring: “We let this Moussavi guy win, or we go to a run-off, and this thing could get away from us.” For “this thing” read, our revolution and our ideology and our piles of cash (not necessarily in that order.)

The external factor was subtler. President Obama had unsettled the regime with his outreach. Questions from within assailed Khamenei: Is Great Satanism so integral to the revolution that you won’t talk to Barack Hussein Obama — black man of part Muslim heritage — even as the economy nosedives and the Middle East map shifts?

Then the regime sees Moussavi looming and the danger of a rapprochement with the United States over which it loses control: the nightmare scenario.

The guardian of the revolution panics. Operation Jackboot goes into effect on the night of June 12, decreed in the name of a co-opted God, despised and derided by a clear majority of Iranians. As repression (once selective and now general) spreads, so does popular rage.

I asked Mahmoudi, a big and garrulous man who sat in the front row at Khamenei’s ferocious June 19 sermon, about the election hailed as “a miracle” by the leader.

“Moussavi was supported by people who have lost faith,” he said. “We believe legitimacy comes from God. They believe legitimacy comes from the people, from votes. As long as it was a fraternal fight, it was O.K., but when it’s a fight about religious belief, the situation becomes unacceptable.”

The facts don’t support this view. Moussavi has redoubled his expressions of devotion to Islam; Allahu Akbar is the cry of his followers. No, the issue is simpler: Iranians, Moussavi among them, believe votes must be counted in the uneasy hybrid of a country called the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei may be transplanted from heaven, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was before him, but this transplant embedded in the Constitution has a price: The people don’t get to reverse the transplant but have some marginal, quadrennial say about its nature. At least they believed that until June 12. Now they don’t, which is why the regime may have stuck a dagger in its own heart.

So, I asked Mahmoudi, if legitimacy comes from God, why hold an election? “To get a level of acceptance,” he said. “The legitimacy of the election comes from the supreme leader’s approval, but the level of acceptance comes from votes.”

That Talmudic clarification is helpful. Demonstrations may have disappeared from Tehran’s streets of shame, but Iranian acceptance is at an all-time low. The government is now illegitimate. Power has been usurped. The equation has changed.

I think Mahmoudi’s right. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may begin to unclench their fist, as isolation and sullen defiance grow, in a bid to deliver what they would not allow the reformists to initiate: détente with America.

Obama must leave them dangling for the foreseeable future. He should refrain indefinitely from talk of engagement.

To do otherwise would be to betray millions of Iranians who have been defrauded and have risked their lives to have their votes count. To do otherwise would be to allow Khamenei to gloat that, in the end, what the United States respects is force. To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers.

The slow arc of moral justice is fine but Iran is gripped by the fierce urgency of now. Obama, the realist on whom idealism is projected, is obliged to make a course correction.

I say all this with a heavy heart. Non-communication between America and Iran is bad for both countries and the world. It complicates and undermines every U.S. objective from Gaza to Afghanistan. It’s dangerous and it’s unnecessary.

I’ve argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer. America renewed relations with the Soviet Union at the time of the Great Terror and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Operation Jackboot has not, as yet at least, involved mass killings.

But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed “justice” and “ethics.”

Mahmoudi told me that when he went to study in Qom, he had no idea what Iran’s nuclear program was. But there were regular classes on it. Scientists were brought in to enlighten the clerics. They were sensitized. The aim was that “We go back to towns and villages and talk in the mosques about the people’s nuclear rights.”

“It’s because Ahmadinjad stood for this that he became a hero to many,” Mahmoudi said. “He equated it with the nationalization of our oil industry and made it the core symbol of our independence and pride.”

But Ahmadinejad made many enemies along his mystical-militaristic way, not least Ali Larijani, the finger-to-the-wind speaker of the Majlis, or Parliament, and a potential compromise replacement. Larijani is not alone in realizing that the president has become the most divisive politician in the revolution’s 30-year history.

The price of Obama’s engagement may just have become Ahmadinejad’s departure. I think it has. His defenestration is not impossible; it would be forced from within where disaffected clerics and moderates abound; and it would restore an Islamic Republic, recognized by Obama, where both words of that self-description mean something, a land of God and people.

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