As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, Iran enters limbo, an uncertain yet perilous period of time separating anger-driven demonstrations from either bloody tyrannical repression or sustained popular struggle producing a liberalizing revolution.
Frustration, righteous anger and bitterness powered Iran's post-election demonstrations. These emotions are also fuel for revolution. Toppling Iran's corrupt Khomeinist regime, however, requires leadership, organization and time -- in other words, calculated assessments and cool political war-fighting skills disciplining the emotional fires of outrage and disaffection.
American independence required a field army, ragtag force though it was. Anger may lead to enlistments, but it doesn't solve supply problems. Anger fades when you freeze at Valley Forge; superior leadership -- leading by immediate example and demanding sacrifice to achieve common goals -- turns anger into long-term commitment.
It is possible the Iranian people aren't ready for the sustained sacrifice revolution against murderous tyrants requires. Confronting riot police and armed pro-regime gangs demands courage and a corporate willingness to accept casualties, meaning dead friends in the street. When and where this threshold is reached, then crossed, is a psychological and historical mystery, a gray rainbow of escalation -- hence limbo.
The Iranian people weren't ready to fight the regime's thugs in 1995, though broad dissatisfaction with the ayatollahs' increasingly corrupt regime was already evident. My co-author James F. Dunnigan said to me in 1995, as we worked on the Iran chapter of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War," Third Edition (William Morrow, 1996): "The Iranians aren't ready to die for freedom. Not yet." It was a blunt statement, a bit chilling, but accurate.
The surprise election of Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997 may have tempered public disaffection with hope. Khatami, a respected scholar, was supposed to lose, but he won over 70 percent of the vote -- a protest-vote candidate writ large. Moreover, professorial Khatami had the temerity to win re-election. The embarrassed Khomeinist mullocracy (with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, playing a key role) jinked the electoral system to ensure there would be no more Khatami-type interlopers.
Now, the robed tyrants pre-selected presidential candidates. As a result in 2005 the noxious, Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapon coveting millenarian, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became president.
Stripping the last vestige of democratic practice from presidential elections in and of itself did not ignite popular demonstrations in June 2009, but it is one spark -- like popular disgust with systemic corruption among the Khomeinist elites, an insistently stagnant economy and brutal behavior by pro-regime "basij" vigilantes. There are hundreds of other sparks that don't rate Western headlines but do grate on disenchanted Iranians.
In 1979, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini united Iranian nationalists and Islamic revolutionaries. It has taken three decades, but the June 2009 demonstrations indicate Khomeini's globalist Islamic revolutionaries have lost the support of the majority of Iranians, including nationalists who seek economic growth and modernization.
Arguably, the nuclear weapons program is an attempt by the Islamic revolutionaries to keep Iranian nationalists in the pro-government fold. But corruption, economic failure and endemic international troublemaking (with no positive payback) have cost the mullahs. By my count, the mullahs are involved in at least 17 regional and international conflicts (see "Quick and Dirty Guide," Fourth Edition, published by Paladin Press in November 2008). I write "at least" because each of these conflicts has complex "sub-conflicts" that Iran's mullahs engage.
America has its own universalist ideology, and the Declaration of Independence gives a darn good sketch of it. Iran's Khomeinists hate the United States for many reasons, but one of them is the clash of universal visions -- between their narrow, chador-clad, violence-enforced sectarianism (which in the mullahs' view will eventually control the world) and America's liberal revolutionary creed (which the Founding Fathers believed had universal appeal).
I'm not suggesting the American Revolution as a historical analog for Iran, but genuine revolutions pass from immediate emotion to sustained resistance. Sustained revolutions need "centering figures." Iran may have its martyr in Neda, the beautiful woman killed during a demonstration. Mir-Hossein Mousavi -- a former Khomeinist prime minister -- may emerge as a revolutionary leader, a man reshaped by personal ambition and opportunity.
The post-election fracas has exposed political fissures among the Khomeinist elites and confirmed Iranian desire for liberalizing, economically productive change.
As for U.S. policy, the ironic bind in which President Barack Obama finds himself is a vise of his own ideological manufacture. In his speech to the Muslim world (an odd notion, given the Muslim world's fragmentation) delivered the week before Iran's rigged election, Obama took the apologist's route, incorporating a sad mix of legitimate self-critique with factually suspect abasement.
I support diplomatic outreach, but rhetorical capitulation to anti-American propaganda themes used by numerous American enemies, from German Nazis to Russian communists to scores of Third World tribalist tinpots, is myopic. The tyrants fear freedom. Your myopic concessions to tyranny will haunt you.
The haunt came with astonishing speed. July 2009 reveals Iran's mullahs, with whom Obama once proposed negotiations without preconditions, as threatened dictators savagely repressing their own people's demands for change and crushing their hopes. Obama must get on the right side of history, and support life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in Iran.