If the Soviet empire crumbled quickly with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Islamic republic of Iran now faces the disintegration — slowly for now — of a very different set of walls: the walls of the Persian garden.
A true crisis of legitimacy has developed in the wake of Iran’s tumultuous June election and the widespread evidence that the cleritocracy that has ruled the country for three decades rigged the vote in favor of the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The brutal crackdown by hard-line clerics and the Revolutionary Guards has repressed the political voice of the opposition in the public square — by jailings and phony trials, by torture, by rape, by up to 100 deaths of civilians.
No dramatic development on the order of the Berlin Wall is in the offing. But a very telling and potentially fatal step by the government that could yet prove its undoing is the fact their harsh crackdown has broken a long and near-sacred tradition in Iran: that people were free to express their opinion in private, within the walls of the Persian garden so to speak, as long as they did not carry their criticism and action into the street.
In “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,” his penetrating analysis of the Iranian psyche, Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author, explains the secret of the superficially democratic system that has evolved under the clerical leadership which overthrew the unpopular Shah (or “king”) in 1979. “It is perhaps because of the Iranian concept of the home and garden as the defining center of life that Iranians find living in a society with such stringent values of public behavior somewhat tolerable.”
Despite a promise to do away with class differences, the regime clearly has lost the support of the middle class whose hopes for enlightened leadership, encouraged by the 1997-2005 rule of reformist Ayatollah Khatami, were crushed in the recent election.
On top of the dubious declaration of a landslide by Ahmadinejad, the regime in Tehran has invaded that very private space repeatedly in recent weeks as they seized editors, students, academics and even military men in their offices, barracks and homes. Their overreaction has divided the clerical establishment with moderate and even conservative clerics issuing sharp rebukes of the regime and a president more known for his economic failures and vitriolic denial of the Holocaust.
It is too early to say that divisions among the Iranian leadership will widen and lead to further unrest. After all, the powers-that-be control the guns, the economic levers, the official media. But there is no doubt that the stolen election and ensuing repression spell grave trouble for unpopular rulers in a country with a very young, well-educated population that is more interested in free speech and Western culture than medieval rules and a political straitjacket, who know how to use modern technology to breach the very walls the regime threw up to stem a “velvet revolution.”
The political confrontation within Iran presents a tough challenge for the United States and Western powers — mainly because of the regime’s determination to produce nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies estimate that Iran could possess a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel’s leaders say less and have made open threats to attack Iranian facilities — although it is widely believed that they could not, and would not, carry out such an attack without American approval and assistance.
To date, President Obama has won widespread respect for keeping a relatively low profile in statements on Iran. He has criticized the regime’s crackdown, while restraining himself from the kind of heavy-handed attacks that would play into the hands of the hard-liners in Tehran who used the threats of previous administrations, especially George W. Bush, to deflect blame for Iran’s shortcomings.
Obama and European leaders must balance firm, principled support for the opposition within Iran with recognition they may have to deal with a fractured leadership in which the hard-liners prevail.
Another Iranian-American expert, Trita Parsi, counsels “a tactical pause” in efforts to engage Iran. Parsi, author of “Treacherous Alliance, The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States,” feels the Iranian regime is not in a position to negotiate seriously right now and is confident that a few months will not make a difference. A pause “could determine which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades — one in which the democratic elements strengthen over time or one where the will of the people grows irrelevant to Iran’s decision-makers.”
Meanwhile, “Allah Akbar (God is great),” the very chorus that foreshadowed the downfall of the Shah 30 years ago, is being shouted into the night again from the rooftops in Tehran. The hard-line clerics can’t be sleeping well.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at email@example.com.