When it comes to the instruments of democracy in Iran, there is understandable confusion abroad. Iran has elections, and in 1997 Mohammad Khatami won them by a landslide and initiated an eight-year period of internal reform. But this is only half the story of the reform years. The other half involves the relentless occlusion of the reform agenda by clerics who outrank the president, and the systematic elimination of every loophole through which another Khatami might creep into the state apparatus. By 2005 the country’s hard-line Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, had made it abundantly clear that he did not intend to tolerate a divided government. The mood of the electorate, in 2005 and at the two mid-term elections since, has been cynical and despondent. It was logical to conclude that no candidate who ran in the 2009 race could be expected to put up real resistance to the Leader, and that no reforms would be successful. And so it was particularly stunning to watch Iranians resurrect their hopes and place them in Mir Hossein Mousavi—even if they did so for the main purpose of ejecting Ahmadinejad from power.
When the Leader approved Mousavi and Karroubi as presidential candidates earlier this year, Karroubi lacked a constituency, and Mousavi was no liberal. Perhaps Khamenei did not count on Mousavi’s emergence as the vehicle for a groundswell of youthful democratic sentiment—meaning whatever his personal views or background, if Mousavi became president, he would carry with him the same social forces and the same expectations as Khatami, who was fatefully paralyzed between the demands of his supporters and the constraints of his superiors. Where Khatami was conciliatory by nature, Mousavi had a reputation for a steelier resolve. And there is the small matter of Obama, the outreach from the United States, and the unavoidable sense that most of the Iranian public and its political establishment, including all three presidential challengers, support dialogue with America. The major exceptions have been the Leader himself, his hard-line inner circle, and Ahmadinejad. Did Khamenei fear the presence of unreliable forces in government during such a sensitive moment in Iran’s foreign policy? Or did he want to shut down the possibility of dialogue altogether?
That the reformists, who urged participation in the system in order to change it, have been so thoroughly shown up this June is depressing on many levels. For all its failings, the reform movement has been the most constructive and effective channel for Iranian frustrations and desires under the Islamic Republic. While Iranian opposition activists have fiercely debated the efficacy of voting—whether it provided a fig leaf for dictatorship or a necessary choice among evils—hardly anyone in Iran’s opposition wants a bloody uprising. That road has been too well traveled in Iran, and so the contemporary debate has been among nonviolent tactics, some with longer timelines than others. But now the regime has forced the issue, leaving Iranians who oppose strong-arm tactics and hard-line policies with just two cards in their hands. One is passivity, and the other is revolt. The outcome depends in part on how high a price the regime is willing to extract from its people.
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