The good news coming out of Iran’s 2013 national elections is that as of Friday the current president, Holocaust-denying and apocalyptic-minded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is out of the picture. Everything else is bad news. Whoever winds up as president is going to be a hardliner and determined to build a nuclear bomb. Indeed, it’s not clear that the presidency matters much anyway, in a political system guided by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his son and protected by a well-armed and well-financed elite cadre that is willing to kill and die for their ideas and interests.
The race is down to six candidates, after one so-called reformer and another from the hardliner camp dropped out. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, one of the frontrunners, is the current mayor of Tehran; his rival in the “principalist” camp is Ali Velayati, a former foreign minister who did graduate work at Johns Hopkins and distinguished himself by entangling Western diplomats in fruitless rounds of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In international police circles, Velayati is also distinguished for having helped mastermind the 1994 terror bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires—the largest mass killing of Jews anywhere in the world since the Holocaust—an achievement that may have earned him his recent endorsement by a group of hardline clerics in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
The “moderate” camp is down to one after Mohammed Reza Aref withdrew his candidacy after he received a letter from former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami who told him it wasn’t his time. “He said it would not be wise for me to remain in the race,” Aref said. Instead, the reformers are throwing their weight behind Hassan Rowhani, who was the lead negotiator on behalf of the nuclear program when Iran suspended uranium enrichment for two years back in 2004. Iran’s current lead nuclear negotiator is Saeed Jalili, who according to a state-run poll is running slightly behind Qalibaf, carrying 28.7 percent of the vote to the mayor’s 32.7 percent.
A cynical reading of the 2013 campaign would suggest a replay of the 2009 elections—alleged to have been fixed in Ahmadinejad’s favor, even though, critics claimed, the “reformist” candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi actually carried the vote. With civil unrest in Turkey and a bloody civil war in Syria, the Iranian leadership is certainly prepared for the possibility that Iranians will again go out into the streets to protest the results of the election.
So, what should the United States do if civil unrest breaks out again in Iran? President Barack Obama was heavily criticized four years ago for not speaking out in defense of the Green movement. After all, by almost every popular account, the Iranian people love America. Many American policymakers, especially from the Republican side of the aisle, and regional experts still argue that Obama missed a golden opportunity to help topple the regime.
And it’s true that some of the reasons Obama offered for his non-involvement were feeble. Despite his “deep concerns about the election,” Obama didn’t want to be “seen as meddling” in the election. This owes partly to the bogus conceit that American support for Middle Eastern dissidents and reformers is tantamount to the “kiss of death.” On this reading, the president presumably thought that supporting the protest movement would hurt it—and putting distance between the White House and the Green movement would give it room to grow and, perhaps, bring down the regime.
Obama also expressed the wise concern that even if the Green movement were to succeed it might not make much of a difference. “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies,” said Obama at the time, “may not be as great as has been advertised.” Given that the two supported Iran’s march toward a nuclear-weapons program and backed Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups, Obama had a point—which is reinforced by the fact that all six candidates in the 2013 elections still want an Iranian bomb.
It now seems clear Obama was right not to back the Green Movement—even if it’s not for any of the reasons he gave. The chief reason his decision seems wise four years later is the Syrian uprising, which has provided us with graphic evidence of just how much violence and bloodshed it takes to bring down an authoritarian regime that refuses to walk away from power voluntarily. No matter how stirringly Obama might have spoken, it wouldn’t have made a difference unless Iran’s opposition was willing to kill and die on a large enough scale to wrest power from the current Iranian clerical regime, which despite its general unpopularity also has no shortage of dedicated followers who are willing to die to defend their millenarian vision.
It is an axiom in Western societies that political legitimacy is won at the ballot box. In the rest of the world, legitimacy too often comes from the barrel of a gun and people who aren’t willing to either shoot or get shot have no real place in politics. To have spurred on the Greens in Iran four years ago would have meant sending nice, moderate, liberal people—the kind of folks who may be willing to join street protests—up against a ruthless and well-organized machine that was more than happy to shoot them.
While Western minds and stomachs may rebel at videos of unarmed civilians shot down in the streets and believe that such incidents necessarily herald the end of the offending regime, the truth is that regimes that are willing and able to kill their own citizens often survive for precisely that reason. The operative question is who runs out of live bodies first—the revolutionary martyrs, or the regime’s killers.
A look at two recent victims of regime-sponsored violence in the Middle East is instructive: The first, Neda Agha-Soltan, is usually referred to as the martyr of the Green revolution. She was shot to death on a Tehran street by a member of the paramilitary organization known as the Basij. Hamza al-Khatib is similarly believed to be one of the first martyrs of the Syrian revolution. The difference between the two deaths is that Neda’s effectively put an end to the Green movement, while Hamza’s body, which was tortured and mutilated before he was handed back to his parents, effectively sparked the Syrian uprising, which continues apace, an estimated 80,000 deaths later.
The issue here is not to compare the courage of the Iranian opposition, and their willingness to die, with that of the Syrians. Most sensible people do not choose to put themselves in harm’s way for any reason at all—never mind the abstract political ideas that Americans cherish. The Iranian opposition shut down its fight against a hated clerical regime that sponsored an apparently fraudulent election with less than 100 of its own killed, thousands in prison, and their country intact; in contrast, millions of Syrians have fled their shattered nation, seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. Those who have stayed either have no choice or have chosen to wage war, trading blood for blood in an increasingly gruesome sectarian conflict in which the most extreme elements, like Jabhat al-Nusra, are also the most competent units, partly because of their willingness to die for their cause as well as kill for it.
The reality is that violence is an extreme environment in which extremists, whether they are Islamist or not, tend to excel, while more sensible people, like moderates and liberals, quite reasonably flee for their lives. American policymakers have enjoined many opposition movements in the past to stand against their tyrannical regimes, most famously Budapest against the communists in 1956 and the Kurds and Shia against Saddam Hussein in 1991. What these rebels needed to succeed was not American rhetoric but American arms. No matter how strongly Obama might have phrased his support for the Green revolution back in 2009, it wouldn’t have made a difference—except perhaps to run up the death toll. The same is likely to be true in 2013.
The lesson then for American policymakers then is twofold. First, U.S. support is tantamount to the “kiss of death” only when you don’t intend to follow words with serious action. Second, there is no use in counting on a liberal or moderate opposition to topple a regime that is determined to secure its power; precisely because such people are liberal, moderate, and sensible, they are unlikely to kill large numbers of people, or martyr themselves in large-enough numbers, to topple a regime that has the requisite supply of killers and martyrs at its command. Revolutions, it turns out, aren’t won by majorities at the ballot box, or by public opinion polls. The only political systems in which such things matter very much are democracies.
Americans are right to be moved that so many Iranians like the United States and everything America has to offer, from its political pluralism to its consumer goods. But in open confrontation with the Islamic Republic, that kind of opposition is not going to bring about meaningful change—let alone stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).