Whatever happens in Iran in the aftermath of this month’s fraudulent elections, one thing is clear: we are witnessing not just a fascinating power struggle among men who’ve known each other intimately for 30 years, but the unraveling of the religious idea that has shaped the growth of modern Islamic fundamentalism since the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928.
The Islamic revolution in Iran encompassed two incompatible ideas: that God’s law — as interpreted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — would rule, and that the people of Iran had the right to elect representatives who would advance and protect their interests. When Khomeini was alive and Iran was at war with Iraq, the tension between theocracy and democracy never became acute.
Upon his death in 1989, however, the revolution’s democratic promise started to gain ground. With the presidential campaign of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, it exploded and briefly paralyzed Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the theocratic elite. God’s will and the people’s wants were no longer compatible.
To the dismay of Ayatollah Khamenei, who remains supreme leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, the candidate whom President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “defeated” in the rigged elections, has become the new Khatami — except he is far more powerful. While Mr. Moussavi lacks Mr. Khatami’s reformist credentials, he is a far steelier politician. And the frustrations of President Khatami’s failed tenure have grown exponentially among a new generation that is less respectful of mullahs and revolutionary ideology.
Yet in the current demonstrations we are witnessing not just the end of the first stage of the Iranian democratic experiment, but the collapse of the structural underpinnings of the entire Islamic approach to modern political self-rule. Islam’s categorical imperative for both traditional and fundamentalist Muslims —“commanding right and forbidding wrong” — is being transformed.
This imperative appears repeatedly in the Koran. Historically, it has been understood as a check on the corrupting, restive and libidinous side of the human soul. For modern Islamic militants, it is a war cry as well — a justification of the morals police in Saudi Arabia and Iran, of the young men who harass “improperly” attired Muslim women from Cairo to Copenhagen. It is the primary theological reason that Ayatollah Khamenei will try to stop a democratic triumph in his country, since real democracy would allow men, not God and his faithful guardians, the mullahs, to determine right and wrong.
Westerners would do well to understand the magnitude of what is transpiring in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s revolution shook the Islamic world. It was the first attempt by militant Muslims to prove that “Islam has all the answers” — or at least enough of them to run a modern state and make its citizenry more moral children of God. But the experiment has failed. The so-called June 12th revolution is the Iranian answer to the recurring hope in Islamic history that the world can be reborn closer to the Prophet Muhammad’s virtuous community. Millions of Iranians said in the presidential election, and more powerfully on the streets since, that they want out of Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream, which has become a nightmare.
No matter what Ayatollah Khamenei does — and at his most recent Friday prayer sermon he gave no inclination he’s ready to stop hammering the reformers — this message isn’t going to change. In the nine years since the reform movement around Mr. Khatami was crushed, it has only grown stronger. It brought within its ranks Mr. Moussavi, a favored lay disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini, who clearly has no regard for either Mr. Ahmadinejad or the supreme leader.
What may seem more surprising is that so many prominent first-generation revolutionaries have sided with Mr. Moussavi. There are many reasons for this, but among the most salient is a growing belief that the Islamic Republic and the revolution are finished unless Iran becomes more democratic. This hope may be naïve (once glasnost starts ...), but it is a powerful motivation for those who gave their souls to overthrow the shah.
It’s not clear what Mr. Moussavi thinks about democracy, but it’s a good bet that he’s willing to entrust the people with more power than was Mr. Khatami, who despite some differences could neither really break with his ruling clerical brethren, nor free himself from the age-old Islamic belief that the faithful need clerical supervision. And even if Mr. Moussavi isn’t the ideal reformer — he was prime minister in the 1980s — he is surrounded by the best and brightest of Iran. The regime has lost almost all the country’s intellectual capital. Even among the clergy, the best minds — the ones faithful Iranians talk about, like Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri — have distanced themselves from Ayatollah Khamenei. I can’t think of a serious book written by an Iranian since the fall of Mr. Khatami expounding the Islamic Republic as a model for Muslims.
The reverse parallels here with the rest of the Islamic Middle East are striking. Where secular dictatorships rule, the best and the brightest are often attracted to the Islamist cause. The moral repugnance of these regimes trumps the appeal of their Westernization. Muslim fundamentalists often espouse democracy either because it is the only peaceful means of dethroning their rulers or because they really do believe that most Muslims are “good” Muslims. Democracy would make their societies more virtuous, they feel, more likely to preach and practice the traditional injunction to command good and forbid evil.
Until now, the Islamic Republic has had a propaganda heyday among devout Arabs, depicting itself as a virtuous state with a workable level of democracy — just enough to give the regime legitimacy and stability. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament and the wicked genius behind the crushing of the reform movement during Mr. Khatami’s presidency, loves to emphasize Iran’s democracy when he travels abroad, always highlighting America’s preference for secular dictatorships.
Now the clerical regime can no longer make this argument. As Iranians have come to know theocracy intimately, secularism has become increasingly attractive. Iran now produces brilliant clerics who argue in favor of the separation of church and state as a means of saving the faith from corrupting power.
Indeed, Iranians are on the threshold of turning the Koran’s ethical injunction into a democratic commandment: nothing good can be commanded without a vote of the people. The democracy-supporting clerics of Iraq are trying to do the same thing, but the Iranians, much further advanced in their thinking about church and state, will surely be much bolder. Whether he intended it or not, Mr. Moussavi — and indirectly Ayatollah Khamenei because of his crude determination to keep the former prime minister from power — has probably begun the final countdown on the Islamic Republic.
We can only guess about the effect of an Iranian crack-up on the rest of the Middle East. Although the region’s Sunni rulers were spooked by the aggressiveness of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei (not to mention the idea of a Shiite state with nuclear weapons), the birth of real democracy in Iran, always the most dynamic state in the region, cannot but cause acute anxiety. Sunni Arab fundamentalists, whose day has not yet arrived, will be fascinating to watch. They will surely see the awesome power of democracy; they will probably conclude, however reluctantly, that God cannot be the sole legislator of the laws and ethics that good Muslims want to live by.
And American policy? For starters, many of America’s supposed allies may welcome a Khamenei crackdown. This may complicate matters for President Obama. But he should take note: inside Iran, the nuclear issue isn’t what the people are fighting about. They are fighting for freedom. Even if Ayatollah Khamenei proves triumphant in this round, the president should get on the right side of history. He has nothing to lose: the supreme leader is never going to give ground on the nuclear issue. And as the clerical regime gets nastier at home, it will become nastier abroad. Mir Hussein Moussavi is Mr. Obama’s only hope.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Middle Eastern specialist in the C.I.A.’s clandestine service.