I do not believe it likely that the people of Iran will overthrow the Revolutionary regime in the next few weeks. This is not one of the goals of the Green revolution. Its explicit demands, however, do include not only the resignation of Ahmedinejad in favor of the popular reformist Mousavi, but also the resignation of the Supreme Leader, Khameni, who has supported Ahmedinejad. Contrary to what some overly intelligent analysts think, it seems clear that we should all be rooting for them to get what they want.
Westerners, including many Israelis, often find the Middle East to be a baffling place, and as a result they find themselves saying things that in any other context would sound absurd. One of my favorites is the argument that goes: “It’s better if something really bad happens, because then people will understand how bad it really is.”I heard this in defense of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza.
The obvious flaw in the argument is that less actual terror, with ambiguous world support, is still better than more actual terror with worldwide sympathy. Sympathy evaporates eventually; lives lost can never be returned. Predictably, what happened with Gaza was that Israel ended up losing on both counts. On the one hand, Hamas took over and built a massive terror infrastructure that enabled it to start taking the fight into Israel’s urban centers in the South. On the other hand, international support was short-lived. When Israel dared fight back, it was subjected to a brutal international outcry.
The same arguments are surfacing today with regard to the Iranian demonstrations since the election. For several days we’ve been hearing both Israeli and American officials saying we’re better off having Ahmedinejad win rather than the reformer Mousavi. (Today it comes from the head of the Mossad.) True, it’s unlikely that an explicit supporter of the Islamic revolution in Iran will suddenly become pro-Israel. It’s not even clear that he’ll stop Iran’s nuclear program. And it’s also true that there’s a limit to how much change a reformer can affect when he’s under the thumb of the Mullahs setting foreign policy. And yet, I still cannot imagine that having Ahmedinejad remain as president is somehow a desirable outcome.
This, for a few reasons.
1. The logic according to which it is “better have an extreme leader than a reformist one” is flawed. It is always better for things to be better than for them to be worse. The actual reality of life in Iran is the most salient reason — there is something perverse about wishing for the continued oppression of Iranians because of its possible PR advantages for us Westerners. But there are other reasons as well:
2. A Mousavi victory sends a stunning rebuke to the most extreme anti-democratic, pro-fascistic forces in the region. It puts a sudden stop to the momentum of extremism, which until now was threatening not only the citizens of Israel and the West, but pro-Western Arab regimes like Egypt. It is easy for us to say that we’d rather wait for the “real” revolution, i.e., a pro-West democratic one. What’s more likely to happen if Mousavi fails is that Iranians will conclude that they’re better off just accepting their rulers than trying to overthrow them.
3. A Mousavi victory creates a dynamic of reform — a dynamic which, once begun, may go much further than Mousavi himself may have intended. The image of Mikhail Gorbachev comes to mind, who was brought in to save the Soviet system by allowing a measure of reforms known as Glasnost and Perestroika. This opened the door for a popular revolt by a population that had long ago stopped believing in Communism as an ideology. We may not know who will play the role of Yeltsin, but looking back, it seems silly to prefer Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko over Gorbachev, just because it made Cold Warriors more comfortable to have a more unambiguously despicable enemy.
For days now, Mousavi’s revolt is gaining steam. It is being handled wisely, minimizing violence from the side of the protesters, garnering the quiet support of major Iranian figures like Khatami and Rafsanjani. According to journalists on the ground, yesterday’s rally brought together over a million people, and they are just getting angrier with every killing by the pro-government militias. The military has stepped in — to protect the demonstrators, rather than stop them. Iranians had come to expect a certain measure of self-rule by being able to choose their own leaders, at least to a point. Today they feel they were robbed. If they get to have their freedom, even in limited amounts, they may well end up wanting more.