In a green valley nestled between snow-capped peaks in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq is an armed camp of revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Men with automatic weapons stand watch on the roofs of the houses. Party flags snap in the wind. Radio and satellite TV stations beam illegal news, commentary, and music into homes and government offices across the border.
The compound resembles a small town more than a base, with corner stores, a bakery, and a makeshift hospital stocked with counterfeit medicine. From there the rebels can see for miles around and get a straight-shot view toward Iran, the land they call home. They call themselves Komala, which means simply “Association.”
Abdulla Mohtadi, the Komala Party’s secretary general, and Abu Baker Modarresi, a member of the party’s political bureau, hosted me in their meeting house. Sofas and chairs lined the walls, as is typical in Middle Eastern salons. Fresh fruit was provided in large bowls. A houseboy served thick Turkish coffee in shot glasses.
Both men started their revolutionary careers decades ago, when the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi still ruled Iran. “We were a leftist organization,” Mohtadi said, speaking softly with an almost flawless British accent. “It was the ’60s and ’70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against—the United States.” He seemed slightly embarrassed by this. “Sorry,” he said.
I told him not to worry, that I hadn’t expected anything else. The U.S. government had backed the dictatorship he fought to destroy. Pro-American politics had not been an option.
The Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, arrested Mohtadi and his closest comrades. He suffered three years of confinement and torture in the dictator’s dungeons. Modarresi quietly sipped his coffee while Mohtadi explained this to me, interrupting only to say that he too was arrested and tortured, and jailed for four years. Both were later released. And both took part in the 1979 revolution that brought down the state.
The even more tyrannical Ayatollah Khomeini replaced Reza Pahlavi, and the Iranian Revolution, like so many others before it, devoured its children. It had been broad-based and popular at the beginning: Liberals allied with leftists, and leftists allied with Islamists. It didn’t seem like a recipe for fascism, but that’s what they got. The Islamists came out on top and smashed the liberals and leftists.
Mohtadi is still a critic of the United States, though he is much milder about it today. “There has been lots of oppression,” he said, “and killings and torture and expelling people from their land and sending them to internal exile in Iran and shelling the cities and all kinds of oppression. The problem with the policy of the United States is that for a long time they neglected the violations of human rights in Iran. Also the European governments, the European countries, they didn’t say anything about the atrocities going on in Iran. They called it a critical dialogue, but it was not a critical dialogue. It was lucrative trade with Iran.”
Komala vs. Komala
Don’t confuse the Komala Party with the Komala Party. Iraqi Kurdistan hosts two exiled leftist parties from Iranian Kurdistan, both with the same name, the same (red) flag, and the same founder. Both parties have armed camps and military wings. Both built their compounds on the same road outside the city of Suleimaniya. They’re right next to each other, in fact. Stand in the right place, and you can see one from the other. The difference is that one is liberal and the other is communist.
I didn’t know there were two until I set up an appointment to meet Mohtadi, of the liberal Komala Party, and wound up inside the communist camp, unannounced. The communists were good sports about my mistake. They granted me interviews, introduced me to Secretary General Hassan Rahman Panah, and fed me lunch. They gave me the grand tour. They didn’t tell me I was at the wrong compound. That news came from Modarresi, when he called to ask why I hadn’t shown up.
On the surface, the two parties are more confusingly interchangeable than the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mohtadi says Life of Brian is one of his favorite movies.
Today’s liberal Komala Party members belonged to the communist Komala Party and the larger Iranian Communist Party until they bitterly divorced in the 1980s.
“They were hard left, to the point of Maoist, at one point,” says Andrew Apostolou, a Brookings Institution historian who specializes in the region and knows Komala well. “We took part in the Communist Party of Iran,” Mohtadi said, “but after some years we realized it was a mistake. We criticized that and split from them. It took some years, of course. It was not just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“You split with them over what, precisely?” I said.
“Over so many things,” he said, his voice heavy with disappointment. “They have lost contact with the realities of the society. They have no sympathy for the democratic movement in Iran. We think the time for that kind of left is over.” Mohtadi disagrees with Iran’s communists on every point that matters: human rights, democracy, economics, the appropriate use of violence, the proper stance toward the West. Komala’s economic views are still leftist, like those of small-s “socialists” in Europe, but Mohtadi flatly rejects systems like Cuba’s. “I know they have social achievements in health care and education and all that,” he said. “But in terms of political oppression and cult of personality, that’s outdated. It’s not acceptable for a modern civil society.”
For his part, Panah of the communist Komala said dismissively of his wayward comrades, “We do not speak to each other.”
Even in Iraq and Iran, left-wing parties fracture and withdraw into mutually loathing camps. The radicals always denounce the moderates as heretics, sellouts, “capitalist roaders,” neoconservatives.
Both Komala compounds were shelled and gassed with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. Saddam did his worst to erase the Kurds of Iraq from the face of the earth. Komala’s members came from Iran, and they opposed the Islamic Republic just as he did. But they were still Kurds.
Komala was defenseless. Komala needed an army, not only to fight
the Islamic Republic but to defend itself in Iraq. So it built
Those Who Face Death
The Iraqi Kurds called their guerrilla movement against Saddam Hussein the Peshmerga—“Those Who Face Death.” The contemporary Kurds’ professional army, which functions as a constitutionally sanctioned regional guard in the Kurdish autonomous region, is also called the Peshmerga. And the liberal Komala calls its warriors the same thing. They protect the base from Iranian infiltrators and death squads, and they cross the border into Iran during uprisings. “When the time comes we can organize not hundreds but thousands of Peshmergas,” Mohtadi said. “It is very easy.”
The last major Iranian Kurdish uprising was in 2005. It failed to topple the state, but it was huge and made headlines all over the world. “It swept many cities and towns and even villages,” Mohtadi said. “It started from Mahabad. Young people were brutally killed by the authorities, tortured and then killed.”
One of the victims, Shwane Qadiri, belonged to the Revolutionary Union of Kurdistan, which recently changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom Party. “He was a member of our party,” says party spokesman Zagros Yazdanpanah. “After that, all of Iranian Kurdistan rose up. Everywhere in all cities there were demonstrations against the Iranian regime. Our people inside are organized. Our people are in hiding; it is very dangerous.”
“There was an uprising in Mahabad and violent clashes between people and the authorities,” Mohtadi added. “That incident was spontaneous. There was no political party behind it. And from Mahabad, spreading it to other cities, we were behind it. We were the most influential political party that organized most of the demonstrations. We even organized its date and its time.”
Yazdanpanah says Komala shouldn’t take all the credit—his party organized demonstrations too, as did others—but he agrees that Komala’s role was substantial. It sent in its fighters, hoping to seize control of parts of Iran from the regime. The Revolutionary Guards and the police were too much for them, though, and they later had to return to Iraq.
Nadir Dawladi Abadi, a member of Komala’s Political Bureau, gave me a tour of the training camp where Peshmergas are made. We walked unannounced into a classroom where new recruits studied weapons. Everyone in the room stood up at once and greeted us formally. They did not return to their chairs until I awkwardly gestured for them to sit. I felt like an intruder, but they ignored me as the lecture continued.
To my surprise, there were women there. None wore a hijab, the Islamic head scarf, over her hair, which is required by law in Iran. The students sat in plastic chairs with notebooks and machine guns in their laps. “They are studying RPGs [rocket propelled grenades],” Abadi whispered to me.
Modarresi later told me new recruits also study what he calls “the Komala ideology.” The red Komala star, a branding remnant from the communist days, loomed like a baleful eye on the wall over the whiteboard. The idea of a red star and “ideological instruction” made me wince. Modarresi put me at ease. They aren’t reading Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto, he said. They’re learning about democracy, human rights, pluralism, and civics, concepts that are not taught in schools by the Islamic Republic. I can’t confirm Komala’s classroom curriculum, but the party members are well-known locally for being ex-communists, despite their continued use of the red flag and star.
“What kinds of weapons do they learn how to use in their training?” I asked Abadi.
“Kalashnikovs, AK-47s, sniper rifles, grenades, RPGs, and anti-aircraft guns,” he said.
“Can you tell me how many Peshmergas you have here?” I said.
Abadi laughed, shook his head, and laughed again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t even know the answer to that.”
We walked the grounds. Several members of the party joined us so they could listen in. I snapped pictures of everyone with my Nikon. Then, unexpectedly, they all wanted pictures of me. Out came cell phone cameras and giddy smiles. I posed with them for 10 minutes. Apparently, they didn’t receive many visitors from the West.
“How much longer do you think the Iranian regime will survive?” I asked Abadi after they put their cameras away.
“Ask your government,” he said and chuckled. Big laughs all around.
“What would you think if the United States invaded Iran?” I said.
“There are many points of view about that,” Abadi said. “But in general the people of Iran are happy to see that.”
“A war?” I said. “Really?”
“Invasion, yes,” he said. “The people of Iran are thinking politically. The people have had many bad experiences since the 1979 revolution. They want the American people to topple the regime, not to occupy the land.”
He did not only mean that the Kurds of Iran want a war, as the Kurds of Iraq wanted a war. He also meant most Persians want an invasion.
This is not the official Komala line. “We are not for a military attack by the United States,” Mohtadi said later. “Support the internal opposition against the regime. That’s the best way to change. We are for regime change.”
Abadi’s claim that Iranians as a whole would support an invasion of Iran is a bit dubious. Some would certainly support it. But the regime points to the threat of invasion as an excuse to remain in power, and there is a danger that American intervention would merely drive potential rebels back into the government’s arms. Even among the anti-regime activists, there are many—including Abadi’s boss, Abdulla Mohtadi—who say they want revolution and not an invasion.
The Komala Party’s members, or at least its senior leaders, are among the most experienced armed revolutionaries in the world. They’ve already toppled one Iranian government, badly as it may have turned out for them in the end. As they plot another insurrection, they hope this won’t be a rerun of the last one. “We are for democratic values,” Mohtadi told me. “We are for political freedoms, religious freedoms, secularism, pluralism, federalism, equality of men and women, Kurdish rights, social justice. We are for a good labor law, labor unions. There is an element of the left in our political program.”
They sounded like European-style social democrats. I asked if I could describe them that way. “We won’t be angry,” Modarresi replied with a laugh.
Terror and Liberalism
When are acts of violence against a state justified? What kind of violence is moral, and what kind is not? These are the questions Komala grapples with.
The old-school Komala Party, Hassan Panah’s communist group down the road, thinks any act of violence against an oppressive state is justified, including attacks on civilians who live in and visit the country. For the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla militia waging a terrorist war in Eastern Turkey, Turkish soldiers, cops, and civilians are legitimate targets. So are Kurdish civilians opposed to the PKK’s program and methods. So are foreign tourists who visit the Turkish beaches. Recently the PKK opened a branch in Iran, where it pretends to be something else. There it calls itself the Party of Free Youths in Kurdistan, or PJAK. Panah’s Komala supports both the PKK and PJAK.
An ancient Middle Eastern saying holds that “the enemy of my
enemy is my friend.” It may seem Panah’s party subscribes to this
maxim, despite the fact that its Islamist “friends” in the Iranian
Revolution of 1979 liquidated the left when they came to power. But
Panah won’t even speak to Abdulla Mohtadi or anyone else in the
liberal Komala Party. And Panah’s party, like Mohtadi’s, is heavily
armed. The communists holed up in their own lonely compound are, if
not terrorists themselves, at least armed supporters of terrorists.
At the end of the day,
this may be a distinction without much difference.
Running an ethically sound revolution requires hard moral as well as political work, and Mohtadi will have none of Panah’s apologetics for scoundrels, even if it means the Islamic Republic will last longer. “They are very fanatic in their nationalism,” he said of the PKK. “They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles, no friendship, no contracts, no values. In the name of the Kurdish movement, they eliminate everybody.”
Mohtadi and his party also stand foursquare against the Iranian Mujahideen Khalq, a small and ideologically bizarre armed group that fuses Marxism, Islamism, Iranian nationalism, and a personality cult around its leaders. They appear on most country’s lists of terrorist organizations, including those of both Iran and the United States. Mohtadi knows all too well what happens to revolutions with totalitarians in them. Even his old comrade Panah knew that when they worked together in the 1970s.
“We were not against revolution,” Mohtadi said. “We were not against overthrowing the regime of the Shah. What we were against was violence by small groups of guerrillas who were separated from the mass movement. There were two different groups, religious and secular leftist guerrilla groups, who were influential at that time. People thought they were the way out of the dictatorship. Many, many intellectuals and students and political activists joined them. But we wrote different pamphlets criticizing their methods.”
These aren’t academic questions in the Middle East. Opposing this or that faction or group isn’t about political posturing, as it often is in the West. Dilemmas over the use of force don’t apply strictly to the struggle inside Iran. The Islamic Republic sends spies into Iraq. Gun fights between government agents and party members have broken out on the roads in the province. Occasionally, Mohtadi told me, his people awkwardly run across Tehran’s men in the city markets of Iraqi Kurdistan’s northeastern city of Suleimaniya. There they can pretend they didn’t see or don’t know each other.
Most worrying is when the regime’s secret police sneak into the compound.
Nadir Abadi showed me to a small one-room building on the Peshmerga training grounds. Three men lounging inside on the floor stood up to greet us. “These people recently came out of Iran,” he said. “They want to become Peshmergas. We have to investigate them first, so they have to stay here two or three months. After their identities are cleared, they will join the training courses.”
“I’m curious how you investigate them,” I said, “but I suppose you can’t tell me.”
“We have contacts with underground activists who do such kind of things,” he said. “We can learn about them from them. It’s not that complex.”
But it does take several months. And what, I asked, do they do when they catch someone they think is a spy?
“We don’t have jails here,” Abadi said. “We thought about executing them. But we don’t want to do that. So we make them sign a paper and confess their guilt and promise not to do it again. Then we send them back to Iran.”
It may sound like a weak response in such a tough neighborhood, assuming the claim is true. But unless the regime has figured out a way to evade Komala’s own intelligence agents, the seemingly weak response apparently works. It has been years now, Abadi said, since they caught anyone on site working for the Islamic Republic.
Some armed political parties in the region sucker gullible reporters into portraying them as more moderate and reasonable than they really are. A member of Hezbollah’s political bureau tried it with me before their media relations department threatened and blacklisted me. But Brookings’ Apostolou doesn’t think the party is playing the fake moderate game. “They are not linked to the PKK, PJAK, or the Mujahideen Khalq,” he told me.
“We were against the guerrilla warfare movement that swept the world in the 1970s,” Mohtadi said. “We had our theories against that. We believed in political work, raising awareness, organizing people.”
Komala’s model of the ideal guerrilla movement is Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga. These men (and, yes, women) were and are a genuine “people’s army” backed almost unanimously by civilians. (The PKK, meanwhile, car bombs its Kurdish opponents.) The Peshmerga fought honorably against Saddam Hussein without resorting to the terrorism and authoritarianism that corrupt so many Middle Eastern militants of both the left and the right.
Komala’s stance on erstwhile enemies such as the United States also is—and was—complex and cautious. Mohtadi bristled when I off-handedly, without meaning offense, referred to the party’s previous position as anti-American. “We were not anti-American,” he said. “We were against the policies of the United States at that time.”
I’ve heard this sort of thing before from people who don’t really mean it. At least a dozen Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah have told me, a tad unconvincingly, that their “Death to America” slogan expresses merely a policy disagreement with the United States. There may be a small point in there somewhere. The Arabic language is flush with hyperbole. But if the U.S. government opened sessions of Congress by shouting “Death to Hezbollah” or, worse, “Death to Lebanon,” I doubt Hezbollah would take it in stride.
Mohtadi, though, isn’t made of Hezbollah material. Instead of railing against the United States and waging war on its allies in the region, he recently met with State Department officials and asked for help from the American government. “We are not asking for an invasion,” he told Eli Lake at The New York Sun in April. “We are saying that helping Iranian parties fight for democracy and regime change is good for us and good for America.”
Mohtadi and Modarresi asked me to stay for dinner. Several other political bureau members joined us at the table. Servants brought us baked chicken, barbecued lamb, steamed rice, an enormous stuffed fish from one of Kurdistan’s lakes, and four bottles of red wine from Lebanon.
The 66 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 finally came up in conversation. “We were against that from the very beginning,” Mohtadi said. I half expected him to bang his fist on the table. Suddenly his soothing demeanor was gone. Mention of the hostage episode had riled him up. He may have been politically anti-American when the embassy workers were taken, but he says that act of anti-Americanism gravely violated his own standards of conduct.
Besides, the United States now is a potential if not actual ally in Mohtadi’s struggle against the Islamic Republic. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mohtadi’s list of ideological foes has changed over time. Today his enemies are precisely those with whom he aligned himself during the battle against the Shah: the totalitarian left and the Islamist right.
Iran Isn’t Iraq
More encouraging than Komala’s moderation and political evolution is its plausible claim—backed up by most Iranian activists, expatriates, and dissidents—that Iranian society as a whole is far more sensible and mature than it was in 1979, at least at the level below the state, on the street. The aftermath of an Iranian revolution, Mohtadi said, will not resemble the postwar occupation of Iraq with its civil war, insurgency, kidnappings, and car bombs.
“We have an internal opposition,” he said. “We have an internal movement against the regime. Women were warned not to celebrate 8 March, Women’s Day. They did. There are demonstrations in Iran. There are movements in Iran. You have the intellectuals, the political activists, the human rights activists, then the Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, different nationalities. There is a movement in Iran, unlike in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, where you had Kurds and nobody else.” (Iraq’s Shia did rise up against Saddam in 1991, but they had been quiet since Baghdad’s brutal response to that insurrection.) “It’s not like that in Iran.”
Iran’s opposition undoubtedly has more breadth and maturity than Iraq’s did under Saddam Hussein. And if Iran’s government falls to a mass revolution rooted in civil society instead of an outside invasion, post-regime chaos is less likely—assuming the various ethnic groups can hold it together.
Iran is commonly thought of as Persian, but ethnic Persians make up only 51 percent of the population. Twenty-five percent are Turkish Azeris, 10 percent are Kurds, and smaller numbers are Baluchis and Arabs. How are Iran’s relations among its various “nationalities”? “Much better than the relations between Kurds and Arabs” in Iraq and Syria, Mohtadi said. “Historically Persians and Kurds have been, as people say, cousins. Culturally they are closer to each other than Kurds and Arabs, who have almost nothing in common.”
“The Iranian people and the Iranian Kurds are more developed,” he continued. “They are more cultured; they are more organized. Even the Iraqi Kurds admit that culturally [Iranian Kurds] are higher and more developed economically. The credit doesn’t go to the Islamic Republic. For a long time Iran has been a civilization. Iraq’s tribal and medieval culture, the brutality, the lawlessness, revenge—Iraq was very primitive and still is, apart from Kurdistan. You look at it, and you become astonished at how undeveloped politically they are.”
He has a point. Iraqi Kurds built the only safe, prosperous, and politically moderate place in Iraq, yet they admire the Iranians (though not their government). The Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleimaniya is far more liberal and open, and noticeably less backward and tribal, than the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Erbil and Dohuk. This, according to people who live there, is partly due to Suleimaniya’s proximity to Iran and the centuries-long liberalizing effect Iranian Persians and Kurds have had on their culture.
Mohtadi could be wrong. Maybe he’s talking about a minority that looks to him like a majority. Perhaps his analysis is slightly deceitful, a little self-serving. These things happen. We know how inaccurate Ahmed Chalabi’s rosy predictions about post-Saddam Iraq turned out to be. There is no way to know for certain until the Islamic Republic is gone. If Mohtadi does turn out to be wrong, though, he won’t be alone. Most opposition groups inside and outside Iran claim the Iranian people—Persians, Kurds, and Azeris alike—are far more prepared than Iraqis for civil, democratic politics.
What they don’t know—what no one can know, and what may in the end matter most—is how much damage a fanatical minority can do in Iran after it’s thrown out of power. It may not matter if most Iranians want a normal life in a quiet country. Most Iraqis are not insurgents, but the insurgency rages on.
We can look, though, at the behavior of the ruling fanatics
today. As oppressive as the Iranian government is, it’s an
enlightened model of restraint compared with Saddam’s regime in
Saddam destroyed the city of Halabja with air strikes, artillery, chemical weapons, and napalm. He wiped out 95 percent of the villages in northern Iraq. He drained the marshes in southern Iraq and chopped down the forests of Kurdistan. He threw dissidents into industrial shredders and acid baths. The most mundane things were banned: cell phones, maps, even weather reports. The Mukhabarat, his secret police, arrested anyone who so much as looked at one of his palaces. Iraq was the North Korea of the Middle East.
Iran is harsh, but it isn’t quite that bad. Opposition to the regime is widespread, deep, and open—an unthinkable situation in Saddam’s Iraq. It’s impossible for the Iranian government to crack down on everyone. The police don’t even try anymore.
“You can complain about the government,” Mohtadi said. “You can insult them. But America is a red line. Khomeini himself is a red line. The Israelis are a red line, absolutely.” Iranians can’t buck the party line on certain topics, but they are brave enough, or just barely free enough, to protest the government to its face. “When [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad spoke to students,” Mohtadi pointed out, “hundreds of students stood up and called him a fascist and burned his picture.”
Iran’s Genocide of Islam
Sealing the rugged Iran-Iraq border is all but impossible in the north, where like-minded Kurds live on both sides of it. People, as well as goods, cross every hour. Alcohol is smuggled into Iran. Gasoline and drugs are smuggled out. Komala’s location in the area makes it the perfect place for a vast, sprawling safe house. Activists, underground party members, and dissidents from Iran—the Persian heartland as well as from Iranian Kurdistan—slip through the mountains to visit every day.
I’ve stood on the border myself and contemplated walking undetected into Iran. Komala leaders even offered to take me across and embed me themselves. “We can get you inside Iran and leave you for weeks, if you want, among our supporters and among our people,” Mohtadi said. “It is very easy.”
If I were caught in Iran without a visa or an entry stamp in my passport, I would almost surely be jailed as a spy. Tempting as the offer was, I had to pass. Anyway, I could speak to Iranian dissidents, if not necessarily ordinary Iranians, in the Komala camp just as easily as I could have inside Iran. As it happened, a famous Persian writer and dissident had arrived there just before I did.
Kianoosh Sanjari is a member of the United Student Front in Tehran. At 23, he has been imprisoned and tortured many times. His last arrest was on October 7, 2006, after he wrote about clashes between the Revolutionary Guards and supporters of the liberal cleric Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi. Charged with “acting against state security” and “propaganda against the system,” he was released on $100,000 bail last December. Some months later, he fled to Iraq and moved to the Komala camp.
Unlike most Iranian visitors who use Komala as a safe house, Sanjari didn’t bother remaining anonymous. He told me his real name and said I could publish his picture. If you can read Farsi, you can read his blog at ks61.blogspot.com. “I’m just now coming out of Iran,” he said. “It’s a hell there. I know the sufferings. I am inclined to accept any tactic that helps overthrow this regime.”
“Does that include an American invasion of Iran?” I asked.
“Maybe intellectuals who just talk about things are not in favor of that kind of military attack,” he said. “But I have spoken to people in taxis, in public places. They are praying for an external outside power to do something for them and get rid of the mullahs. Personally, it’s not acceptable for me if the United States crosses the Iranian border. I like the independence of Iran and respect the independence of my country. But my generation doesn’t care about this.”
Sanjari has fierce and intimidating eyes, the eyes not of a fanatic but of a deadly serious person who is not to be messed with. He spoke slowly and with great force. “They repress people in the name of religion,” he said. “They torture people in the name of religion. They kill people in the name of religion. The young generation now wants to distance themselves from religion itself.”
Islamists seem to fail wherever they succeed. Perhaps Islamic law looks good on paper to Muslims who live in oppressive secular states, but few seem to think so after they actually have to put up with it.
More than 100,000 Algerians were killed during the 1990s in a horrific civil war between religious insurgents and the secular police state. As a consequence, Islamists are more hated now in Algeria than at any time since they rose up. Al Qaeda is trying to reignite the war there, and it is failing spectacularly.
Iraqis are turning against Al Qaeda faster and harder than Iranians turned against the Islamic Republic. Harsh as the Islamic Republic may be, Al Qaeda is worse by an order of magnitude. Its now infamous warnings to street vendors in Iraq’s Anbar Province not to place cucumbers next to tomatoes in the market because the vegetables are “different genders” is one of myriad reasons why most Sunni Arab tribes in that region recently flipped to the side of the hated Americans.
Islamist law is so widely detested and flouted in Iran that it’s a wonder the regime even bothers to keep up the pretense. In June 2005 Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair that every person he visited there, with the exception of one single imam, offered him alcohol, which is banned.
Everyone I met at the Komala compound said the Iranian regime itself wallows deep in the post-ideological torpor that inevitably follows radical revolutions. Except for the most fanatic officials, the government cares only about money and power. “Followers of the regime are not ideological anymore,” Sanjari said. “They are bribed by the government. They will no longer support it in the case that it is overthrown. Even among the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards, there are so many people dissatisfied with the policies of the regime. Fortunately there aren’t religious conflicts between Shias, Sunnis, and different nationalities.”
Mohtadi concurred. “The next revolution and government will be explicitly anti-religious,” he said.
The Iranian writer Reza Zarabi says the regime has all but destroyed religion itself. “The name Iran, which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism,” he wrote. “When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”
It’s certainly possible to be overoptimistic. Iranian dissidents have been predicting an imminent revolution for several years running. Michael Hirsh wrote recently in Newsweek that women in Tehran have “gone defiantly chic” in style and that the men are looking “less and less menacing and more and more metrosexual,” which makes the place sound more like freewheeling Beirut than an Islamist theocracy. But the state, he added, could still endure for some time. “It is an old, familiar umbrella of oppression that now stays just distant enough to be tolerated, even if it is little loved,” he wrote. “The success of this oppressive but subtly effective system should give the regime-change advocates in Washington some pause.”
Whom to believe? Hirsh’s analysis has been the correct one so far, but Iran is notoriously unpredictable even for those who are supposed to be experts. The 1979 Revolution shocked even CIA agents who lived in Iran while it was brewing. They insisted the Shah was firmly entrenched and could not possibly fall.
‘Developments in Iran Aren’t
The Middle East is so rife with conflict, factions, murky alliances, foreign interventions, multisided civil wars, and wild-card variables that trying to predict its future is like trying to forecast the weather on a particular day three years in advance. There’s a reason the phrase shifting sands has become a cliché.
If the Islamic Republic is overthrown, almost anything might happen. Iran could become a modern liberal democracy, as most Eastern European states did after the fall of the Soviet Empire. It could revert to a milder form of authoritarian rule, as Russia has. It could, like Iraq, face chronic instability and insurgent attacks. Or its various “nationalities” could tear the country to pieces and go the way of the Yugoslavs. Optimists like Sanjari and Mohtadi may have a better sense of what to expect than those of us in the West, but still they do not know.
The only thing that seems likely is that a showdown of some kind is coming, either between factions in Iran or between Iran and the rest of the world. Predictions of the regime’s imminent demise have been staples of Iranian expat and activist discourse for years, so it’s hard to take the latest predictions seriously. But authoritarian regimes increasingly seem to have limited shelf lives. As Francis Fukuyama’s flawed but compelling book The End of History points out, there has been a worldwide explosion of liberal democracies since the 18th century, from three in 1790 to 36 in 1960 to 61 in 1990. (In 2006 Freedom House classified 148 nations as free or partly free.) History isn’t over and never will be, but it hasn’t been kind to dictatorships lately.
The Iranian state is soft and vulnerable compared with the worst abusers out there, and it constantly faces resistance from citizens. Something will give.
“Movements are taking shape in Iran,” Sanjari said. “The Iranian regime confronts the whole world with its policies. Political developments are very rapid now. Developments in Iran aren’t controllable. I hope the Iranian people overthrow this regime with no or few sacrifices. But that is a dream.”
Totten is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in
The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Beirut’s Daily Star,
L.A. Weekly, Time, and the Australian edition of Newsweek. The Week
magazine named him Blogger of the Year in 2006 for his dispatches
from the Middle East.