Monday, June 29, 2009

Wings beating against a web?

As Roger Cohen movingly pointed out this past weekend, the uprising in Iran has doubtless humanized the country in many Americans' eyes: at the moment, "Iran" is likelier to evoke "Neda" than "mullah."

It's a sad irony that this humanization may be occurring at the precisely the moment that the current regime becomes most dangerous. The popular uprising, and the old-guard reformist movement to which it responded, may represent the beating of wings against a tightening web.

As Neil MacFarquhar and Gary Sick have both detailed, the advent of Ahmadinejad in the wake of the reformist Khatami was not just a swing of the political pendulum. Ahmadinejad has rather accelerated a militarist takeover, packing the bureacracy, state-run media, educational institutions, and state-controlled major economic enterprises with allies from the Revolutionary Guard; and pursuing an ultra hard-line foreign policy that includes full-throttle pursuit of nuclear fuel processing capability.

While it's generally been assumed that Khameini controls Ahmadinejad, both Sick and MacFarquhar suggest that the reverse may be closer to the truth. Sick:
Over the 20 years that Ayatollah Khamenei has been the rahbar, or leader, he has allied himself ever more closely with the Revolutionary Guards—to such an extent that it is no longer apparent to me who is leading and who is following. The Revolutionary Guards have been granted extraordinary influence over all functions of the Islamic republic—military, political, economic, and even Islamic. Technically, they take their orders from the leader, but has he ever dared to contradict them? On the contrary, he seems always to court them by granting them ever-greater influence and responsibilities.
If it's true, as Sick suggests, that Ahmadinejad's advent in 2005 marked the beginning of a quasi-fascist transformation of the Iranian theocracy, it's interesting to note that Ahmadinejad, like Hitler, led a coterie of extremist veterans of a long, brutal, ultimately losing war effort into positions of power approximately 15 years after the war's end.

After two years' overexposure to John McCain's fulminations, Americans should be skeptical of the propensity to compare every dictatorial regime that represses its own people and poses a security threat of some kind to the Nazis. Iranians have given the world reason to hope that the hardliners' days in power are numbered -- and no one should underestimate the staying power of the children of the people who ousted the Shah. The current system may also yet evolve from within, as faction within the power structure push to respond to public pressure. But the uprising has also thrown into sharp relief just what the Iranian people are up against.

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