History shows that even the most powerful and brutal of regimes fall when their security forces refuse to shoot on protestors. Nonviolent revolutions succeed when civil disobedience, mass protests, strikes—and the regime’s own violence and moral depravity—induce fissures and defections from its ruling ranks. High-profile desertions not only from the military but also the intelligentsia and economic elites weaken pillars of support for tyrants, puncturing their thin veneer of legitimacy and bringing strength to people-power movements even as they suffer repression.
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Until now, throughout its 44-year history, the Islamic Republic has shown it can withstand disloyalty from its inner ranks. Ayatollah Montazeri was to succeed the revolutionary founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini but was castigated for opposing the execution of political prisoners in 1989. He died under house arrest. Mohzen Sazegara helped found the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps but came to understand that reform of the system is impossible. He was imprisoned for organizing a referendum on the Sharia-based constitution and continues to agitate for nonviolent revolution from exile in the US.
In the “reformist” project launched in the 1990s, Khamenei created pressure valves to allow for criticism of the system, but of a mild, restrained sort from within—not to liberalize, but to ensure regime survival. Under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, when oil was just $15 per barrel, the Islamic Republic fabricated its own opposition to supplant the democratic dissidents it was assassinating inside and outside Iran. Reformists have been a pillar of the regime, even after the crushing of the Green Movement, which put under house arrest the presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Ebrahim Karroubi, who had been handpicked by Khamenei and his cabal. Mousavi was prime minister during the bloodiest chapter of the Islamic Republic, which he has until recently called the regime’s “Golden Era.”
In a potential watershed move, however, Mousavi has now broken from the prospect of reform and is calling for a new constitution. This is a poster boy of reform denying reform, mimicking the discourse of stalwart democrats. Yet the fissure presents a historic opening for democratic change. It is not an admission of guilt or recognition by Mousavi of his personal culpability for constructing the ideological system that he now opposes. What it is, however, is an opportunity to help the current uprising reach its tipping point by generating more such desertions.
Prodding such breaks with the ruling system will not be hard given that the legitimacy crises of late-stage totalitarianism for the Islamic Republic are of every sort: raging political dissent, corruption and economic malaise, social decay, spiritual disenchantment and antipathy to religion, environmental apocalypse, brain drain and educational collapse, widespread poverty and drug addiction. The regime’s assumed base among the traditional, religious poor has vanished; since 2017, it is they who in their protest slogans against reformists and hardliners refuse a rentier system able to produce only corruption and poverty. Like those who rose up against Communism in Eastern Europe, Iranian workers on strike and in the streets know there is no bread without freedom.
Mousavi’s call for a new constitution reflects the disgust of these Iranians. It is also an extension of dissatisfaction among state bureaucrats and the clergy, and a recognition that the regime has been hollowed out, and is held up only by a nihilistic mafia of killers.
Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah and a decades long proponent of nonviolent revolution for democracy in his homeland, has wisely embraced Mousavi’s call. In his many public presentations and interviews in recent weeks, Pahlavi has reiterated his belief that the opposition must be a big tent and has welcomed defections such as Mousavi’s.
Pahlavi’s stance does not preclude justice and accountability for senior officials directly responsible for crimes against humanity, including Mousavi. But in the phase of overthrow, every insider who breaks with the system is an asset for the revolution.
Iran’s democratic opposition is stronger and more unified than ever. To continue to grow in strength, it must receive all those willing to renounce the theocracy, including those who have been its most loyal disciples.
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