By now, we all know the story. Iran’s leaders released statistically suspicious results to the latest presidential election and as a result the streets exploded in protest. The Iranian leadership had two options: Back down and hold new elections that would probably be won by the man they tried to stop, or assert their authority and probably kill a lot of people. They chose the latter. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared the results were a “divine assessment” and said they were final. In a great display of twisted logic, Khamenei asserted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s large margin of victory was proof that the election was not rigged.
By drawing this line in the sand, Khamenei was casting the protesters not simply as the losing party, but as enemies of God himself. As a result, the situation escalated. Iran erupted in an explosion of pent-up rage against the regime. Protesters rioted in and clashed with government paramilitaries. People were gunned down in the streets. The death toll is still unclear, with numbers running between 19 and 150. A few days before, the cries in the streets were asking “where is my vote?” Last weekend, they were screaming “Death to Khamenei!”
The Iranian regime appeared weak, but predictions of an overthrow were premature. Protesters getting shot in the streets is nothing new in the Middle East. Power in the Middle Easts resides with the gun. Since the Supreme Leader was refusing to budge, the only way the protesters were going to get their way was if the military took their side. For a while, it was possible that this could happen. Rumors were flying that some Army officers were refusing orders to suppress the demonstrations. By relying on loyalist paramilitaries to suppress the protesters, Khameni bypassed a possible showdown with the military, which remained on the sidelines. Some protests continue, but they are not on the scale of hundreds of thousands that were seen last week. At the same time, the response by the authorities has gotten more and more violent.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s grip on power seems secure, for now. But Iran will never be the same. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the Supreme Leaders of Iran have always claimed divine sanction for their actions. Now, the people of Iran view these actions as wrong and Khamenei’s proclamations of divine guidance as false. The regime’s pillar of legitimacy – that the Supreme Leader has a special pipeline to the Almighty – is gone.
Historically, when a regime loses its ideological basis, its response is to govern by the gun, relying on fear alone to enforce obedience. Thus, the Iranian regime will likely move to destroy the last vestiges of Iranian democracy and replace Iran’s authoritarian regime with a totalitarian one.
This is already happening. Opposition leaders have been arrested, including family members of leading Guardian Council figures such as Ali Rafsanjani. Hundreds of others have been arrested. Four Iranian soccer players that wore green armbands in protest of the election received lifetime bans from Iranian soccer. Those who have been arrested will be tried before a special court created especially to make an example of them. The court is run by prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, a brutal regime apparatchik who in 2003 was involved in beating, torturing, raping and murdering Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi while she was in custody.
However, the clearest hallmark of Iran’s emerging status as a totalitarian state is the way the regime is beginning to take on an Orwellian sense of truth. George Orwell’s classic depiction of totalitarianism, 1984, describes a government which simply asserts whatever it wants to be true, and expects the people to believe it. The Iranian government started down this road when they declared Ahmadinejad the landslide winner two hours after the polls closed. The foreign minister has claimed that the protests were orchestrated by British intelligence agents who flew into the country in several planeloads prior to the election. A government ‘investigation’ has tried to justify the killing of protester Neda Agha-Soltan by saying that the paramilitary sniper that shot her in cold blood “had mistaken her for the sister” of a deceased Iranian Marxist terrorist leader from the group Mujahedin-e-khalq.
Of course, the idea that a country can count tens of millions of paper ballots in 2 hours, or that planeloads of MI6 agents could suddenly fly into Iraq and organize mass protests, or that Iranian snipers were specifically looking out for siblings of long-dead members of now-defunct terrorist organizations in the huge crowds that engulfed Tehran, are all patently ridiculous, and Iranians know it. But these claims are asserted to be true in a totalitarian state because the state forces people to believe them. Everyone knows the truth, but anyone who speaks it gets killed.
Iran’s transformation into a totalitarian police state should throw a wrench into Obama’s plans to engage the Iranian government in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s strategy was contingent on recognizing the Iranian regime’s legitimacy as an elected institution. With that legitimacy gone, Obama could abandon negotiations and strongly oppose the new government. Or, he could pretend that nothing has happened and and continue negotiations with a totalitarian regime, thereby legitimizing it. The trouble is, as attempted negotiations with North Korea have shown, negotiating with a totalitarian regime is impossible, because a regime which is used to asserting whatever it wants to be true as truth cannot be a trusted partner in negotiations.
While Obama’s approach might have worked prior to June 12th, it will not work afterwards. Iran has been changed forever, and Iran’s relationship with American cannot help but also be changed. Obama has a choice between taking a stand for what’s right, or legitimizing a regime of tyrants and killers. Will he make the right choice? And will the American people let him get away with it if he doesn’t?