Read more of Slate's coverage of Iran's June 12 election and its aftermath.
As hundreds of thousands of Iranians mass in Tehran and other Iranian cities to protest the rigged election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to another term, Iran suddenly seems ready to throw off the shackles of the repressive theocracy that has ruled it since the 1979 revolution. But are the demonstrations today the beginning of a velvet revolution comparable to those that swept dictators from power in Eastern Europe, or will June 2009 be remembered like June 1989, when Chinese troops quashed pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square?
On the surface, Iran's clerical regime seems ready to collapse. Corruption is widespread, as is cynicism about the country's leadership. When oil was at more than $100 a barrel, the regime managed to have severe economic problems. Inflation ran higher than 20 percent, and unemployment was widely estimated at 20 percent, a remarkable feat of economic mismanagement. While oil prices are now increasing, they are nowhere near the levels necessary to restore vitality to Iran's economy. The regime's legitimacy is under siege from within. Iran's most senior religious scholars reject the spiritual leadership of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, seeing him, correctly, as lacking the religious credentials that are supposedly required for the job.
Against this background, the fraudulent election proved too much for many Iranians. The leading challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has demanded a revote. Like Iran's successful popular movements of the past, including the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, a mix of students, workers, intellectuals, and others are marching together in the streets. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri—once seen as the heir of Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and today Iran's most senior dissident cleric—announced on his Web site that "no sound mind" could accept the election results.
Truly dramatic change in Iran requires more than an inept regime and popular disgruntlement, however. That combination is found in many quiescent autocracies. Iran's security establishment must be ordered to hold their fire, or they must choose to do so themselves. What's more, the opposition must be unified enough to ensure that the regime cannot intimidate or co-opt its supporters. There are rays of hope, but the odds are still against a velvet revolution.
Fortunately, so far, there is a crack in the elite. Key figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a past president and an important (if corrupt) power broker for almost 30 years, are opposed to Ahmadinejad and, implicitly, critical of the supreme leader's support of him. The supreme leader himself has backtracked: After having declared Ahmadinejad a winner, he is now willing to accept a partial vote recount. While this offer is less than it appears, since the officials who would oversee the recount are staunch conservatives who care little about the integrity of the democratic process, it suggests the supreme leader is trying to appease or deflect anger, not crush it. Many in the conservative camp fear alienating the Iranian people—and less partisan but politically important clerics—with blatant repression.
Yet there is a limit to how much conservative forces will give. The last 10 years have seen the ascendance of members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to senior political and economic positions. Veterans of Iran's war with Iraq, they are committed to the current regime and are suspicious of any challenge to the system. They do not travel or meet with foreign reporters, but they are the country's power elite. Iran's leaders also, unfortunately, have learned lessons from their own seizure of power in 1979 and the subsequent unrest in the last 30 years. After police and military units proved hesitant to crack down on demonstrators in the past, the regime formed special units of loyalists and funded various paramilitary groups that would act as enforcers. If ordered, at least some will fire on demonstrators. Already, pro-regime militia members are beating up protesters and otherwise trying to intimidate pro-democracy voices. Opposition figures are also being arrested—not comprehensively, and not the most senior ones, but enough so that the word is out.
Much will depend on the leadership of the democratic opposition, and this is the weakest link. Twitter may well help to organize demonstrations, but it does not create a unified and effective leadership. The opposition currently faces some painful choices: What to do if the revote, too, is fixed? How much to risk violence and a crackdown? Organizing network-style without a clear leader is a very effective way to set up demonstrations, but it makes a unified political response much less likely.
Mousavi himself is likely to disappoint. A prime minister in the 1980s, when the regime was far more revolutionary than it is today, he is a creature of the Iranian system. Indeed, in order to win approval to run for president in the first place, he had to pass an ideological and political litmus test that rejected more than 400 other candidates, leaving only Mousavi, Ahmadinejad, and two other establishment types. As prime minister, he approved Iran's effort to purchase nuclear technology from Pakistan, and during the 2009 campaign he defended Iran's nuclear program. Clearly he is an improvement over Ahmadinejad, but that is damning with the faintest praise.
Iran is no stranger to this sort of reformer. When Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997, he offered hope of social reform and an opening to the West. But conservative forces steadily undermined him, and Khatami was unwilling to confront them directly. Over time, the conservatives triumphed, and the reformists became disillusioned. Mousavi's record is less liberal than that of Khatami, though we can hope he might be stauncher in the face of conservative pressure.
It is possible that if he somehow won a new election Mousavi might prove to be a reformer in the Mikhail Gorbachev mode, pushing the dilapidated system so hard that it breaks. More likely, however, he will move away from some of Ahmadinejad's most obnoxious policies but not fundamentally change the nature of the regime. This betrayal would be the saddest cut of all for the brave Iranians who dream of freedom and are now risking their lives to put him in power.