When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, as a rule its dissolution follows two steps. Before its collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place. All of a sudden people know that the game is over, and then they are no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, but that its own exercise of power is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice, but continues walking, unaware that there is no ground under its feet. It falls only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When a regime loses its authority, it is like a cat above the precipice: In order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down.
In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture. At a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew. Within a couple of hours, all of Tehran knew about this incident. Although street fights continued for weeks, everyone knew the Shah was finished. Is something similar going on now?
There are many versions of the recent events in Tehran. Some observers view the protests as the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolution in Ukraine–a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step toward a new liberal, democratic, secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism.
But some skeptics think that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really won, making him the voice of the majority, while the support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi comes from the middle class (who are the minority) and its gilded youth. In other words, let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves.
Then there are others who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad. Mousavi wants to continue the atomic energy program, and he is against recognizing Israel. Plus he enjoyed Khomeini’s full support as a prime minister during the 1980s war with Iraq.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on July 13th, 2009. (full text).]