Unrest in Tehran Shows Decline of Islamic Regime

A photo posted on Twitter allegedly shows backers of defeated Iranian opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during a Tehran rally on June 17, 2009 SHADISHD173 / AFP-Getty Images

"This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic as we know it," I told my editors at NEWSWEEK in a hastily written e-mail from Tehran on the night of June 20, 2009. "I don't know how long is it going to take for the Islamic regime to fall. Khamenei has learnt many lessons from the Shah's downfall and is not making the same mistakes." It seemed clear in any case that the rule of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was doomed. His regime had abandoned its claim to legitimacy earlier that day when Revolutionary Guards violently crushed a peaceful mass protest against the shamelessly rigged June 12 presidential election. By that assault on the Iranian people, Khamenei revealed himself to be no better than Iran's deposed shah or any other common dictator.

My words would come back to haunt me. The morning after I sent that e-mail, I was arrested and sent to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where I spent the next 118 days. My interrogator read me a Persian translation of that private message while I sat blindfolded in a dark room. He punched my head, kicked my back, and slapped my face and neck repeatedly while he demanded an explanation for how I had dared compare the Supreme Leader, the representative of Allah on earth, to a decadent tyrant like the shah. Day after day my anonymous torturer forced me to say I was sorry for writing such a thing. But I still believe what I said in that message, even though the street protests have mostly disappeared and Khamenei is not yet gone from power.

Last summer, I was not the only one predicting that the Iranian regime would fall. Some saw its demise as imminent. Others, mindful of history, cautioned patience. The rolling series of protests against the shah that culminated in his overthrow by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had taken more than a year to succeed. Perhaps something similar would be required of the informal opposition known as the Green Movement. Yet a year later, in the eyes of the outside world, the Greens appear quiescent. Ayatollah Khamenei looks unchallenged.

What happened? As I advised my editors that night a year ago, Khamenei has taken lessons from the shah. One of the most important was this: avoid creating martyrs. In the months before the fall of the shah in February 1979, his security forces killed hundreds of Iranian dissidents, but their deaths only fed the public's determination to topple his regime. Khamenei was too smart for that. When Revolutionary Guards and Basij vigilantes attacked street protesters, ambulances and medics were waiting nearby to minimize fatalities. Killings like the videotaped death of Neda Agha-Soltan were horrible exceptions, not part of a systematic campaign. The guards had orders to crush the demonstrators but not to kill them.

Click the photo to view a gallery of protests after Iran's disputed 2009 election

Lesson two: treat your troops well. In constant fear of a coup, the shah kept his military commanders as weak and subservient as possible—and on the day of the Islamic Revolution, the Royal Army was ready and willing to surrender. In contrast, Khamenei has groomed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as his own private army ever since he became Supreme Leader in 1989. Many IRGC members are convinced that doing his bidding is their key to paradise. But Khamenei has repaid their loyalty richly in this world, too. During this year's crackdown on dissent, they have been earning overtime pay, in addition to special housing and marriage loans.

And finally, never admit you were wrong. Three months before his fall, the shah effectively conceded defeat, telling the Iranian people: "I have heard the voice of your revolution." Faced with fierce public criticism of his absolutist reign, Khamenei issued a warning to Iranians—"I am urging them to end street protests. Otherwise they will be responsible for [the] consequences, and consequences of any chaos." He got away with it at least partly because he wasn't as unpopular in June 2009 as the shah was in November 1978, when he tried to make peace. Khamenei's supporters are not a majority in Iran, but they outnumber those of any other leader in the country. And they have more access to guns and money.

The parallels between the Green Movement and Iran's 1979 revolutionaries have also been misleading from the start. Unlike the activists of the Islamic Revolution, last summer's demonstrators weren't looking for regime change—not at first, anyway. They just wanted to reform the Islamic Republic, and they wanted their votes counted honestly. The candidate most of them had supported in the election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, had been a prime minister for eight years during the 1980s and had repeatedly declared his allegiance to the Islamic Revolution and to Khamenei himself. Few believed him to be any kind of savior. Back in 1979 Iranians used to say: "When the monster exits, the angels enter." After replacing one monster with another, they no longer believe in angels.

Iranians have a word, roozmaregi, which means in essence "to live one day at a time." It's an apt description for Khamenei's style of leadership. He is a skillful tactician. But he appears to have no long-term plan for the country, or even for his own political survival. If he thinks he has defeated Iran's Green Movement because there are no more protests, he's wrong. The fact that Iranians are prevented from publicly demanding their rights does not mean they've forgotten their ideals.

During my imprisonment, my interrogator made me cry again and again that I had been mistaken about Khamenei—and actually, I meant it. The Supreme Leader had, in fact, overlooked one vital lesson from the shah. Like the shah and many other dictators before him, Khamenei has allowed himself to be surrounded by a clique of sycophants, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have insinuated themselves into every aspect of government. In the short term Khamenei may be able to count on their loyalty, but their true allegiance is only to themselves. Their corruption is breeding the kind of resentment that will keep the Green Movement alive. In all but name, the Islamic Republic is long gone. Khamenei just doesn't seem to know it yet.