Six months ago, Iranians went to the streets, chanting "Where is my vote?" This is how the Green Revolution started. The protesters now no longer merely seek democratic elections but want regime change. Their new slogans are: "Khamenei is a murderer and his rule is unjust," "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I only give my life for Iran," and "Independence, Freedom and an Iranian Republic." In other words, they demand a stop to Iran's support for terrorists in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq; the separation of state and religion; and consider Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as public enemy No. 1.
By answering this summer's peaceful calls for democratic elections with violence, the Supreme Leader may have sealed his own fate. In June and July alone, more than 5,000 protestors were arrested and an unknown number of them killed. The use of such extreme violence at a time in which mass communication is no longer the monopoly of the government has led to the steady decline of the regime's credibility. The lies no longer work. Nobody in Iran believes the state media's propaganda that blames Israel and the U.K. for the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman murdered by security forces, whose death throes captured on a phone camera shocked the world.
The revelations of rape and torture in the Kahrizak detention center by security officials who invoked the name of Allah and the Shiite Imam as they tormented their young victims particularly outraged Iranians. This type of rape also occurred in the 1980's, but back then no one would believe those stories. But this time it is different. The victims are speaking out and, as importantly, they have found prominent support in Mehdi Karroubi, a clergyman and former president of the parliament. Many ayatollahs not linked to the regime have voiced their horror as well. The unity which was forced between the religious cast and the regime has been torn apart by these events. As a result, the rulers' moral standing has suffered a blow from which it may not recover, for it is the religious authority of the ayatollahs which gives the theocratic regime its legitimacy.
These dissident ayatollahs—such as the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who in a famous fatwa last summer declared the regime neither Islamic nor a republic—are no longer alone in turning against Khamenei. Even religious scholars who until recently did not openly defy the regime, have now joined the calls of the opposition. There is the well-respected Ayatollah Yussuf Sanai, for example, who was a friend of Khamenei, who went so far as to state that Khamenei's continuing struggle for power is against Sharia law. There is Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili, the former president of the judicial branch of Iran, who this summer openly declared his solidarity with the dissident Ayatollah Montazeri. And there are the ayatollahs Bayat Zanjani, Dastghaib, and Taheri who have aligned themselves with the protesting masses. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in neighboring Iraq—who is held in great esteem by Shiites also in Iran—has declared that the oppression of the demonstrators is un-Islamic.
All this is significant because it broadens the protests to a truly popular movement. The students and educated class don't need fatwas to turn against the regime. But due to the criticism by prominent ayatollahs, the regime is losing its moral legitimacy even in the eyes of less educated and more pious Iranians.
The regime is not only losing the clergy but also the military. The communiqués from opposition groups and those that reach me personally all indicate that a large part of the Revolutionary Guards is no longer willing to be used as an instrument of oppression. Video images from nearly every demonstration show Revolutionary Guards members joining ranks with the protesters. A declaration signed by air force and army officers and published on the Internet warned radical Revolutionary Guards members to "Stop the violence against your own population."
This rift also explains why the much-anticipated "China Model" of ruthless and widespread use of force against the population, with thousands of deaths and executions in a matter of days, never happened. If Khamenei could have been sure about the loyalty of the military, he would have used it a long time ago to crush the rebellion for good. The only element of the Revolutionary Guards which still seems to be loyal to the regime is the Quds division, a hodge-podge of terrorists from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other regions.
This does not mean this regime will go out with a whimper. During these past six months, the Iranian regime has undergone a dramatic change of character. It has eliminated all pragmatic forces within its ranks. For religious support, they rely on a small but extremely radical group of ayatollahs such as Mesbah Yazde and Ahmad Janati. These are apocalyptic worshippers of the twelfth Imam, or Mahdi. Understanding this group is of the utmost importance for Western policymakers. The Mahdi is viewed as a Messiah-like figure whose return will bring peace on Earth. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequently refers to him in his speeches, including those held before the United Nations. While most twelver imam Shiites believe that the Mahdi will appear by his own accord, this radical group believes that his appearance can be triggered by creating the apocalyptic conditions necessary for his emergence. Iran's nuclear weapons program must be seen in this context. Ahmadinejad and the radical fringe group to which he belongs see themselves as the army of the Mahdi in his final jihad.
The regime's theological nature gives it a very different perception of reality. Despite the popular unrest and growing rift between the regime and the military and clergy, Ahmadinejad has no reason to see himself as weak or illegitimate. In his world view, bolstered by people such as Mr. Yazde, his regime does not rely on the consent of the people or dissident ayatollahs. Instead, it gains its legitimacy by its obedience to Allah. The regime surely fears the people, but controlling the masses serves the greater cause of obedience to Allah and therefore the interests of the people are of no real importance to this regime.
What's at stake here are not only the lives of the Iranian protesters and the future of the country, but global security. If the apocalyptic ayatollahs manage to survive this crisis, then the U.S, Israel and the region—judging by Iran's theological doctrines, nuclear aspirations, and existing conventional arsenal—will face a mortal danger. The emergence of a democratic Iran is therefore not only a moral imperative but should be the foreign policy priority of every cold-hearted realist as well as multicultural engager. That's why it is so incomprehensible that the Obama Administration still prefers dialogue with the apocalyptic ayatollahs over uncompromising support for the people crying out for freedom.
If the protesters shake off the yoke of theocracy and savagery, their success could herald the failure of political Islam way beyond Iran. At this turning point in history the West has no logical alternative but to unequivocally support the Green Revolution. The fate of this movement far outweighs the useless nuclear talks that will only buy the regime time and undeserved international legitimacy. The demonstrators in Iran on Dec. 7 rightfully exclaimed: "Obama, are you with them [the regime] or with us?" History will not judge him lightly if he chooses the wrong side.
Afshin Ellian was born in Tehran. He teaches philosophy of law at Leiden University. This article was first published in the Wall Street Journal.
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