The popular uprising unfolding in Iran right now really is remarkable. It is the rarest of rare things — more rare than snow in Saudi Arabia, more unlikely than finding a ham sandwich at the Wailing Wall, more unusual than water-skiing in the Sahara. It is a popular uprising in a Middle Eastern oil state.
Why is this so unusual? Because in most Middle East states, power grows out of the barrel of a gun and out of a barrel of oil — and that combination is very hard to overthrow.
Oil is a key reason that democracy has had such a hard time emerging in the Middle East, except in one of the few states with no oil: Lebanon. Because once kings and dictators seize power, they can entrench themselves, not only by imprisoning their foes and killing their enemies, but by buying off their people and using oil wealth to build huge internal security apparatuses.
There is only one precedent for an oil-funded autocrat in the Middle East being toppled by a people’s revolution, not by a military coup, and that was in ... Iran.
Recall that in 1979, when the Iranian people rose up against the shah of Iran in an Islamic Revolution spearheaded by Ayatollah Khomeini, the shah controlled the army, the Savak secret police and a vast network of oil-funded patronage. But at some point, enough people taking to the streets and defying his authority, and taking bullets as well, broke the shah’s spell. All the shah’s horses and all the shah’s men, couldn’t put his regime back together again.
The Islamic Revolution has learned from the shah. It has used its oil wealth — Iran is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, exporting about 2.1 million barrels a day at around $70 a barrel — to buy off huge swaths of the population with cheap housing, government jobs and subsidized food and gasoline. It’s also used its crude to erect a vast military force — namely the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia — to keep itself in power.
Therefore, the big question in Iran today is: Can the green revolution led by Mir Hussein Moussavi, and backed by masses of street protestors, do to the Islamic regime what Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian people did to the shah’s regime — break its spell so all its barrels and bullets become meaningless?
Iran’s ruling mullahs were always ruthless. But they disguised it a bit with faux elections. I say faux elections because while the regime may have counted the votes accurately, it tightly controlled who could run. The choices were dark black and light black.
What happened this time is that the anger at the regime had reached such a level — because of near-20 percent unemployment and a rising youth population tired of seeing their life’s options limited by theocrats — that given a choice between a dark black regime candidate and a light black regime candidate, millions of Iranians turned out for light black: Mr. Moussavi. The Iranian people turned the regime man into their own candidate, and he seems to have been transformed by them. That is why the regime panicked and stole the election.
The playwright Tom Stoppard once observed that democracy is not the voting, “it’s the counting.” Iran’s mullahs were always ready to allow voting, as long as the counting didn’t matter, because a regime man was always going to win. But what happened this time was that in the little crack of space that the regime had to allow for even a faux election, some kind of counter-revolution was born.
Yes, its leader, Mr. Moussavi, surely is less liberal than most of his followers. But just his lighter shade of black attracted and unleashed so much pent-up frustration and hope for change among many Iranians that he became an independent candidate and, thus, his votes simply could not be counted — because they were not just a vote for him, but were a referendum against the entire regime.
But now, having voted with their ballots, Iranians who want a change will have to vote again with their bodies. A regime like Iran’s can only be brought down or changed if enough Iranians vote as they did in 1979 — in the street. That is what the regime fears most, because then it either has to shoot its own people or cede power. That is why it was no accident that the “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, warned protestors in his Friday speech that “street challenge is not acceptable.” That’s a man who knows how he got his job.
And so the gauntlet is now thrown down. If the reformers want change, they are going to have to form a leadership, lay out their vision for Iran and keep voting in the streets — over and over and over. Only if they keep showing up with their bodies, and by so doing saying to their regime “we cannot be bought and we will not be cowed,” will their ballots be made to count.
I am rooting for them and fearing for them. Any real moderation of Iran’s leadership would have a hugely positive effect on the Middle East. But we and the reformers must have no illusions about the bullets and barrels they are up against.