Despite harsh threats, Iran protesters show their strength

Iranian opposition hits the streets in face of shah-like brutality and pro-government rallies. Khamenei's tactics only highlight his illegitimacy.

The dogged courage of pro-democracy protesters in Iran was on full display Thursday, the latest in a string of demonstrations against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since last June’s rigged presidential elections. 

Thousands took to the streets despite organized pro-government rallies and the many tactics of fear used by a regime that is ever more isolated by its acts of violence – in the name of God – against peaceful democrats.

The latest fear tactics include executions of demonstrators, arrests of top intellectuals and rights activists, detention of a group called Mothers in Mourning (mothers of political prisoners), and torture of detained protesters. Such atrocities simply remind Iranians that this regime, whose leaders helped overthrow the shah 31 years ago, has now reverted to the shah’s brutal methods to keep power and quell dissent. 

That irony is fuel for more protests. It also compels many leading Muslim clerics to call on Mr. Khamenei to compromise.

The other critical aspect about the demonstrations is that they remain largely leaderless, relying instead on Twitter and other digital communications to build a network of ongoing dissent. That makes them harder to suppress. In addition, countertactics such as writing slogans on currency bills keep alive the ideals of freedom and democracy far beyond the capital. Many of Thursday’s protests were in cities outside of Tehran as well.

The regime’s use of violence only highlights how much Khamenei can no longer claim the mantle of religious authority as supreme leader over Iranians who demand that the highest authorities be elected by the people. He is on the losing side of a widening contradiction between democracy and theocracy (or the regime’s interpretation of Islam as dominant in secular life). That contradiction was not resolved during the 1979 revolution and is the main reason for Iran’s turmoil today.

Eventually, elements of Iran’s security forces will need to switch sides as they see more of society defy this regime. Many rural Iranians have already lost faith in the promised economic “reforms” of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was illegitimately elected last June. Now, as more Iranians see more of the brutal repression, they should also make the moral choice in favor of free and fair elections that are not controlled by the clerics.

Iranians can take heart that democracy is taking root in neighboring Iraq, where fellow Shiite believers have embraced free elections.

The weaker that Iran’s regime becomes, the more it defies the West’s calls to end its nuclear program and the deceit that has long covered it up. The government now claims it will further enrich uranium toward bomb-grade quality. Such diplomatic bluster helps further justify tougher economic sanctions proposed by President Obama. He would target the military arm of the ruling mullahs, the Revolutionary Guard, which also runs many strategic businesses.

Tougher sanctions now, even though they might hurt common Iranians, will be seen in that country as directed at an unpopular regime and not the people. China, which opposes more UN sanctions on Iran, needs to see that more Iranians are crying out for help. 

The struggle at the United Nations over sanctions should be seen as more than a question of preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The more significant struggle is between the historic progress of democracy in the world against those views of Islam that justify dictatorship by Muslim clerics.

For Iran’s protesters, history is on their side, which only gives them the courage to defy their fears in face of harsher threats.

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