No matter how the street protests across Iran play out, it is clear that an era is coming to an end. The Khomeini Revolution is out of steam, out of favor, out of supporters. Its last remaining zealots are the Pasdaran or Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its subordinate divisions of street thugs, the Bassij and Ansar-e Hizballah. Survivors of the brutal 1980s war with Iraq, the Pasdaran are among the only true believers left whose loyalty the clerical acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini can count on. Maybe. Masses of deeply conservative and impoverished Iranians in the countryside also rally to the populist policies of Iran's IRGC president Ahmadinejad. But what is unfolding on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and other Iranian cities has taken on a life of its own that may prove unstoppable.
Thirty years on, what is left of Khomeini's Revolution is a savage scramble for power and wealth among the top ranks of a ruling class rotten with corruption. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as Supreme Leader in 1989, so lacked the religious credentials for the job that he had to be jumped up a rank so he would make a suitable compromise candidate (given that most of the rest of the senior clergy of the day had been disqualified because of their opposition to Khomeini). That and a decided lack of charisma meant that Khamenei's position among the top Shi'a clergy never even remotely approached the status enjoyed by Khomeini or the other Grand Ayatollahs. So, to shore it up, he made a Faustian alliance with the Pasdaran, whose formidable power may now rival his own. It was a calculated decision by Khamenei that brought IRGC veteran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005 and then backed him again in these elections.
Khamenei's personal nemesis is the wily political infighter, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and speaker of the Majles. Currently head of the Assembly of Experts (which elects and can dismiss the Supreme Leader), Rafsanjani is a crafty operator whose alliances among the clergy and all-important bazaaris (merchants) remain mostly opaque. Despite his deep involvement in both domestic repression and extraterritorial terror, Rafsanjani has always been most interested in amassing wealth – and the power necessary to secure it. The Rafsanjani clan owns numerous industrial properties as well as vast land holdings across Iran. Rafsanjani also owns the largest network of private universities in Iran, called the Azad. This network with some 300 branches not only brings in revenue, but also provided a cadre of some 3 million students, ready recruits for the presidential campaign when Rafsanjani decided to make his move against the powerful IRGC by backing Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi, himself a former prime minister who was intimately involved in the brutal early years of Khomeini's revolution, cynically portrays himself as a "reformer," the better to target Iranian youth who yearn to break free of stifling restrictions on their everyday lives. Former president Khatami rounded out a campaign alliance that took direct aim at the top power structures of the regime.
What began as a ploy on all sides to ride the election vehicle to greater political advantage went badly off track when the regime miscalculated the extent of election rigging Iranians would swallow. Outrage spread like wildfire and Iranians of all ages spilled into the streets even though, thus far, it is students who make up the majority of demonstrators. With some 60 percent of Iranians under the age of 30, a generational shift is inevitable, even if the aging mullahs now clinging desperately to power succeed in hanging on a little while longer. What those numbers mean is that the majority of Iranians alive today have no personal memory of the Ayatollah Khomeini, his Revolution, or the Shah they swept from power. Young Iranians are overwhelmingly urbanized, highly educated, and keenly aware of what's going on in the rest of the world by way of the Internet and those ubiquitous camera-equipped smart phones.
Someone of a cynical frame of mind might see two battling camps which deliberately used the presidential elections to drop a match into the tinderbox that is Iran these days, each thinking they could control the burn. Behind the scenes, these powerful forces in fact are engaged in a fight to the death with the Rafsanjani-Mousavi alliance more than willing to let the angry masses of Iranian youth confront the regime in ways they dare not openly. Those young freedom fighters have galvanized the nation and the world with their courage and their fury. Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, the IRGC, and security and intelligence services still wield all the important tools of repression, but if they mount a crackdown by way of guns or arrests and intimidation, they have no way of knowing whether such measures will quell what is fast becoming a national rebellion or inflame the population to broader involvement or greater violence. Key segments of society including bazaaris, ethnic minorities, labor, and women have yet to throw the combined weight of their own disenfranchised fury behind this uprising. If and when they do, this will truly be a revolution.
In the end, it is up to the Iranian people to take their own future into their hands. This isn't about a stolen election anymore, any more than it is any longer just a face-off between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Feeble exhortations to respect for free speech and an end to violence miss entirely the significance of what is happening in Iran. This is nothing less than the beginning of the end of Khomeini's revolution, a revolution that terrorized its children, threatened its neighbors, and waged war against the United States for 30 years. The world must be prepared for what is to come: Khomeini's thugs are not likely to relinquish their bloody grip on power without a great deal of violence, in large part because there is no place for them to go if they lose. For one thing, they are Shi'ites in a Middle East dominated by Sunni regimes that despise and fear them. Exile abroad is not a realistic expectation either, given that there are international arrest warrants out for a number of them, including both Khamenei and Rafsanjani. They have few options but to fight to the death, especially Rafsanjani and Mousavi (who has even expressed his readiness for "martyrdom") now that they have openly challenged the rule of the Supreme Leader. The students on the street couldn't be clearer about their objectives either; chants of "Death to the Dictator" don't just mean Ahmadinejad. This is about regime change now.
Iran is on the brink of revolutionary change that will come inevitably, whether this week, or month, or year. The mullahs know their days are numbered, which is one reason they have dedicated such resources to acquiring the nuclear weapons they believe the only means of saving their revolution (and their skins). Iranian society has changed irreversibly and cannot go back. Thirty years of pent-up rage is bursting forth and a new generation is demanding an end to tyranny. Iranians have unified before to depose tyrants only to split into warring factions easily dominated by a new tyrant. Massive rallies among exiled opposition groups around the world mirror the angry crowds on streets across Iran. Somehow they must all come together to build a future for Iran that is democratic, modern, and responsible. Azadi.