The Iran of the ayatollahs was never a one-dimensional tyranny such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; it is a complex system with an elected parliament and chief executive. Likewise, Iran’s democracy movement is strikingly Western in its organizational discipline and its urbane use of technology. In terms of development, Iran is much closer to Turkey than to Syria or Iraq. While the latter two live with the possibility of implosion, Iran has an internal coherence that allows it to bear down hard on its neighbors. In the future, a democratic Iran could be, in a benevolent sense, as influential in Baghdad as the murder squads of a theocratic Iran have been in a malignant sense.
Iran is so central to the fate of the Middle East that even a partial shift in regime behavior — an added degree of nuance in its approach to Iraq, Lebanon, Israel or the United States — could dramatically affect the region. Just as a radical Iranian leader can energize the “Arab street,” an Iranian reformer can energize the emerging but curiously opaque Arab bourgeoisie. This is why the depiction of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi as but another radical, albeit with a kinder, gentler exterior than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, completely misses the point.
As in the former Soviet Union, change in Iran can come only from the inside; only an insider, be it a Mousavi or a Mikhail Gorbachev, has the necessary bona fides to allow daylight into the system, exposing its flaws. Only a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic such as Mousavi would have been trusted to campaign at all, even as he is now leading a democratic movement that has already undermined the Brezhnevite clerical regime. It is unfinished business of the Cold War that we have been witnessing the past few days. The Iranian struggle for democracy is now as central to our foreign policy as that for democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.