The Last Ayatollah

Article excerpt

Byline: Maziar Bahari

The Green Movement's bloody street protests may not have toppled Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--but they will.

"This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic as we know it," I told my editors at NEWSWEEK in a hastily written e-mail from Tehran on the night of June 20, 2009. "I don't know how long is it going to take for the Islamic regime to fall. Khamenei has learnt many lessons from the Shah's downfall and is not making the same mistakes." It seemed clear in any case that the rule of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was doomed. His regime had abandoned its claim to legitimacy earlier that day when Revolutionary Guards violently crushed a peaceful mass protest against the shamelessly rigged June 12 presidential election. By that assault on the Iranian people, Khamenei revealed himself to be no better than Iran's deposed shah or any other common dictator.

My words would come back to haunt me. The morning after I sent that e-mail, I was arrested and sent to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where I spent the next 118 days. My interrogator read me a Persian translation of that private message while I sat blindfolded in a dark room. He punched my head, kicked my back, and slapped my face and neck repeatedly while he demanded an explanation for how I had dared compare the Supreme Leader, the representative of Allah on earth, to a decadent tyrant like the shah. Day after day my anonymous torturer forced me to say I was sorry for writing such a thing. But I still believe what I said in that message, even though the street protests have mostly disappeared and Khamenei is not yet gone from power.

Last summer, I was not the only one predicting that the Iranian regime would fall. Some saw its demise as imminent. Others, mindful of history, cautioned patience. The rolling series of protests against the shah that culminated in his overthrow by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had taken more than a year to succeed. Perhaps something similar would be required of the informal opposition known as the Green Movement. Yet a year later, in the eyes of the outside world, the Greens appear quiescent. Ayatollah Khamenei looks unchallenged.

What happened? As I advised my editors that night a year ago, Khamenei has taken lessons from the shah. One of the most important was this: avoid creating martyrs. In the months before the fall of the shah in February 1979, his security forces killed hundreds of Iranian dissidents, but their deaths only fed the public's determination to topple his regime. Khamenei was too smart for that. When Revolutionary Guards and Basij vigilantes attacked street protesters, ambulances and medics were waiting nearby to minimize fatalities. Killings like the videotaped death of Neda Agha-Soltan were horrible exceptions, not part of a systematic campaign. The guards had orders to crush the demonstrators but not to kill them.

Lesson two: treat your troops well. In constant fear of a coup, the shah kept his military commanders as weak and subservient as possible--and on the day of the Islamic Revolution, the Royal Army was ready and willing to surrender. …