The Pathos of Iran

Clearly something is happening in Tehran. It is premature to know exactly how deep and broad the opposition really is. Reports of 2-3 million protestors, for instance, seem farfetched in a city whose population is 7 million. But even if the number is far less, the massive demonstrations in defiance of a ruthless regime are terribly moving and awe-inspiring.

Events like these separate the realists from the idealists, I suppose. I’ve been called a realist, but it’s hard to apply cold reason to such an inspiring demonstration of the human aspiration to break free of the chains imposed by others.

Here’s the paradox now at the heart of the growing protests, though: At this point, the contested vote count is more catalyst than cause, both for Iranians and for sympathetic observers in the West.

Try this thought experiment: Assume the official vote count was actually accurate. Or if that’s too hard to do, then that it was distorted by a clumsy regime, but that Ahmadinejad did, in fact, win with 53 percent, rather than the 65 percent attributed to him. Would that in some way diminish the legitimacy of the protests we’re witnessing? Would that diminish our sympathy for the protesters?

Our reaction to what’s happening in Iran no longer has as much to do with democracy, in a strict sense, as it does with the natural sympathy Americans feel when witnessing the urge to freedom awaken in a distant people. It’s a form of intoxication, easy to get swept away in.

But reason imposes at least the emotional detachment to remind ourselves that we are witnessing only a part of this historic event, and that we are not objective observers.

Try another thought experiment: What if the situation were reversed, and the same educated conjecture we are now relying on to conclude that Ahmadinejad stole the election instead seemed to suggest that Moussavi and the reformists had rigged the vote against Ahmadinejad. Would we feel the same sympathy for his hardline followers as they descended into the streets in peaceful, yet outraged, protest?

We’ve gotten used to “color revolutions,” where the regime backs down in the face of massive protests, and our faith in the power of the people’s voice is affirmed. Sadly, the only way the spontaneous uprising we are now witnessing in Iran is likely to succeed is through a violent confrontation with the powers that be. In other words, a truly revolutionary outcome, and not a democratic one.

At that point, the numbers really do matter. Because there’s a big difference between a minority opposition that takes power by violence and a majority opposition that does so, even in an authoritarian country like Iran.