The Iranian regime loves to boast of its military strength, international clout and hold on domestic power. ... but in fact the regime is in trouble. Iran's leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people, are unable to manage the country's many problems, face a growing opposition, and are openly fighting with one another.
...In late July, Mohammad Ali Jaffari, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime's Praetorian Guard, admitted publicly that many top officers were supporters of the opposition Green Movement. Shortly thereafter, according to official government announcements, some 250 officers suddenly resigned. In the past weeks, several journalists from the Guards' FARS news agency have defected, some to France and others to the United States.
Meanwhile, Iran has suffered a series of attacks against its petroleum industry. As Iranian media reported (detailed in the London Telegraph), a pipeline to Turkey was blown up last month, most likely by Kurdish oppositionists. Soon afterwards there was an explosion in a natural gas pipeline near Tabriz.
That was followed by a spectacular blast at the Pardis petrochemical plant in Assalouye, which—being a major facility for converting natural gas to fuel for vehicles—is central to Iranian efforts to cope with the new United Nations, U.S. and European Union sanctions against refined petroleum products.
The same plant was similarly sabotaged six months ago. No one has taken responsibility for that attack, but it suggests an activist opposition with considerable "inside" assistance.
That opposition is fed by enduring social and economic crises.
- Unemployment last month reached 15% and is as high as 45% in some regions.
- In Tehran, health officials warned pregnant women and mothers of young children not to drink the water. Electrical failures are widespread.
- Taxi drivers have been striking around the country this summer, some because of the long lines at gas stations and others because of a shortage of compressed natural gas. The sanctions seem to be having an effect.
Shortly thereafter, the country celebrated the funeral of Iran's most cherished performer, the singer Mohammed Nouri. Nouri was no dissident and was often praised by clerics as a "pious" man. But Mr. Khamenei chose the moment to issue a broad fatwa against music. "It's better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music," he declared.
Only "Western music" had previously been banned by Mr. Khamenei, and Iranian youth reacted with predictable hostility. In the days that followed, a Canadian-made remix of the 1979 Pink Floyd song "Another Brick in the Wall" went viral on the Internet with the new chorus, "Hey Ayatollah, leave those kids alone."
President Ahmadinejad has also tried to buttress his popular support, first by claiming that "stupid Zionists" were trying to kill him, and then by putting out a story—which few in Iran took seriously—of an assassination attempt on his motorcade. As usual, the "report" went through various iterations: first it was a grenade, then a firecracker, then nothing at all.
Even the government's campaign of repression seems increasingly sloppy. Recently the Judiciary Minister, in an extraordinary case of buck-passing, asked Mr. Khamenei for permission to execute 1,120 prisoners—as if the minister could imagine being prosecuted himself some day, and he wanted to be able to say it was Mr. Khamenei's fault.
These various debacles have strengthened the Green Movement, and opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi continue to launch serious verbal attacks on the regime. When the head of the powerful Guardian Council recently accused the Greens of receiving money from the Saudis and the Americans, Mr. Karroubi gave him the back of his hand: "If I am a conspirator because I object [to the rigged presidential election], then you are a partner of those who stole this nation's vote and are disloyal to the nation."
To add insult, Zahra Rahnavard, Mr. Mousavi's firebrand wife, wryly commented that the accusation would "make a cooked chicken laugh." Mr. Mousavi himself said that the Islamic Republic has become worse than the shah's regime, because "religious tyranny is the worst form of tyranny."
Challenges to the regime now come even from prisoners. When Mr. Ahmadinejad challenged Barack Obama to a debate this month, a Green Movement website reported with grim admiration that five journalists in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison had invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to come to jail and debate them.
Very little of this news reaches a mass Western audience, and one wonders to what extent Western governments understand what's going on. If they do, their failure to support the democratic revolutionaries is all the more lamentable.
*Mr. Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is the author of "Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West" (St. Martin's, 2009).