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Iran: A Yeltsin Moment is Needed | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Having dug their separate holes, both rival factions in the power struggle in Tehran continue digging.

The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad faction is preparing for mass arrests, purges and, perhaps, even executions.

The quartet of dissent led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, for its part, remains sulking on the sidelines.

The two holes get deeper by the day.

Maybe Iran needs a Yeltsin moment.

But what is a Yeltsin moment?

Next Tuesday will mark the 18th anniversary of the so-called August coup when a faction within the Soviet regime, led by Gennady Yanayav, seized power in the name of “saving the revolution and reviving Lenin’s vision.”

This provoked an uprising against the regime.

Initially, leaders of the uprising tried to fight the coup by portraying it as “counter-revolutionary”, accusing it of betraying “Lenin’s vision.”

Many in the outside world also saw the conflict as the latest in a series that marked the history of the USSR. Francois Mitterrand, then France’s President, drew parallels between what was happening that summer and what had happened in the 1920s and 1930s when revolutionaries like Bukharin and Trotsky had defied Stalin.

One man, however, quickly realized that this was not a fight over the “correct interpretation of Leninism”, and that defying the putschists in the name of “revolutionary heritage” would lead nowhere.

That man was Boris Yeltsin, a life-long Communist and member of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party.

Yeltsin had learnt two lessons.

The first was that, in a regime that claims revolutionary legitimacy, those in power have a better chance of pretending to be the true guardians of the temple.

Bukharin and Trotsky had little chance of convincing anyone that they, and not Stalin, then the First Secretary of the Communist Party, were the true representatives of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Leninist doctrine.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Bolshevik Revolution would have known that Bukharin and Trotsky had played a greater role than Stalin had. However, at the time that they were falling from grace, it was Stalin, as guardian of the temple, who represented the revolution.

The second lesson was that the uprising was not in support of the revolution and the supposed Leninist heritage but against them.

In 1991, most Russians wished to close the chapter of Communism and move on.

They did not care who offered the true version of Leninism. They did not want any version of it. To them the revolution and Lenin were no longer sacred cows. They knew that the revolution had brought them decades of strife, terror, oppression, war and misery. They also knew that Lenin, far from being the sage that both sides claimed, had been the mastermind of tyranny and terror.

So, on 22 August when the Soviet army started rolling into Moscow in tanks to crush the insurrection, Yeltsin knew what to tell General Grachev, the commander in charge.

In a telephone conversation Grachev told Yeltsin that his troops were coming to “protect the revolution against its enemies.”

The Bukharin or Trotsky answer would have been: Oh, no! We are the true guardians of the revolution, not Yanayev and his gang!

Such an answer would have provoked derision. The tanks would have rolled in and the insurrection crushed.

Yeltsin, however, explained that the army had to protect the people against a revolution that planned to massacre them in the streets.

Even Grachev, not the brightest of the Soviet generals, could understand that. He had been asked to send his tanks against the people, a concrete reality, in defence of the revolution, a mere abstraction.

Once it had become clear that the fight was not over rival interpretations of Leninism, Grachev, his officers, and, eventually, his men realized that the choice was between the people who wanted change and their oppressors who refused reform in the name of ideology.

Unable to kill people in the streets, the Soviet regime collapsed like a pack of cards. In Moscow, people shouted: The rook is back in its nest! (Grachev means rook in Russian).

Iran’s experience since the Khomeinist seizure of power in 1979 illustrates the same point. All attempts at challenging the regime in the name of the revolution and “true Khomeinism” failed.

Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, his religious status notwithstanding, could not defeat Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the latter’s turf.

Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini’s first prime minister, had worked longer for the revolution than the ayatollah. But he could not win by pretending to be more Khomeinist than Khomeini himself.

Abol Hassan Banisadr, the first President of the Khomeinist republic, suffered a similar fate: he could not defeat Khomeinism in the name of Khomeinism.

The Mujahedin-e Khalq, the People’s Fedayeen, the Communist Tudeh (Masses) Party, and other radical groups challenged the Khomeinist regime in the name of the revolution and were wiped out.

Need one mention Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and his fall from grace?

Think for a moment.

If the fight in Iran is over who is a better representative of Khomeinism which would you pick: Ali Khamenei or Rafsanjani?

And, if you wish to choose a “revolutionary” who breathes fire and brimstone, which is your pick: Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

The quartet’s position becomes more complicated when we remember that they were in charge for 24 of the 30 years of the Khomeinist regime.

Are Iranians fighting and dying because they want to go back to when Mousavi was Prime Minister, or when Rafsanjani, and then Khatami, were president? Not bloody likely.

Without a Yeltsin moment, the current insurrection, though larger and deeper than previous revolts against Khomeinism, would have little chance of success. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij will not believe that the quartet is fighting for a “true system of Wilayat al Faqih” when the current Wali al Faqih describes them as traitors.

A putative Iranian Yeltsin would have a simple message: this regime has brought us to a point at which we are killing each other in the streets. It is time to move beyond it and the ideology that produced it. The revolution, good or bad, is in the past. Khomeini, good or bad, is long dead. We are alive and we must learn to live together. Only a pluralist system would allow us to do so.

Such a message may not be enough to persuade Iran’s “rooks” to fly back to their nests. But it would sound more credible than the claim of the quartet that they are defending Khomeinism against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.