Searching for Iran's Silent Majority

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of what was supposed to be a game-changing moment in Middle East history. The 2009 presidential election in Iran - believed by many in the opposition camp of candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi - would spell the end of the divisive and controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's time in office.

But when Ahmadinejad was reelected in a rather suspicious landslide, excitement quickly turned to outrage. Green-clad protesters took to the streets of Iran, starting what would quickly develop into the biggest global news story of 2009. In the days and weeks that followed, an abundance of enthusiastic and enthralled Western analysis made full blown revolution seem eminent. The Islamic Republic, the intelligentsia assured us, would soon crumble.

And then it didn't.

Fast forward one year to the day, with the ink still drying on a new round of international sanctions against the Iranian regime, and many are still left scratching their heads over what happened - or didn't happen - during the post-election unrest. Why, they ask, didn't the seemingly certain Iranian revolution of 2009 occur?

There are two possible answers - one obvious, and the other not so obvious. The first is the calculated brutality of the revolutionary regime in Tehran. Arguably more fearful of a cultural, or "color" revolution, the cabal of mullahs and militants who run the Islamic Republic are well aware of what a more open; more Westernized Iran could mean for their rule. Paranoid and, in some cases, quite mad, these Islamic revolutionaries rely on Iran's global isolation in order to keep their own societal position intact - and their pockets lined.

And unlike the monarchy they supplanted, the reigning regime understands that satellite dishes and scantily clad women represent the symbolic seedlings of change that might threaten their own cultural, economic and military grip over Iranian society. Like a Mafioso pinching the grocery store clerk for every last cent he has, these old guard gangsters have a good thing going, and they'll do whatever it takes to protect their racket.

There is, however, a not-so-easy answer to the Green Movement's shortcomings, and it involves the exuberant observers and analysts in the West. Not content to see the demonstrations as a civil rights movement, many in Western think tanks and media turned the Green Movement into their own white canvass; upon which anything was made possible. For neoconservative analysts, the Green Movement became a mandate for U.S. action. For others, the post-election unrest became a movie still of revolution in the making; a Berlin Wall for the 21st Century.

What those of us in the West missed and, in many ways, continue to miss is what Iranian-born author Hooman Majd refers to as Iran's "Shia sensibility." In short, be they pious or apostate, Iranians all share a kind of upstart quality - a perpetual David-ness in the struggle for justice and fairness against the globe's Goliaths.

Majd, in his essential book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, argues that Iranians are good at fighting the good fight, so long as it's done right and in respect to their heritage and culture. "Iran may evolve or even change politically," writes Majd, but "the character and sensibilities of the people will not change."

Those sensibilities were on full display in 2009, as Iranians took to the streets to preserve one of the few outlets of choice they had remaining in their repressive society: the presidential vote. Iranians clearly put up with a lot, but when their right to choose the country's already weak executive was challenged, they challenged right back. "Shia sensibility" - infused with the revolutionary populism of 1979 - flooded the summer streets in shades of green, and a "new" Iran seemed likely.

But Persian populism is something President Ahmadinejad understands quite well, and the nuclear standoff he helped cultivate over the past year managed to successfully eclipse the cries and chants of the Green Movement. Iran's nuclear enrichment, like a godsend from the Hidden Imam himself, quickly consumed the international community's imagination. Led by U.S. President Barack Obama, the West - well-intentioned as it may have been - managed to give the regime a wedge issue with which it could divide the Iranian resistance and rally Iranians around the flag. This has left Iran more isolated internationally and, perhaps unintentionally, even further removed from rapprochement with the United States.

So what then is the West to do?

We should first try to learn from past mistakes. In 1977, just one year prior to the Islamic revolution, President Jimmy Carter referred to the Pahlavi monarchy as an "island of stability"; nearly thirty years later, the reverse became true, as Western observers prematurely predicted revolution where there simply wasn't one.

It seems we can never quite get Iran right.

But by learning from past mistakes we just might figure out how to eventually reach Iran's silent - and increasingly silenced - majority. Doing so will require a reappraisal of preconceived notions about "Mad Mullahs" and Green revolutionaries; as reality, so often being the case, in fact resembles a not-so-green shade of gray. Somewhere in between the khaki-colored populism of Ahmadinejad and the North Tehrani protester is the real Iran that has long eluded Westerners.

In order to reach that broad swath of Iranians, the international community would do well to table the nuclear debate - for now. Sanctions are in place, and it's understood where all sides stand on the matter. Continuing to challenge Iran's nuclear populism head-on certainly won't endear us to many Iranians, and a real dialogue between civilizations will remain unlikely if premised on the nonstarter of nuclear enrichment.

What might follow is anyone's guess, but this much is clear: before there can be any kind of "Grand bargain" between Iran and the West, there must be greater understanding. Deeper historical issues still plague the U.S.-Iran relationship, and it's time for both governments to put everything on the table and work toward reconciling nearly six decades of misunderstanding.

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