Does This Mean War Between Israel and Iran Can Be Averted?

07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are we witnessing an anti-1979 -- a democratic uprising against the Ayatollahs by the grandchildren of the revolution? On the streets of Tehran, many of the massed millions are chanting: "We will die - but count our votes." The religious police are trying to teargas and truncheon this cry into submission, with the possibility of a Tehran Tiananmen hanging in the city's smog. But for today, the secret policemen are in panic, and the Ayatollahs are in retreat.

The Iranian Revolution was, from its first gasps, a marriage between two incompatible urges: theocracy, and democracy. Only now are they two finally unravelling. The Shah - the torturing dictator installed, armed and adored by the C.I.A. - was overthrown by a chasm-wide coalition stretching from communists to Islamists. My parents lived in Iran at that time, and they remember the raw hatred of the Shah that was felt by bearded Mullahs and hijab-free feminists alike. Almost everybody rose up in 1979.

But once the Shah was toppled, one wing of the revolution hijacked it. The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini installed himself as the Supreme Ruler, and started killing off the democratic wing of the revolution. But splinters of democracy remained in the constitution, like shards of glass after an explosion. Alongside the theocrats, there was an elected President and Parliament. For thirty years, the clerics have smothered these institutions, blocking most candidates from running, and - on the rare occasion when a reformist gets through - preventing him from changing much.

But now that system has over-reached by blatantly falsifying the election results in order to keep their preferred candidate in power. The official results show Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh winning by huge margins in the strongholds of the opposition - Tehran and Tabriz. It's as if George Bush in 2000 claimed to have won not only in Palm Beach County but also in Massachusetts and San Francisco. As soon as the polls closed, Ahmadinejadh said he had won by 64 percent - precisely the amount that was later 'counted.' Either he has superhuman powers of prediction, or he had a role in the result.

Inside Iran, shifting power from the clerics to the people would free millions of women. Today, a woman's testimony is worth half a man's in court. A woman can only inherit half as much as her brother. A woman invariably loses her children in a divorce case, and while she can be dumped in a second by her husband, if she wants a split, it can take up to a decade. The late surge to the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi was driven in large part by women enthused by his wife's call for an end to this vicious misogyny.

But what about outside Iran? This uprising could avert the disastrous war between Israel and Iran that was looking increasingly probable until today. The leaderships of the two non-Arab countries in the Middle East have increasingly resembled each other as they embark on a long, dark tango towards bombing. With Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman on one side and Ayatollah Khameini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the other, both countries are led by paranoid strongmen who are traumatised by their country's histories and scrambled by a political strain of post-traumatic stress disorder.

We can't understand the mindset that is driving both sides - and could be about to change - unless we delve into the past.

The current Iranian leaders' pursuit of enriched uranium is a response to a long history, too often scrubbed from Western textbooks. By the 1950s, Iran had developed a thriving democracy, and its people decided - rationally, correctly - to take control of its own oil and use the profits for its own people. The governments of the West ruled that this was unacceptable: it's our oil under their soil, dummy. So they toppled the democracy and installed a dictator. From 1953 to 1979, this dictator was paid by the Americans, Brits and friends to suppress the Iranian population and keep the petrol pumping. Khameini is one of the many people he jailed and tortured.

When the Iranians rejected "our good friend", we paid for Saddam Hussein to attack their country using chemical weapons. Ahmadinejad saw some of this mass slaughter - death toll: one million - as a young volunteer. That's why they feel nervous when they see US bases encircling them from Turkey to Afghanistan to Iraq. And that's why they want at least nuclear power and perhaps (although there are some doubts, even in the C.I.A.) nuclear weapons. We mustn't offer a second of excuses - but we should understand why they are acting this way.

Meanwhile, Israel - with its own memory of its people being subject to near-annihilation in the gas chambers of Europe - sees something different. When they watch Ahmadinejad inviting a jamboree of Jew-haters to Tehran for a deranged Holocaust denial conference, or hear his massed supporters chant for "death to Israel", they begin to suspect that Ahmadinejad would use these weapons if he had them, and therefore they must bomb to stop him.

There were, thankfully, always a number of flaws with this theory. If Ahmadinejad and Khameini (whose finger would be on the button) are so determined to kill the Jews that they are prepared to kill themselves and everyone they know in a nuclear holocaust, why are the 30,000 Jews living in Iran alive and well? Wouldn't they start there? Hasn't Ahmadinejad's disgusting Holocaust denial been attacked within Iran - by the man who probably just won the election? And if Israel bombed the more than 40 sites where Iran's nuclear programme is spread across the country, wouldn't they just kill many of the people marching against Ahamdinejad today? Wouldn't this create support for a bigger, bolder nuclear programme tomorrow by vindicating the fears that Iran is left vulnerable to attack without the bomb?

Yet it's not hard to see how each side has talked itself into a paranoia they can't back down from. Khameini and Ahmadinejad won't let international inspectors in to see their full programme, much less control it, pointing out that the CIA used information gathered by inspectors in Iraq to know where to bomb. Netanyahu, in turn, has convinced himself that Ahmadinejad is an incarnation of the genocidal anti-Semitism that stalked Europe down the centuries. His rhetoric becomes as crazed as Ahmadinejad's. When asked how he sees Iran, he replied: "Remember Amalek." The Amalekites are the primordial enemies of the Jews in the Torah. In 1 Samuel 15, God says, "Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."

Irrational fear and tribal-religious manias are now driving both sides - and until this week, a violent show-down looked ever-more-likely.

But the uprising in Iran offers a radically different route. If the Iranian political system can be made to bend to the will of the Iranian people, we will see there is a peaceful solution that has been waiting for us all along. The most detailed study of Iranian views - carried out by the independent Centre for Public Opinion - found that 94 percent of Iranians want nuclear power, and 52 percent want the nuclear bomb. But there's a crucial clause. More than 70 percent agree that if the US and EU offer a peace package where they guarantee there will be no invasion and instead bring aid and investment, they will let inspectors closely monitor their nuclear power programs and renounce nuclear weapons for good.

This is a way out of the ratchet of fear. It averts a bombing campaign that would spread another bush-fire of mutual loathing through the world, and forestalls the risk of an endless Gazan Missile Crisis at the heart of the Middle East. It's not inconceivable that a deal could be struck with a weakened Ahmadinejad still in power, but it would be far more likely under a reformist with the people at his back.

But how can the Iranian people get there? It's plain what kind of Iran they want to build: some 70 percent of them want every position of power in their political system, including the Supreme Ayatollah, to be directly elected. They don't just want a rerun of this election: they want to expose the entire corrupt gerontocracy to election. The Islamic Republic would be dramatically reformed from within, without the wrenching risks of abolishing the entire system and starting again.

The Mullahs won't go quietly. They may go down fighting. But the demographics ensure Ahmadinejad's side will lose in the long-term. Another 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of thirty, and the vast majority are growing up in the cities, linked via Twitter and Facebook to a world beyond. They have developed huge subcultures of bloggers and rappers expressing their rage at the "morality police" who monitor their behaviour at every turn. While the hardcore Islamist constituency - the old and the rural - shrivels, the reformist constituency is swelling.

There's only so long you can suppress an angry, wired population much younger than you. IPods beat i-slamism in the end. But will they prevail before another Middle Eastern war born of irrational fear begins?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here.

You can email him at johann -at-