The death Sunday of Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most senior opposition cleric, could well bring dissident Iranians back to the streets in protest during his funeral. Such demonstrations would reflect continuing popular outrage at the widespread fraud in Iran's June 12 presidential election, despite extraordinary efforts by the Iranian leadership to portray the country as united on all important issues. As many analysts have long known, the reality is decidedly to the contrary: The Islamic Revolution of 1979 is deeply unpopular.
Since June 12, repression has increased, as power continues flowing from the ayatollahs to the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Guards' leaders are just as theologically extreme as the mullahs, but they also have the guns, controlling both Iran's nuclear weapons program and providing financing and weapons for terrorists worldwide.
The best-known international symbol of opposition to Iran's repression is Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and Iran's first female judge. Ebadi so worries the authorities that she is effectively barred from reentering Iran for fear of arrest, having been accused (with her husband) of tax offenses in an effort to discredit her. Police recently went so far as to confiscate her Nobel Prize medallion (although it has apparently since been returned).
Any regime that goes to such lengths is in obvious trouble with its own people. There are three principal reasons for the Islamic Revolution's unpopularity: First, the regime has made a mess of the economy since overthrowing the shah, squandering enormous oil revenues without adequately benefitting the general population. For the average Iranian, the contrast with what nearby Arab states have done is a constant, palpable reminder of Teheran's failings.
The ayatollahs have been so misguided they have not adequately invested in the very petroleum infrastructure, including domestic refining capacity, that underlies the economy. Thus, Iran's domestic prospects worsen and its international competitive position declines even at a time of high global oil prices. Corruption, self-dealing and profiting by the ayatollahs and their families are also well-known, and help feed both economic and political discontent.
Second, the young people of Iran are profoundly dissatisfied. They are well-educated and can see, just across the Gulf and in the broader world, the freer lifestyles available if they could break through the harsh laws enveloping Iran. Since those under 30 constitute two-thirds or more of the population, "youth" is not just a demographic reference, but society's center of gravity. To them, and especially to young women, Ebadi is a true hero, and their discontent bodes poorly for the regime's longevity.
Third, there is substantial ethnic discontent among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis and many other minority groups, fueled in part by Saudi Arabian funding. Since ethnic Persians amount to only slightly over 50 percent of the total population, the minorities and their discontents could well prove profoundly destabilizing.
Of course, these sources of discontent do not entirely coincide, and indeed often conflict, but the extent of popular dissatisfaction with Iran's government cannot be denied. Had the US worked effectively, overtly and covertly, over the last decade to provide concrete support for the opposition, June's fraudulent elections might have provided a springboard to genuine regime change. Unfortunately, however, neither Washington nor Iran's opposition were prepared, and the chance was lost.
Today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government continues its repression, even preparing show trials against former presidential candidates and other opposition political leaders. There are real questions whether the unarmed opposition, divided internally and without effective leadership, can realistically attempt regime change in the foreseeable future. Montazeri's death highlights the dissidents' plight, but also the role Ebadi and other regime opponents outside Iran could play in undermining the Islamic Revolution.
Moreover, Ebadi could also play an important role in the aftermath of a possible preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear weapons program. The conventional wisdom, fed by Teheran's propaganda, is that such a strike would rally opinion behind Ahmadinejad, precisely the opposite of what we want. But in fact, that need not necessarily be the reaction, and leaders like Ebadi could well make a substantial difference. Ebadi is a genuine patriot, as her countrymen well understand, despite the regime's propaganda campaigns.
Destroying or seriously damaging the nuclear weapons program is not aimed in any way against the Iranian people. The objective instead would be self defense for everyone concerned with the hegemonic aspirations of the ayatollahs and the IRGC. This critical point is well understood within the Iranian diaspora in Europe and America, and could also be made clear inside the country.
Having opinion leaders like Ebadi explaining that case after a military strike could be critical in maintaining popular dissatisfaction against the ayatollahs, and even increasing it to make regime change truly possible. That would be an achievement warranting another Nobel Prize.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.