Watching events unfolding in Tehran raises three intriguing questions for me: Is Facebook to Iran's Moderate Revolution what the mosque was to Iran's Islamic Revolution? Is Twitter to Iranian moderates what muezzins were to Iranian mullahs? And, finally, is any of this good for the Jews - particularly Israel's prime minister Bibi Netanyahu?
Here is why I ask. During the last eight years, in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, spaces were opened for more democratic elections. Good news. Unfortunately, the groups that had the most grass-roots support and mobilization capabilities - and the most energized supporters - to take advantage of this new space were the Islamists. That is, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, the various Sunni and Shiite Islamist parties in Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The centrist mainstream was nowhere.
One of the most important reasons why the Islamists were able to covertly organize and mobilize, and be prepared when the lids in their societies were loosened a bit, was because they had the mosque - a place to gather, educate and inspire their followers - outside the total control of the state.
In almost every one of these cases, the Islamists overplayed their hands. In Lebanon, Hezbollah took the country into a disastrous and unpopular war. Ditto Hamas in Gaza. The Sunni and Shiite Islamists in Iraq tried to impose a religious lifestyle on their communities, and the mullahs in Iran quashed the reformists. In the last year, though, the hard-liners in all these countries have faced a backlash by the centrist majorities, who detest these Islamist groups.
Hezbollah was defeated in the Lebanese elections. Hamas is facing an energized Fatah in the West Bank and is increasingly unpopular in Gaza. Iraqi Sunnis have ousted the jihadists thanks to the tribal Awakening movement, while the biggest pro-Iranian party in Iraq got trounced in the recent provincial runoff.
And in Iran, millions of Iranians starving for more freedom rallied to the presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, forcing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to steal the election. (If he really won the Iranian election, as he claims, by a 2-to-1 margin, wouldn't he invite the whole world in to recount the votes? Why hasn't he?)What is fascinating to me is the degree to which in Iran today - and in Lebanon - the more secular forces of moderation have used technologies such as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, blogging and text-messaging as their virtual mosque, as the place they can now gather, mobilize, plan, inform and energize their supporters, outside the grip of the state.
For the first time, the moderates, who were always stranded between authoritarian regimes that had all the powers of the state and Islamists who had all the powers of the mosque, now have their own place to come together and project power: the network. The New York Times reported that Moussavi's fan group on Facebook alone has grown to more than 50,000 members. That's surely more than any mosque could hold - which is why the government is now trying to block these sites.
But while that puts the moderate mainstream on par with the Islamists in communications terms, we should not get carried away. First, "moderates" is a relative term. Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, while more secular and nationalist than the extreme Iraqi Islamists, nonetheless wants to centralize power and solidify his Dawa group as the ruling party.
Second, even if defeated electorally, the Islamists and their regimes have a trump card: guns. Guns trump cell phones. Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet. The Sunni Awakening in Iraq succeeded because the moderates there were armed. I doubt Ahmadinejad will go peacefully.
And that brings me to Netanyahu. Israel was taken by surprise by events in Lebanon and Iran. And Israeli officials have been saying they would much prefer that Ahmadinejad still wins in Iran - not because Israelis really prefer him but because they believe his thuggish, anti-Semitic behavior reflects the true and immutable character of the Iranian regime. And Israelis fear that if a moderate were to take over, it would not herald any real change in Iran, or its nuclear ambitions, but simply disguise it better.
But there are signals - still weak - that another trend may be stirring in the region. The Iranian regime appears to be splitting at the top. This could challenge Netanyahu's security framework. Israel needs to be neither seduced by these signals nor indifferent to them. It has to be open to them and must understand that how it relates to Palestinians and settlements can help these trends - at the margins. But a lot starts at the margins.
"The rise of these moderate forces, if it is real and sustained, would be the most significant long-term contribution to Israeli national security," argued Gidi Grinstein, the president of the Reut Institute, a think tank. "If some of these moderate forces started to converge, then the overall status of Israeli security would improve radically." It is still way too early to know, he said, "but Israel needs to be alive to this process and not simply rely on its old framework."
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service