Johann Hari: Will the looming war between Iran and Israel now be averted?

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The Independent Online

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 tear-gas 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 CIA – 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 30 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 regime has over-reached by blatantly falsifying the election results in order to keep their preferred candidate in power. The official results show that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning by huge margins in Tehran and Tabriz, the strongholds of the opposition. It's as if George Bush claimed in 2000 to have won not only in Palm Beach County but also in Massachusetts and San Francisco. As soon as the polls closed, Ahmadinejad said he had won by 64 per cent – precisely the amount that was later "counted". Either he has superhuman powers of prediction, or 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 inherit only 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 Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the other, both countries are led by paranoid strongmen who are traumatised by their countries' histories and scrambled by a political strain of post-traumatic stress disorder. We cannot understand the mindset that is driving both sides – and could be about to change – unless we delve into the past.

The current Iranian leadership's 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 oil and use the profits for its own people. The governments of the West ruled that this was unacceptable ("it is our oil under their soil, dummy"), so they toppled the democracy and installed a dictator. From 1953 to 1979, the Shah was paid by the Americans and British to suppress the Iranian population and keep the petrol pumping. Khamenei 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 Iranians 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 CIA) nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Israel – with its own memory of its people being subjected 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 "death to Israel", they 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 Khamenei (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 Ahmadinejad today?

Yet it is not hard to see how each side has talked itself into a state of paranoia from which it cannot back down. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will not let in international inspectors to see their full nuclear programme, much less control it, because, they say, the CIA used information gathered by inspectors in Iraq to know where to bomb. Netanyahu, in turn, has convinced himself 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 I Samuel xiv, 3, 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 per cent of Iranians want nuclear power, and 52 per cent want the nuclear bomb. But there is a crucial clause. More than 70 per cent 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 programmes 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 bushfire of mutual loathing through the world, and forestalls the risk of an endless Gazan missile crisis at the heart of the Middle East. It is 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 is plain what kind of Iran they want to build: some 70 per cent 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 re-run 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 that Ahmadinejad's side will lose in the long term. Around 70 per cent of Iranians are below the age of 30 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 constitutency is swelling.

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