Editor's note: Fawaz A. Gerges, who holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is on a research trip to the Middle East. His most recent book is "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."
Fawaz Gerges says Iran's sons and daughters will probably win their bid for greater freedom in the long run.
BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- As the dust settles on battered Iranian streets, the ultra-conservative ruling mullahs appear to have won the first round against reformist rivals. But far from vanquished, the reformist movement has gained momentum, confidence, assertiveness and many new followers.
Overcoming political apathy and fear, Iranians of all walks of life took to the streets, making their voices heard and insisting that their votes mattered. Once again, Iranians have surprised the world with their dynamism and vibrant civil society.
Contrary to the stereotypes of the Islamic Republic prevalent in the West and stressed by the ruling mullahs, Iranians are not a monolith but a diverse and complex society with competing interests and differing conceptions of their country and others.
For the first time since the outbreak of the revolution in 1979, a vast, broadly based segment of Iranian society now challenges the radical conservatism of the Islamic Republic and demands direct control over their personal lives. Iran is witnessing the rise, not the end, of a viable social movement with a more democratic agenda encompassing millions of people with varied socioeconomic backgrounds.
Regardless of the outcome of the electoral dispute, the reformist movement has already shaken the Islamic-based regime to its foundation. The ruling revolutionary narrative is no longer dominant and deeply contested by a broad spectrum of public opinion.
After 30 years of ideological mobilization, Iranians appear exhausted and long for normalcy and open air. A crushing economic crisis (an unofficial unemployment rate of 20 to 30 percent and double-digit inflation and chronic corruption) has driven young Iranians to the brink of rebellion against their elders and fathers.
The struggle is between fathers and sons and daughters, a cultural clash between two generations, two sensibilities, two world views, and two differing conceptions of Iran, one at peace with itself and the world, an open society that respects citizens' social and personal freedoms; the other in perpetual war with internal and external enemies, an authoritarian form of populism that legislates moral edicts and social justice.
In the last few weeks, a titanic cultural and generational clash played itself out on Iranian streets before the eyes of the world. The electoral dispute was only a spark that ignited a fire simmering under the surface for a more a decade. iReport.com: Images from Iran tell the story
Although the vast crowds of oppositional protesters included a broad cross-section of society, sons and daughters dominated. The young faces of protesters reflect dominant demographics: 70 percent of Iran's population of 72 million people is under the age of 30. Despite recent setbacks, they will probably own Iran's future.
"We want liberty," and "down with the dictator," protesters chanted in unison, defying stern warnings by Iran's most powerful ruler, supreme leader Ali Khamenei, to stop rallying. According to Khamenei, "The youth are confused. Being led astray from spirituality has caused confusion. They do not know what to do."
But contrary to what the ruling mullahs claim, the tens of thousands of dissidents who put their lives on line are not hooligans, confused or puppets of the West; rather, they are loyal patriots and genuine supporters of democratic reforms, including human and women's rights.
In fact, women are leading drivers behind the opposition movement, and time and again since 1997, the female vote, a vast segment of more than 22 million, has tipped the balance in favor of reformist candidates.
Instead of listening to the aspirations and fears of young Iranians and co-opting them, the ruling mullahs have decided to crush popular protests and silence dissent.
By strongly backing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for president, Khamenei, Iran's equivalent of commander in chief, forfeited his role as an arbiter standing above the political fray and shut the door for a possible compromise.
There is no denying that the ruling mullahs led by Khamenei, who control an extensive security apparatus, will re-establish order and certify Ahmadinejad's mandate for the next four years. But that's a misleading measure of success.
Iran's hardliners have already won a battle but lost the struggle for their citizens' hearts and minds. The electoral crisis exposed not only a deep rift among senior mullahs but also highlighted a deeper and wider cultural-generational divide in Iranian society.
However, one point must be made clear: The reformist movement represents a bigger and greater social phenomenon than the electoral campaign of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi and like-minded moderate conservative clerics.
Moussavi, a loyal son of the Islamic Republic, has become a symbol for millions of young Iranians, but their hopes and agenda transcend Moussavi's and will most likely outlast him.
Suppression of widespread dissent will exacerbate the legitimacy crisis of the Islamic-based order and weaken it domestically and internationally.
The critical question is, how long will it be until the next confrontation? Will a new charismatic leader from within the ruling elite co-opt the reformist movement and institutionalize it? Will the elite splinter and dissipate its energy and power in factional rivalry and fighting? Or will the ruling mullahs labor hard to tackle some of the grievances of dissidents, such as relaxing state control over Iranians' lives and improving their economic well being?
One thing is certain: Iran will never be the same. The myth of monolith Iran has been shattered for good. There is more to Iran than the inflammatory rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and the fearmongers who portray Iran as an existential threat to world peace.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz Gerges.
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