Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whether or not the street protests continue, the power of the Ayatollahs is on the wane.


by Edward Luttwak

At this point, it is only the short-term future of Iran's clerical regime that remains in doubt. The current protests can be repressed, but the unelected institutions of priestly rule have been fatally undermined, and in the meantime, the Tehran government may be largely paralyzed anyway. Each of these things has its own dynamic and timetable, but this is not a regime that can last many more years.

When it comes to repression, the Islamic Republic has a spectrum of security instruments that can be used synergistically: the regular national police for routine crowd control without much use of force; riot police units with batons that can beat up some demonstrators to discourage others; the much more brutal, under-class Basij militiamen who enjoy hitting and even shooting more affluent Iranians; and finally the not-incompetent technical arm of the regime which blocks cellular service to disrupt demonstrations, disrupts internet services and intercepts opposition communications.

Mousavi rejects the orders of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who must be obeyed If violence were to escalate very greatly, Pasdaran revolutionary guard troops with their wheeled armored vehicles might also be called in - at some risk to the regime, given that one unhappy losing presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, was their long-term commander, though he left 12 years ago. The alternative of calling in the regular army with its tanks would be much more risky: the loyalty of the generals is unknown.

What has undermined the very structure of the Islamic Republic is the fracturing of its ruling elite. It was the unity established by its founder Ayatollah Khomeini that allowed the regime to dominate the population for almost 30 years, and it has now been lost. The very people who did much to create the institutions of priestly rule are now destroying their authority.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leading rival for the presidency, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was prime minister from 1981 to 1989 when the Islamic Republic acquired its administrative structure, including its unelected head, the Supreme Leader, who commands all and must be obeyed in all things. But Mousavi now flatly rejects the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to accept Ahmadinejad's re-election.

In this, Mousavi is joined by another losing candidate, former Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) and pillar of the establishment Mehdi Karroubi, and a yet more senior founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. President from 1989 to 1997, among other things Rafsanjani is the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, whose 86 members choose the Supreme Leader and can ostensibly remove him.

During the campaign, Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and his children of corruption in the harshest terms on live television. If Ahmadinejad's re-election is to be "definitive" and even "divine" as the Supreme Leader has declared, Rafsanjani would have to resign from all his offices, and his children would have to leave Iran. Instead he is reportedly trying to recruit a majority of the Assembly of Experts to remove Khamenei, or at least force him to order new elections.

The other key undemocratic institution that makes the Islamic Republic what it is - and that Mousavi and Rafsanjani among others helped to create - is the 12-member Guardian Council that can veto any laws passed by the Majlis, and has the power to reject any candidate who presents himself for election (only Islamists qualify). In recent years, it has persistently sided with the extremists and Ahmadinejad, using its veto powers very aggressively.

Supreme Leader Khamenei logically chose the Guardian Council to deal with the election dispute. The council announced that it might recount 10 per cent of the  ballots, and summoned Ahmadinejad's rivals: Mousavi himself, Karroubi, and Rezaee. All three men rejected the recount offer and only Rezaee went before the Council; Mousavi and Karroubi simply refused to appear, explicitly denying its authority as well as that of the Supreme Leader.

That is highly significant because with its elected president and parliament, Iran would be a normal democratic republic were it not for the office of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council - the latter are the Islamic Republic.

In theory, if Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the extremists of the Guardian Council were all replaced by consensus figures, the Islamic Republic could continue as before. In practice that is impossible.

It is not for the distinctly uncharismatic and only marginally moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi that huge numbers of Iranians have been demonstrating at the risk of beatings and worse. His courage under pressure has certainly raised his popularity, but he is still no more than the accidental symbol of an emerging political revolution, chosen because he was the least extremist candidate that the Guardian Council would allow.

It is perfectly evident that after years of humiliating social repression and gross economic mismanagement, the more important part of Iran's population - the less uneducated, less poor, less passive, and most productive - have mostly turned their backs on the entire regime.

Even if personally religious or actually devout, they now reject the entire post-1979 structure of politicized Shi'a Islam with its powerful Ayatollahs, ubiquitous, officious Hojatollahs, strutting Pasdaran guards, low-life Basij militia, and exceedingly wealthy Islamic foundations with lots of well-paid priestly executives.

Many Iranians once inclined to respect clerics in general, now view them as generally corrupt, including the Ahmadinejad supporters who greatly applauded Khamenei's attacks on Ayatollah Rafsanjani.

Had Mousavi won the election, he would have introduced modest steps to liberalize the system - allowing women to go out with uncovered heads, for example. But such steps would only have triggered demands for more change, eventually bringing down the entire system of clerical rule.

Some clerics have long said that men of religion should give up political power

In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev's initially very cautious reforms designed to perpetuate the Communist regime ended up destroying it in less than five years. In Iran, the system is much newer, and the process would have been faster.

Some important clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, have long said that men of religion should strive to regain popular respect by voluntarily giving up political power, and that may provide a way out eventually.

Even if all protests are repressed, Supreme Leader Khamenei is now in the impossible position of having to support a president whose authority is not accepted by much of the governing structure itself - even the rather extremist Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani has declared that the vote counting was biased. So Ahmadinejad cannot really function as president even if he remains in office - for one thing, the Majlis parliament is unlikely to confirm his ministerial appointments.

If therefore Khamenei is not removed by the Assembly of Experts and Ahmadinejad is not removed by Khamenei, the government will continue to be paralyzed. That will only accelerate the erosion of the machinery of priestly rule. Iran's great good fortune is that below it, the essential democratic institutions are up and running, and need only new elections for both the Majlis and the presidency. 


by Edward Luttwak

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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