The Khomeinist regime in Iran is in terminal trouble; but that doesn’t mean Iran is about to repudiate Islam and become a secular democracy. In order to see where Iran is going, it’s important to see where it’s been.
The so-called Islamic Revolution of Iran was never just about Islam. It was the product of three revolutionary currents coming together. One was constitutionalism, a century-old struggle for democracy, driven mostly by Iran’s secular modernists. One was Islamism, a push to put the shari’a in charge of political life—a movement fed by rural resentment of the Westernized urban elite and embraced by merchants of the country’s traditional economy.
And then there was nationalism: a rage fueled by Iran’s long-subjugation to European powers, a passion that permeated every level of Iranian society and made people of all backgrounds hungry to see Iranian sovereignty, strength, and pride restored.
In the tumult of 1978-79, master strategist Ayatollah Khomeini appropriated the nationalist impulse into his Shi’i Islamist movement. He was in a good position to do so because Shi’ism had been intertwined with “Iranianism” for over five centuries. Indeed, it was a defiant Shi’ism that set Iran apart from its powerful Ottoman and Moghul neighbors and let it emerge into history as a nation-state.
By making his brand of Islamism the face of Iranian nationalism, Khomeini combined two streams of revolutionary enthusiasm and used it to crush the third stream, the democracy movement of the secular modernists.
In the next several decades, while the world mourned the death of Iranian democracy, Khomeini and his successors made good their promise to nationalist pride and thus secured their grip on the country. They humiliated the United States; beat back Iraq; eradicated all traces foreign cultural influence in Iran; and forged a menacing state able to project its power through Lebanon into the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But recently the Khomeinists have faltered. The ascension of Ahmadinejad has hurt them. The trouble with Ahmadinejad is not that most of the world sees him as a villanous thug (that by itself could have helped him domestically.) The problem is that most of the world sees him as a laughable buffoon, a donkey: he brings shame upon the nation. And he compounded his flaws by mismanaging the economy. Iranians worried about tomorrow’s livelihood feel their country’s power and prestige waning. As a result, the regime’s ownership of the nationalist agenda erodes. If it loses that chip, it must rely purely on its Islamic credentials for legitimacy and even in Iran, that’s not enough.
Many in clerical establishment have seen this coming. This is what the reform movement has been about. Men like Khatami, Mousavi, and Rafsanjani don’t propose to dismantle the Islamic Republic and replace it with a secular democracy. They’re out to save the Islamic Republic by changing its approach to the world and thus preserve its stature in world affairs. They see what Obama sees: that belligerent bullying ultimately weakens a nation. This doesn’t mean their commitment to Islam (or even Islamism) has weakened, any more than Obama’s willingness to talk with states like Iran means he no longer believes in democracy.
In Iran, however, the pressure of internal contradictions has built up such intensity that there is no controlling the reformist challenge and no predicting its consequences. The only thing we can say for sure is that the regime led by Khamenei is in a bind from which it cannot escape.
The regime is in a bind because the question on the table now is whether it is hurting the nation, and the question doesn’t come from disaffected outsiders but from core members of the ruling elite.
Every instrument the regime possesses for dealing with the crisis tends to put its own legitimacy at risk. Khamenei’s decision-making has further boxed him and his cabal into a corner. Take the election results: had those been counted properly, they might well have produced numbers pretty close to what the regime announced—believe it or not, that’s what a Manchester Guardian poll and several others showed in the weeks before the election. In the voting itself, there may not have been much fraud.
But that no longer matters, because the votes were not counted properly. That’s indisputable. By issuing the results of the voting sooner than the votes could possibly have been counted, Khamenei drew the spotlight away from scattered polling booths and trucks rolling through the streets with ballot boxes, and situated the central act of fraud squarely in the headquarters of the regime.
As Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei may have many powers, but he doesn’t have the power to do as he pleases for personal gain. As a fundamental principle, in the Islamic Republic, no one is free to do as he pleases, not even the “Supreme Leader.” Everyone is subject to the law—that law being the shari’a. By appearing to commit a blatant dishonesty in order to put his own man in the drivers seat, Khamenei has cost himself an aura of impregnable authority, and this will hurt him because, for all the military and police resources at his command, the Supreme Leader’s authority ultimately derives from rectitude and religious learning, not bodyguards and guns. As soon as people stop believing in his rectitude, guns won’t save him.
No doubt Khamenei calculated that his decree would stop all the protests dead and that life would then do what life does: go back to normal. But the protests didn’t stop and so Khamenei found himself caught out in cold.
Therefore, he went to the next step and called on his military resources, because what else could he do? The revolution of 1979 suppressed whole currents of revolutionary passion unrelated to Islam, and those sentiments have been festering and heating up under the skin of the Islamic Republic for decades. The Khomeinist regime cannot let that magma keep welling to the surface. The trouble is, the division in Iran runs vertically. This is not a confrontation between a homogenous oppressed underclass and a monolithically united tyranny. Leading members on both sides of the divide are highly placed insiders. In calling out the troops, the regime turns its guns on itself. To justify this action, it has no recourse but to redefine some founding members of the Islamic revolution as disloyal outsiders. Even if it succeeds in thus rebranding men like Rafsanjani, it damages the legitimacy of the state structure as a whole: success is failure.
Furthermore, to keep the opposition scattered and disorganized, the regime has no choice but to stopper up their channels of communication. That means it has to disrupt the Internet, shut down Facebook, stop the Twittering, and keep cell phone text messages from getting through. These, however, are the power technologies of our time. These are what make societies effective, powerful, and modern. In shutting down these systems, the regime is dragging Iran back into a primitivism that can only reduce the country to third-tier status—and Iranians can feel this. So all such actions offend the yearnings still alive in the Iranian soul for strength, self respect, and a high standing in the world.
In short, every step the regime can take to shore up its strength must cost it some credibility and squander some of its ability to keep presenting itself as the champion of Iranian pride. If a plurality of the nation comes to feel that these Khomeinist clerics are good Muslims but bad for Iran, they are finished. Their only possible hope then will rest with some outside force inserting itself into the fray and giving them a convenient scapegoat, someone like John McCain, who incredibly enough said today that the United States “should lead” the Iranian revolution. But then, if the Khomeinists of Iran depend on John McCain to save their hides, they’re probably dead men walking already.