Can Iran's Clerics Stop the Protests?

When I visited Iran two years ago this month, one thing was clear from my reporting: there was virtually no prospect that Iran's Islamic regime would collapse any time in the foreseeable future. A lot of people hated the clerics, but apart from a few dissident voices, the political opposition was all but gone. Well, it's baaack. And the consequences for the clerics are likely to be far more dire than the last time political ferment appeared in force, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami took office in the 1990s.

Prior to this election, the government led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the radical Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had adopted the rather savvy approach of letting people enjoy themselves a bit and, above all, make money so as to induce political apathy. Religious conservatives openly embraced the "China model," whereby the mandarins in Beijing managed to quash political dissent after Tiananmen Square by sublimating the impulse for a better life into a booming economy. In Iran, the unrest of the '90s was addressed with an analogous formula: Ahmadinejad and his "new right" kept most of the Khatami-era social reforms and focused most of their ire on political dissenters.

Now, thanks to overreaching by Khamenei and his hardline allies, who apparently sought to secure their power with an electoral coup d'etat, even that approach must be called into question. While the legitimacy of the Islamic regime is still widely accepted, Khamenei's position atop Iranian society was never as certain as it was deemed to be in the West. The Supreme Leader's clear misreading of the situation—his initial embrace of the election results as a "divine" victory for Ahmadinejad followed by a jittery call for an investigation into the vote—has amply demonstrated his fallibility. Key figures like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, have dared to question Khamenei's judgment, an act considered an unbreachable "red line" in the past.

And now the extraordinary uprising in the streets will undoubtedly embolden the whisperers who for years in back rooms have derided Khamenei as an inadequate and faltering heir to the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And here is the key point: If Khamenei goes, there may be no Supreme Leader to follow him. Such is the factionalism among the clerics that no candidate seems to possess sufficient prestige—at least, that is what I heard when I was there. Given the broad questioning of state legitimacy that is taking place now in the streets, this could all plant the seeds of future democratic transition from mullah rule. I say "could" because we are a long way from that.

For an autocratic police state, the Iranian power structure is uniquely pluralistic. It is governed by system of clerical checks and balances that leaves no figure, even Khamenei, with unquestioned authority. Rafsanjani, for example, is head of the Assembly of Experts, a council of senior clerics that at least theoretically has the power to remove Khamenei if he is judged unqualified to serve (highly unlikely, even now, given that Khamenei has stocked the assembly with allies). When I visited the religious city of Qom, where Khomeini got his start, I interviewed a few dissident clerics. One of that group, Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, urged me to write critically about the Guardian Council, which has the power to vet presidential candidates and has now called for at least a partial recount of Sunday's vote results.

"Why don't you warn your readers about the Guardian Council?" Saanei said reproachfully. Saanei told me he believes this all-powerful body, created to ensure that Iranian laws and practices adhere to Islamic code, was out of control, intruding far too much in the lives and politics of Iran. He said the entire budget for the Guardian Council in the early days of the revolution "was only like $2,000; it's getting millions of dollars now," and argued the council has become a means of eliminating reformers and dissidents from running for office when it should play a much more low-key role.

During our talk in 2007, Saanei even acknowledged that, while he believed in Islamic rule, he was open to the idea that the Iranian people might decide to vote the clerics out of power one day. "It's entirely possible," he said. "There's no need for the clerics to be in charge. If people don't want them, they don't want them." He said that Ayatollah Ali Sistani's "quietist" approach to religion and politics next door in Iraq—which prevents clerics from directly running government—was just fine with him.

While the current Islamic regime will no doubt continue to embrace the China model, that may not be as realistic in a political system that is at least partially democratic and pluralistic. Open dissent exists in Iran because the mullah state has allowed it; it is the mechanism by which the system has allowed its detractors a release valve. If a newspaper goes a bit over the line—which usually means questioning the clerics—the authorities will ban it for a few months. If the Ministry of Justice or the Ministry of Intelligence thinks Iranian public figures are lining up against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his policies, they'll simply disqualify them from running for office. They won't be arrested in the dead of night and taken to a secret prison; their application will just be mysteriously denied. The question is, will any of this "soft repression" be tolerated now?

In an incisive blog entry on Monday, The New Yorker's Laura Secor wrote that "the unavoidable analogy has become 1989. The big question is where we are: Wenceslas Square or Tiananmen?" But this is Iran, and no historical analogy will fit just right. Iran's mullah state is more deeply entrenched than the corrupt, Soviet-supported regimes in countries like Czechoslovakia were back then.

And yet this won't be Tiananmen Square either. Unlike the Chinese Politburo, which only had to crush the Tiananmen protests and oust reformist political figures like Zhao Ziyang, Iran's clerics have a much tougher challenge than Beijing's mandarins. The Iranian people, unlike the Chinese students, have had a real taste of political freedom. Popular figures such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, are now directly attacking the regime's power structure. With the move to recount votes, the Guardian Council, which has been closely allied with Khamenei, will try hard to ensure the regime's legitimacy. It may well succeed. But the seeds of illegitimacy have been planted, and it may prove very difficult to uproot them.

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