Crises Reveal the Illegitimacy of Iranian Theocracy | Opinion

For more than 41 years, the Iranian regime has carefully curated the mythic underpinnings used to justify its rule. But a toxic combination of economic hardship, corruption, mismanagement, lying in the face of the pandemic, strong sanctions and self-inflicted wounds have shattered the regime's carefully concocted brew of false legitimacy. Perhaps now more than ever, the conditions are ripe for Iran's silent majority to move beyond the endless squabbles of warring opposition camps in exile and—for the first time since the 1979 revolution—unite against the ruling theocracy.

Signs of the Iranian people's dissatisfaction with the regime are unmistakable and, of course, fully warranted. In the face of rampant corruption and abuse, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei maintains the absurd pretense that governance in Iran is rule‐based and embodies the will of the people. This falsehood is validated with regular and clearly manipulated electoral victories. But in the February 2020 legislative elections, turnout was a record low—even by Iran's propaganda-driven standards.

In July, Iran's currency fell to its lowest point, wreaking havoc on Iran's economy. In a country that boasts the world's second-largest gas reserves and fourth-largest crude oil reserves, 70 percent of the Iranian population is trying to survive on an income below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day.

But perhaps most damning is the repression and violence in the name of the very religious and moral values the regime claims to champion, which is causing widespread disillusionment and has led many Iranian youth to become disconnected from Islam.

The leaders of other repressive and unrepresentative political systems might be able to fall back on nationalistic bindings at such a low point in their rule, but Iran's leaders cannot do so. Since the creeping coup against the liberal nationalist interim government in 1979, the ruling clerics have maintained a hostile posture towards nationalism. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made his lack of empathy for Iran abundantly clear on his 1979 return to Iran from years in exile; he was asked how he felt returning to the country and he replied, "nothing."

The ruling clergy express allegiance to the Islamic Ummah, an imaginary supra-national Islamic community with a common history rather, and has steadily gutted the regime's capacity to use Iran-centric patriotic content. The regime has rewritten history books to vilify Iran's imperial history and glorify Iran from the seventh century onward. Nationalists have faced crackdowns. Gatherings at the tomb of King Cyrus the Great have been prevented on certain days of the year.

Iranian woman walking in front of ayatollahs
Iranian woman walking in front of ayatollahs ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps a charismatic leader could then right the ship, but Khamenei has never had the charisma or compelling voice of his predecessor. As he ages and grows more and more infirm, that charisma is shown to be ever more lacking. Even more significantly, the jockeying and lack of any clear successor shows the regime is in a crisis of identity and leadership.

Recently, Sayyid Khoeiniha, one of Iran's politically prominent clerics, warned in a letter to the 81-year-old Khamenei that Iran's current situation is unsustainable and that his regime's legitimacy has been seriously damaged. Such criticism would be unheard of at the height of Khomeini's power.

So today, the supreme leader faces the nadir of his legitimacy; Iran's theocracy only continues to persist through strong-arm tactics and coercion. And as the regime flails, the fury of the Iranian people grows, perhaps even to the point of someday uniting in an expanding opposition camp. The clerics sense the danger and are resorting to the creation of a state of fear.

That, too, seems to be failing—at least in places where regime opponents live in relative safety from the regime's brutality.

After the Iranian judiciary announced last month it had upheld the death sentences of three young men who joined anti-government protests in November, a diverse tapestry of Iranian opposition voices outside of Iran all took up the call. These groups rarely come together, but worked to elevate the Persian hashtag #DontExecute to the top of Twitter's international trending list. Soon after, internet monitoring websites reported that the Iranian regime was dramatically limiting web access across the country.

The regime in Tehran is facing challenges to its legitimacy in a way that it has never experienced before—and at a time when it is also in a deep economic crisis. Illegitimacy and economic hardship can sometimes spell the end of even the most oppressive regimes.

Hiva Feizi is a senior advisor to the International Convention for the Future of Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.