Today's date:
Winter 2010

Iran at the Crossroads

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of Iran after the 1979 revolution. He now lives in exile outside Paris. This article was written exclusively for NPQ’s weekly Global Viewpoint column.

Paris—Since the recent election over the summer in Iran, the government of the Islamic Republic has been publicly divided, delegitimized, challenged and weak. As a result, we can now draw some analytical parallels between the current regime and the pre-1979 monarchy and between the two occasions of political unrest.

Historically speaking, the Iranian government has enjoyed four sources of legitimacy: its ability to manage state affairs (and thus the people’s consent), its official religious authority, its commitment to Iran’s independence, and a stable base of social support. All of these have now been irretrievably undone.

The massive vote rigging on June 12 brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ability to run the state’s affairs under intense public scrutiny, and the spontaneous uprising of the people in its wake openly removed the government’s political legitimacy.

Shortly after, in a speech at Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, declared war on the people, threatening a violent crackdown unless the results of the election were duly accepted. This removed the last vestiges of the regime’s religious legitimacy as well.

It had been waning for some time already, not only because it stands in opposition to Islam understood as a discourse of freedom, but even within the regime and among traditionalists. Ayatollah Ali Sistani (the greatest Shia clergyman in Iraq) was opposed to the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the imamate), and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (Khomeini’s would-be successor who later became his critic) had argued that the doctrine was simply a proof of shirk, or false God-making.

Even the traditional sharia, which the government had used to justify many of its actions, had been emptied of its original content and reduced to a theory of general violence. Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, who can be seen as Ahmadinejad’s guru, wrote a book entitled War and Jihad in Islam in which he argued that violence is intrinsic to and necessary for human beings. He extended this to claim that as the supreme leader is appointed by God, his use of violence is legitimate.

Far from strengthening the regime’s religious authority, however, Yazdi’s theory of legitimate violence undermined it. It also violated another of the regime’s major sources of legitimacy, the constitution. The Iranian constitution states unambiguously that the authority of the supreme leader, the president and the parliament should emanate from the people’s vote, not from God.

Velayat-e Faqih compromised this from the start. Apart from this, the regime had already lost two of the three bases of power that had historically made despotism possible in Iran: the monarchy, the economic rule of the bazaar in the cities and large landowners in the country, and the clergy. Of these only the clergy is left, and its power is now precarious. It has therefore bolstered itself with a fourth tool of Iranian despotism: using the threat of foreign powers to justify perpetual secret dealings and open crises with other states, primarily the United States.

George W. Bush’s presidency was thus a fruitful time for the Iranian regime, as the constant menace of military action and economic sanctions strengthened its control over the population.

Barack Obama’s new, non-confrontational approach to Iran has now placed the regime in a difficult position. It can no longer portray itself as the defender of sovereign independence against foreign intrusion. In fact, to the contrary, new popular slogans such as “death to Russia” suggest that people are critical of the government’s own foreign policies. Here, too, the ruling regime has lost its legitimacy.

Finally, the regime’s first and foremost base of support, the clergy, has been replaced by a military-financial mafia. The Revolutionary Guard occupies the entire government and believes that the clergy’s only task is not to run the country but simply to lend its legitimacy to those who do.

Like the monarchy before it, the power of the present regime rests on both an internal and external foundation, which makes it vulnerable to public unrest. We can draw a comparison between Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 and Obama’s election in 2008. Iranians viewed Carter’s election as a challenge to the monarchy’s main source of external power, US support for the Shah’s regime. In the same way, if Obama continues to abandon hawkish policies toward Iran and deprives the regime of the crisis factor, this uprising may follow a similar trajectory.

There are other similarities as well. The popular chant “Velayat-e Faqih is dead,” for example, is reminiscent of slogans during the run-up to the 1979 revolution, in which people declared the Shah’s regime to be illegitimate. And, just as in 1979, this uprising is nonviolent.

But the present movement differs from the political unrest that led to the 1979 revolution in some important ways. While the first actions of dissent in 1979 were located outside the regime, the present opposition began from within the regime itself when the election was rigged against Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Of course, there are strong indicators that the uprising has now moved beyond the regime to become genuinely popular. But it still needs time to spread throughout the entire country; time for it to be possible for “flowers to conquer bullets,” as was the case in the 1979 uprising.

The 1979 revolution is a historical event, while this uprising is still in process. Where might it lead? In part, the future may depend on the outcome of a political deadlock created by Khamenei himself. The facts that the election was rigged and that Khamenei attempted to stage a “velvet coup d’etat” have polarized both sides.

Changing position in either camp would be political suicide. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad cannot admit that they rigged the election, since doing so would strip them of their remaining legal and political legitimacy. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani is now under severe attack by Khamenei’s supporters, and Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another presidential candidate, know that they will lose both the people’s support and will be at the mercy of the unforgiving regime if they submit to Khamenei’s demands.

Several outcomes of this crisis are possible. Historically, the regime’s top tactic for maintaining control has been to divide society’s elites into two competing groups and eliminate one. Now, as this process has reached into the heart of the regime, it has become lethal. The regime’s own cadres oppose Ahmadinejad, and the deepening economic crisis has both deprived the regime of resources and spurred further public discontent. This has provided an opening in which the Iranian people can determine the outcome of the struggle.

If the Iranian people cease resisting, times will become even harder; if they continue, their uprising will be transformed into a full-fledged revolution. This would make the establishment of democracy a real possibility. All indications now point to the Iranians’ determination to see this uprising through.