Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Supreme Leadership

My trip back to the Midwest late last month broke my momentum in following Iran closely, and I'm only now starting to feel caught up enough so that my thoughts might be useful. Chief among those thoughts is the simple fact that the nature of the Supreme Leader's office has changed, and perhaps with it, the range of potential futures for the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's concept of velayat-e faqih never had wide and deep theological support, but during the past 30 years, it has won acceptance, even if only passive, as a cornerstone of Iran's political landscape. During the past month, however, that implicit authority has been weakened beyond repair. How many people, and I'm speaking specifically of Iranians, knew previously that the Assembly of Experts didn't just elect the Supreme Leader, but also had the power to supervise and if necessary remove him? How many people, both within the government and outside it, have become his enemies now that he has openly become theirs?

The authority of his office weakened, Khamene'i now relies almost entirely on open displays of physical power, a development which grows out of the increasing Ahmadinejad-era militarization of Iranian politics that may have played a role in last month's electoral coup to begin with. Two days ago, the Los Angeles Times's Borzou Daraghi reported this:
"The top leaders of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard publicly acknowledged they had taken over the nation's security during the post-election unrest and warned late Sunday, in a threat against a reformist wave led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, that there was no middle ground in the ongoing dispute over the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the elite military branch, said the guard's takeover of the nation's security had led to 'a revival of the revolution.'

"'These events put us in a new stage of the revolution and political struggles, and all of us must fully comprehend its dimensions,' he said at a Sunday press conference, according to reports that surfaced today.

"'Because the Revolutionary Guard was assigned the task of controlling the situation, [it] took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest. This event pushed us into a new phase of the revolution and political struggles and we have to understand all its dimensions.'"

Digest that statement, and you start to see the difference between the principlists' "Islamic Government" and the "Islamic Republic" of traditional conservatives and most reformists.

What, then, of the popular revolution which has coalesced around Mousavi? If, over the course of several months, they succeed in forcing some sort of change the nature of which becomes more difficult to see as time passes, the Supreme Leadership is further weakened, having gone all in on suppressing it. If they fail, then the present regime continues, but it is difficult to see much future for the evolutionary potential many saw within the republican framework. It was always plausible for a successful reformist run to, in alliance with pragmatic conservatives, make the Supreme Leader a mostly ceremonial figure who gave sermons, talked about values, and presumably had a plush lifestyle if he wanted it, but interfered in government no more than Europe's constitutional monarchs. The office has no future, however, as the dictator-for-life of a government maintained only by the military, especially if it eventually winds up in Mojtaba's hands as a family fiefdom.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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