Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why the regime constructed by Khomeini has already suffered "a fatal wound" (Blake Hounshell & Fareed Zakaria)

In my comments about Moussavi's statement on Saturday, I noted that he presents himself and the movement he leads as affirming, reforming, and revitalizing the Islamic Republic established by Khomeini, not challenging the basic structure and principles of the regime. That position is no doubt politically necessary, but it may well also express Moussavi's sincere understanding of his agenda.

It's important to add, however, that the actual historic significance of this political upheaval in Iran will not necessarily accord with Moussavi's own intentions. The dynamics of this confrontation have increasingly polarized and deepened the conflict, as often happens in moments of mass political mobilization and state repression. In effect, the movement for which Moussavi is now the representative has partly evolved, partly been forced, into an increasingly direct challenge to the basic framework of the Khomeinist theocratic-authoritarian regime. And to some extent, despite Moussavi's explicit proclamations of loyalty to that regime, he has willy-nilly had to follow the same road.

Rather than elaborate further, let me just quote two effective formulations of this basic point.

Blake Hounshell (Foreign Policy):

As for Mir Hossain Mousavi, the unlikely leader of this uprising, he has reportedly declared his readiness to become a martyr and sent a letter to the Guardian Council demanding a new election. In it, he sounds reluctant to admit that he's past the point of achieving redress through the system. All he seeks, he says, is the restoration of the Islamic Republic -- not its destruction. That makes sense for political reasons, since he needs as broad a coalition as possible and can't afford to alienate potential conservative supporters. He's still hoping to attract the support of the clergy, who could lend his movement enormous weight.

But the clear implication of Mousavi's actions is that he no longer sees the supreme leader as the legitimate, unquestioned ruler of Iran. I'm sure an increasing number of Iranians feel the same way, even if the regime ultimately beats them into submission as we watch helplessly, glued to our monitors. And that will spell the end of the Islamic Republic in the long run.

It's important to underline the fact that we're almost talking about the long run here. In the short run, if the Khamenei/Republican Guard/Ahmadinejad bloc successfully crushes the opposition and consolidates its power--which, alas, seems more probable than not--the result might actually be a harder, more radicalized, and more intransigent regime. But that will come at the cost of shattering what remains of the regime's legitimacy and, it seems safe to predict, undermining its long-term viability.

And here is Fareed Zakaria (in a CNN interview):

CNN: As you've seen the situation in Iran develop over the last week, what are your thoughts?

Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.

CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?

Zakaria: No, I don't mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may -- I certainly hope it will -- but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound. [....]

When the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "divine assessment," he was indicating it was divinely sanctioned. But no one bought it. He was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran's supreme constitutional body, met with the candidates and promised to investigate and perhaps recount some votes. Khamenei has subsequently hardened his position but that is now irrelevant. Something very important has been laid bare in Iran today --- legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular support. [....]

That sounds basically right. Whatever happens now, my guess is that Iran is already a different country from what it was a week ago.

--Jeff Weintraub