Iran 101

Who are the players? Who has the power? And can the regime hang on?

Much has happened since I last wrote in this space right after the fraudulent Iranian presidential elections. It was immediately clear that the regime had lost all claims to legitimacy, but that clerical rule might be able to continue for some time if Khamenei were replaced. Otherwise, the Iranian government would have to resort to an absolute dictatorship. In either case, given the fact that the "Islamic" part of the republic was probably done for, I advised that the United States should wait before engaging Tehran. Iran was moving toward a republic, and the only question was what would happen in the period of transition. How long would the transition last, and what form would it take? Would there be a continuation of a gentler clerical rule without Khamenei or would there be a dictatorship with Khamenei at the helm? With all that has happened, it is time for an update.

While protests, violent clampdowns, show trials, Friday sermons and opposition website updates have been the public face of the turmoil in Iran, the more important developments have been happening out of sight. The actors are many; in approximate order of importance they are: Khamenei, the various branches of the intelligence services, The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and the Basij, the regular military, the clergy, the bazaar and other prominent business leaders, the so-called opposition leaders (Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi and Karroubi), the real opposition that is in the streets, Iranian expatriates in America, and, finally, the entity that is by no means last because it could play a decisive role, the U.S. government. The turmoil has dragged on for over two months, and some of these actors have taken positions that will determine developments.

Ayatollah Khamenei has dug in his heels and has not been open to any compromise. He has used the Basij as his thugs, backing himself into a corner. He has lost every shred of religious authority. Many of the clerics who used to support him no longer do so. There has been talk among clerical and opposition leaders of keeping Khamenei, but expanding the supreme leadership position to three or more clerics, something that is permitted under the constitution. To save face, this could be done under the pretext of Khamenei's deteriorating health. But it seems that Khamenei will not compromise. For him the future is clear: dictatorial rule or death, be it violent or "medical."

Not surprisingly, the intelligence services have kept quiet, as is their normal mode of operation. They know that they will be needed no matter who comes out on top. For now they are not taking a public stand. They, like most others, want to be in a position to enrich themselves. The fact that they have not tipped their hand is an indication that conditions are still fluid in Iran. While the intelligence services have seen some personnel change under Ahmadinejad, there are still a number at the highest level who are loyal to Rafsanjani, and hence the opposition.

The IRGC, and especially the Basij, have been the ugly face of the regime, instrumental in clamping down dissent. The IRGC has seen its financial fortunes grow dramatically under Ahmadinejad. In the aftermath of the election, the IRGC's immediate reaction was to protect its interests, supporting Ahmadinejad even before Khamenei did so. But with backroom discussions and maneuverings, the IRGC may soften its approach. Turmoil in the streets affects its financial interests adversely, an absolute dictatorship is not a long-term option and opposition leaders seem to be making gestures to preserve long-term IRGC assets. On his website Moussavi recently took a surprisingly conciliatory stand with the IRGC, assuring them of their continued role in the Islamic Republic.

The regular military has not shown its hand; it has not been in its interest to do so. It would only enter the fray if violence escalated significantly, but on whose side is not clear.

The demonstrators in the streets are truly brave. The regime has tried to frighten them into submission, but has failed. As long as the resistance continues, there is hope. The regime knows full well that torture, harsh treatment and murder will only remind Iranians of the shah's repressive regime. The IRGC could change sides and the regular military could take the side of the opposition. By sacrificing their lives, demonstrators are pushing the government toward a precipice.

The majority of the senior clergy who have spoken out have sided with the opposition, citing election fraud, the harsh treatment of demonstrators and the un-Islamic behavior of the regime. The active midlevel clerical organization has supported the opposition. A number of authenticated, but unsigned, letters personally attacking the supreme leader have been widely circulated. The onslaught of the clerics has totally removed the regime's religious cover. The mullahs in opposition would like to see the clerical system continued, but with a new supreme leader, with reduced religious involvement in the affairs of state and with greater accountability. Continued turmoil is against their interests.

Leaders in the bazaar and other prominent businessmen see everything that has transpired as a total disaster. They want an end to the turmoil. They will throw their support to whoever is likely to offer the best hope for stability. For now, they are watching and waiting.