Mullahs & Generals

Mullahs & Generals

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have no legitimacy. To survive, they may make Iran a military dictatorship.

Will the turmoil in Iran continue? Can Ayatollah Khamenei survive? Can the regime continue to call itself "Islamic"? Now that the supreme leader has shed his religious mantle and has trashed the constitution, the options are far narrower than you might think.

To gauge Iran's future, it is essential to emphasize the obvious-the "Islamic" Republic of Iran was built on velayat-e-faqih, Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of clerical oversight, which was intended to reverse Iran's drift toward secularism under the shah.

Khomeini understood that for his imprint to be accepted, it would have to show respect for centuries of Iranian history and civilization and for the traditional Shiism practiced in Iran. This meant just rule, social and economic justice, the freedom to chose rulers, the obligation to fight oppression and the glorification of martyrdom among others-something that the shah had ignored to his own peril. Khomeini knew full well, from his own experience under the shah, that Iran, unlike other countries in the region, could not be governed by force for long. As such, Khomeini adopted a religious mantle and a new constitution to bolster his legitimacy. It looks like that same mantle has now become a noose around his successor's neck.

As Khomeini was putting his views into constitutional practice, he reluctantly realized the need for a Guardian Council to vet candidates for all-important elected offices. His strong view was that the only criterion for candidacy should be total acceptance of Iran's constitution, in particular of velayat-e-faqih. He preached against oppression, because he viewed it as the issue that most undermined the shah's rule. And when it came to the selection and appointment of leaders to high office, he warned against the selection of military and security personnel. He cautioned that if this were allowed, the regime would collapse.

Upon Khomeini's death, Ayatollah Khamenei grabbed the religious mantle with support from none other than Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It was this power grab, by a man who did not have the requisite religious credentials, that has paved the path toward the regime's breakdown in Tehran today.

Perhaps Khamenei failed to realize that the religious mantle a two-edged sword. It would appear that he didn't appreciate the fact that if he were to get involved in day-to-day politics he would lose his aura. Sure, he could use religion to wield absolute power, but he had to uphold certain basic principles. If he were seen to trash religion and the constitution, then the truly pious, especially those who saw him as unqualified, would come to attack him. When he claimed divine intervention in support of Ahmadinejad's so-called electoral victory even before the results of the election had been announced, his statements were seen as blasphemous by a number of senior Iranian clerics.

The council has not acted as an independent body as envisaged by Ayatollah Khomeini. Moreover, elections have not been clean. President Ahmadinejad has, with the supreme leader's full approval, flagrantly ignored Ayatollah Khomeini's advice, enhancing the role of the military (Revolutionary Guards (or IRGC) and the Basij) and the security forces in every aspect of Iranian life. They are now members of the cabinet, consistently win lucrative government contracts for non-military projects and run the Iranian election commission. Senior members of the IRGC and the intelligence services have been greatly enriched, while loyal followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini have been dismayed.

In sum, the regime has ignored the constitution and allowed the IRGC and the intelligence services to control important levers of power.

The regime has repeatedly ignored the basic tenets of Islam that shape the every day lives of average Iranians. Oppression has returned to Iran with a vengeance, arguably worse than it was under the shah. Peaceful demonstrators are killed and beaten by government thugs. The relatives of hardliners in the government are killed and arrested, turning the regime against itself. Torture is practiced as never before. There is no freedom of expression, no freedom of the press, no freedom to demonstrate peacefully. There is no social and economic justice. Corruption is rampant. Centuries-old religious traditions are banned. Most importantly, many of the most respected clerics have openly declared the government of President Ahmadinejad illegitimate and publicly challenged the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader.

In sum, the regime's claim of religious legitimacy is no longer credible.

What are the options for a regime that has been stripped of its constitutional and religious legitimacy?

Before turning to the options, let's look at the realities facing the government:

--Iranians did not sacrifice their lives in a revolution and in a brutal eight-year war with Iraq to have their freedom stolen by a supreme leader and a president.

--Shia Muslims see it as their duty to reject an oppressive regime. To do otherwise would be a sin by omission. Shia Muslims firmly believe in the Prophetic saying that on the Day of Reckoning the oppressor, the oppressed and the person(s) who stood by and observed the oppression will be called upon to answer: the oppressor for the oppression, the oppressed for not resisting the oppression, and the bystander for not assisting the oppressed.

--The cycle of demonstrations will not stop, and if stopped by force, the opposition will go underground as it did under the shah.

--The senior religious establishment will not give its support to the supreme leader or to President Ahmadinejad. The religious criticism cannot be tamped down. It can only increase.

--The regime has lost its appeal to the Muslim masses outside of Iran. It is no longer viewed as a government that stands up to the great powers and affords social and economic justice to its people. The brutality of the regime has bared its ugliness for the whole world to see.

As a result of these realities, the choices and options for the regime are limited.

The government cannot regain any pretensions to legitimacy. Yes, it may survive for a few weeks, months, or even for a few years, not as an Islamic Republic, but as a military dictatorship. Ayatollah Khamenei cannot stay on as supreme leader with religious and constitutional legitimacy. He has lost all claims to both as a result of recent events. He could survive as the supreme head of a military dictatorship. The majority of Iranians will not accept Ahmadinejad's presidency as legitimate.

There are three basic options for Iran. The first is to preserve the Islamic Republic; Ayatollah Khamenei would have to be replaced by a respected senior grand ayatollah, someone with no political ambitions. The constitution would have to be modified so as to afford Iranians a more direct say in the selection of their leaders. There would have to be a new presidential election. This is the preferred solution of the clerical establishment, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would, of course, like to be the power behind the throne.

The second, and most likely option is the emergence of an absolute dictatorship. Such a tyranny would in time be overthrown, because Iranians are unlikely to succumb to force. What makes the second option the most likely short-term solution? Religious scholars and Grand Ayatollahs have no guns. But the regime does. The two leaders, namely Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, are fully aware that the IRGC and the Basij will not give up their privileged status easily and would fight to keep them in power. They will fight until too many Iranians have died or until the regular military turns against the IRGC. The only way that the second option can be avoided is if Ayatollah Khamenei abides by the teachings of the religion that he touts, supports the first option and resigns in favor of a new supreme leader.

The third option would be to abandon the clerical system in favor of a simple republic with a totally new constitution. This is the most unlikely option as neither the clerics nor the IRGC will go away quietly. But in my opinion, this is the option that would best serve the long-term interests of the Iranian people.

In retrospect, the late shah, after a thirty-five-year rule, most of it unpopular, had the decency to yield to the will of the Iranian people and to avoid excessive bloodshed. Unfortunately, the supreme leader and President Ahmadinejad are unlikely to follow in his footsteps.


Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.