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Sunday, November 8, 2009




What's dead is DEAD

The opposition in Iran was demonstrating again during the celebrations of the 1979 US embassy takeover with veteran hostage-takers often leading the protests. This fact can hardly surprise people who lived through the collapse of the former Soviet Union (such as the author of this blog) as opposition movements in Moscow and other big Russian cities were densely packed with people who while opposing the system would often remain loyal to communist ideals (It was different outside Russia where opposition was usually dominated by anti Russian nationalists).

In general, several misconceptions seem to be widespread among the Western public regarding the identity of the opposition. Even among the young generation many dissenters combine deep frustration and disillusionment with the current system, with a virulent hostility and mistrust towards the West. Another thing is that many in the opposition movement don't necessarily reject the idea of Islamic republic as such. Rather they tend to stress the democratic aspects of this concept.

When it comes to guessing what may happen in a not very probable case that the opposition gets the upper hand in the near future, it's important to keep in mind that what many in the opposition want is rather similar to "socialism with a human face" with which much of the anti Soviet opposition in Russia wanted to replace the Communist system. In the Soviet case this meant avoiding capitalism and preserving the so called social achievements of Communism such as free health care, education, equality and such stuff while injecting a massive doze of democracy and basic freedoms into the system. In the Iranian case the idea is about a more open and representative system that still somehow remains Islamic and does not become just another Western like parliamentarian democracy.

History, however, has its own ways of making itself and is a big fan of paradoxes and contradictions. Shortly after the failed anti Gorbachiov coup, amidst growing lawlessness and economic collapse, the Russian government had to remove price and other controls and leave the economy to disintegrate into a free market. With the best of its intentions, the Iranian opposition is very likely to end in the same way by collapsing the system which it only wants to restore to its original purpose by means of reforms.

One of the more curious findings that emerged from some polls carried out on the eave of the elections is that while majority of Iranians don't oppose the idea of having Supreme Leader in principle, they would like to have him directly elected and not nominated by the Guardian Council. This says a lot about what a huge part of this opposition should be about. There are several reasons, however, why the opposition is very likely to find its ambitions frustrated and surprisingly one of them may be the lack of cooperation on the part of the clergy. This one touches on another misconception widespread in the West, which is that Iran is a theocratic state. Iran may be a theocratic state, but through the 30 years of its existence it managed to imprison more Shia clerics than the secularly oriented Shah who preceded it. If anything, Iran is a theocratic state usurped by a fraction of the clergy and, as far as Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard comrades go, they are no great clerics at all. Even the Supreme Leader himself is claimed to be widely despised in Qom for his lack of impressive scholarly credentials.

Basically, the Islamic nature of the republic is supposed to be guaranteed through supervision and direct intervention by the clerics, led by the Supreme Leader under the concept known as Velayat e Faqih elaborated and applied by Khomeini. The only problem with this idea is that it seems to have become unpopular even among the leading Ayatollahs of the Shia world. Even the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Mohammad Fadlallah, does not endorse it and in Iraq it's squarely out of question. In Iran itself large chunks of clergy appear to have reverted to political quietism eschewing politics. Besides a bunch of hard liners, Iran's Grand Ayatollahs were either silent during the latest mess or openly disproved of the state's treatment of protesters. In fact, in some quarters of the high Shia clergy political apathy and indifference appear now giving place to intense hostility towards the regime.

In case the opposition wins, it may try to relegate the Supreme Leader to the background by stripping his office of much of its current authority and making him elected through popular elections. But on one hand, there is little sense in keeping the Supreme Leader in office if for all practical purposes he becomes like Israeli presidents and wields only ceremonial power. Let alone that the Guardian Council and the office of the Supreme Leader have been thoroughly discredited by the actions of Khamenei and its members. On the other hand, it's very likely that the only clerics interested in taking such an offer would be from the conservative hardcore still rallying behind Khamenei widely detested and hated among the opposition's rank and file.

The last scenario is actually a very likely one. The prestige and authority of Iran's regime was left in shambles after the elections debacle and it's a safe bet that they were lost to the Iraqi branch. In Iraq the Grand Ayatollahs, including the most prominent of them all al-Sistani, have made it known right from the beginning that they prefer spiritual guidance from outside instead of direct involvement the style of Velayat e Faqih. Iraq's next elections may be won by coalitions of secular parties and al-Sistani does not appear troubled by this prospect in any way. In case the Iranian regime disintegrates, prominent clerics untainted by support for the crackdown on the opposition are very likely to reveal themselves as followers of al-Sistani and his Iraqi branch and refuse even ceremonial posts. Some may happen uninterested even in projecting spiritual and moral guidance from outside so deep is the disillusionment with political Islam created by Khomeinism among the Shia clergy.

In short, the opposition does not seem to be in possession of means to preserve the Islamic nature of the Republic and its "Islamic republic with a human face" is very likely to end up as just another republic. Meanwhile the scandal surrounding the elections has been increasingly transformed into one about the crackdown on the opposition. The decision to throw the Baseej into the mess has triggered cascading series of abuse, torture and allegations of other atrocities with the whole thing snowballing out of the regime's control. Until now the regime was wavering and unable to deliver a crushing blow to silence the dissent which is understandable given that Iran in 2009 is very different from Iran in 1979. One of the things that seem to be gone is the ability to execute people en mass. But this wavering and indecisiveness have actually exacerbated the crisis and turned into a never ending scandal deeply embarrassing and demoralizing for the regime.

This last point is an important one since contrary to another popular misconception Iran is no al-Kaida turned a state, but a revolutionary regime rather like the same old Soviet Union. Its ultimate purpose and raison d'être is to provide inspiration to masses across the Muslim World and keep exporting its revolution. Contrary to what many Israelis seem to think, Ahmadinejad's bravado aside, this is no suicidal self destructive entity eager to find itself annihilated or badly crippled in an exchange of nuclear strikes with Israel or the USA. From its very beginning the Revolution's goal was to create a utopian society which Khomeini envisioned as a kind of hybrid between Russian Communism and his rather unorthodox interpretation of the Shia Islam. Creating this new revolutionary society and exporting it to all corners of the Muslim World is what the ideology of this regime is about. It's not about self annihilation. But these days scenes of hundreds of thousands strong demonstrations crushed through application of brutal force are unpopular even in the Muslim world. With Iran's standing even in the Shia world hitting the floor in the wake of the post election turmoil and now digging even deeper into the ground, this revolutionary project seems to have suffered an irreversible setback.

As a matter of last resort, the Revolutionary Guard may try to stage a coup and such a possibility was indeed speculated about, by Stratfor by example. In fact, one Stratfor analyst was interpreting the post election mess as a struggle between the Islamic Revolution's old guard such as Rafsanjani and others and the new and more radical generation led by Ahmadinejad and his Guard colleagues. While this is not entirely untrue, it's missing one of the most outstanding features of this revolution. Revolutions are said to devour their children, but this revolution is so young that it's apparently attempting to devour both its children and its fathers. The opposition is actually driven by a peculiar alliance of the revolution's old guard and the young generation united against Ahmadinejad and his middle generation. But regardless of who wins in the short and medium run, the Revolution and its Republic are probably dead already. Neither the hardliners can resuscitate this revolution, nor the reformists can reform this Islamic republic. What's dead is dead.

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