Will Iran Get The Revolution It Needs?

Protesters burn a car and attack a building of a pro-government militia base near a rally supporting leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in Tehran, Iran, June 15, 2009. (AP photo/Vahid Salemi)
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Pejman Yousefzadeh is a Senior Editor of The New Ledger.

If there is anything to be learned in the aftermath of the blatantly stolen election in Iran, it is that genuine progress in the country is utterly and completely impossible without a wholesale change in the regime. The change will have to come from within, but it will have to come; without it, whatever chance there is for the best hopes and aspirations of Iranians to be realized will be crushed under the iron boots of the mullahs, and their enablers--the fraudulent pseudo-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The question, however, is whether Iran will get the revolution it desperately needs. The regime will do anything necessary--no matter how bloody and violent--to hold on to power. And the Obama Administration seems clueless on what the stakes really are in Iran.

Let's start with the obvious point: No one should be surprised that the election was stolen. On a regular basis, reformist candidates in Iran get disqualified from running for office by the powerful Assembly of Experts, thus ensuring that from the outset of the electoral process, the deck is stacked against the reformist movement. Iran is in the news because massive amounts of fraud occurred at the ballot box, but it should have been in the news far earlier and multiple times when it comes to electoral fraud that occurs in the country. Each time the Assembly of Experts acted to disqualify reformist candidates for no reason other than the fact that they did not pass for fundamentalists, there should have been outrage at what was clear and palpable election rigging. Not all vote-stealing and insults to the citizenry occur at the ballot box.

Of course, in the present case, there was vote-stealing at the ballot box--egregious vote-stealing, which means that in the words of Darth Vader, the hardliners in Iran are "as clumsy as they are stupid." And the theft of the franchise involved the participation of the two chief politicians in Iran--Ali Khamene'i and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--and all of their minions. Khamene'i, the Supreme Leader, announced that the "results" in favor of Ahmadinejad constituted a "divine assessment," while the pseudo-president went on television, and tried to affect an image of nobility as he proclaimed that he sacrifice all on behalf of the Iranian people.

Faux nobility is never an attractive thing, and the Iranian people--always better than their leaders under this regime ever could be--spotted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fatuous nonsense for what it was. Their decision to take to the streets is as unsurprising as was the electoral fraud that took place. And the reaction of the regime's security forces was just as predictable, with predictably bloody and appalling results. Reports abound that the chief opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has been arrested, and according to the Huffington Post, we learn that the National Iranian-American Council has reported Mousavi's arrest, along with that of reformist candidate--and former Speaker--Mehdi Karroubi, former Mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, and the brother of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Iran's own Tienanmen has quite clearly begun. Whether it will succeed is anyone's guess at this point, but whatever happens, the regime's leaders are clearly determined not to make the mistake they believe Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, made when the Islamic Revolution was raging; failing to crack down on the leaders of the Revolution. The regime will not hesitate to try to smash any dissent, and even if blood has to run in the streets, the regime will do whatever it can in order to hang on to power. If it fails, it won't be for lack of trying.

Amazingly enough, the appalling and sickening events in Iran have done little to quench the Obama Administration's fetish for negotiation with the regime. I have no problem with discussions with the regime, so long as they are conducted on all matters of importance, and include an emphasis on human and political rights, consistent with the obligations set out in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. But how does one discuss human and political rights with the leaders of the regime while votes are being stolen and the skulls of protesters who are rightfully outraged by the theft of the franchise are being bashed in? In nauseating fashion, those who would make a fetish of negotiation flail about trying to rationalize the utterly illogical:

"Trying to put a positive face on the outcome, one senior administration official held out the hope that the intensity of the political debate during the campaign, and the huge turnout, might make Mr. Ahmadinejad more receptive to the United States, if only to defuse a potential backlash from the disputed election.

"Ahmadinejad could feel that because of public pressure, he wants to reduce Iran's isolation," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the delicacy of the matter. "That might also cause engagement to proceed more swiftly."
The proper response to the "senior administration official" in question is to ask whether he/she had been repeatedly dropped on his/her head as a baby. Iran has been isolated for just about all of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency, and the regime has done little to nothing to reduce that isolation. What makes anyone in the Obama Administration believe that the regime and its leaders are willing to change their ways now?

"But perhaps we can bypass Ahmadinejad, and deal directly with Khamene'i, the Supreme Leader," the Obama Administration is likely to reply, recycling the same arguments it employed during last year's Presidential campaign. "After all, it is Khamene'i who holds all the power. Not Ahmadinejad."

This is doubtless a comforting thought for members of the Administration, but it is also a foolish one. It is propagated by people who don't understand the nature of the Islamic Revolution, the regime, or Khamene'i's place in it. At this point, something of a lengthy history lesson and political analysis is in order to put matters in their proper context.

One of the less appreciated facts about Ayatollah Khomeini, the intellectual father and political progenitor of the Islamic Revolution and the republic (we are using the term loosely here) that followed, was that in addition to being as much a revolutionary as Marx, Lenin or Robespierre, in addition to being a savvy and clever politician who knew how to get and keep power--even if it meant drenching his hands with blood, Khomeini was seen as a learned theologian, endowed with significant gravitas as far as the clerical community in Iran was concerned. This sentiment clearly trickled down to the masses as well. Khomeini changed Shi'ite theology by orders of magnitude. In the past, the Shi'ite clerical community in Iran would give its blessing to the rule of the Shahs in return for the Shahs' promise to defend the faith. All the while, the clergy presumed that this situation would ultimately give way to the rule of the Mahdi or the Hidden Imam, once he finally came out of hiding in order to rule the world. The thought that the clergy would directly involve themselves in attempts to rule until the return of the Hidden Imam was considered unthinkable. The clergy did not like to think of itself as being part of the political world, though, to be sure, politics could not be fully escaped by the clergy.

Khomeini changed all of this. Instead of contenting himself with giving--along with his clerical colleagues--the blessing of the religious community to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his successor(s), Khomeini stole a page from Plato's Republic, took the idea of having a philosopher-king rule and applied it to Iran by working to bring about a political society in which the clergy would directly wield political power, with a Supreme Religious Guide to lead the way.

The advancement and realization of this idea gave Khomeini great intellectual heft in the eyes of clerics--indeed, Khomeini's interest in the works of Aristotle and Plato set him apart from other clerics (it should be noted that for all of his appreciation of Greek philosophy, Khomeini was shockingly ignorant of most things outside his native Iran). There was no controversy when Khomeini--years before the advent of the Islamic Revolution and the republic--achieved the title of "Grand Ayatollah." Indeed, so great was Khomeini's prestige as both a revolutionary and a theologian, that in the run-up to the Revolution and throughout the rest of his life, he was actually known as "Imam Khomeini." His assumption of the title of "Imam" was stunningly audacious--again, this was a title that was only supposed to have been assumed by the Mahdi when he comes out of hiding to assume his destiny as ruler of the world.

Because of Khomeini's perceived rock-solid revolutionary and theological credentials, he was given significant elbow room with which to maneuver as a politician. Saddam Hussein's decision to start a war with Iran in 1980 was one of the best things that could have happened to the infant Islamic Revolution and republic, because the prosecution of that war from Iran's end kept the revolutionary fires burning. Inherent in the Islamic regime's exploitation of the war for political purposes was the belief that the war would not--should not--end until Iraq was completely and comprehensively defeated.

Thus, when Saddam offered Iran a cease-fire in 1988, acceptance of the cease-fire carried with it dangerous political risks for Khomeini because the cessation of hostilities might have brought with it the slackening of revolutionary zeal, and thus, the endangerment of the Islamic regime's ability to survive. But Khomeini's theological and revolutionary credentials helped save the day for him. He announced to the Iranian people that he would "drink from this poisoned chalice" as he decided to accept the cease-fire. Only Nixon could go to China and only Khomeini could allow the Islamic regime to cease its efforts to achieve total victory against Saddam Hussein's secular, Arab nationalist government while at the same time ensuring that the regime's revolutionary fires did not go out. The war ended and the regime lived on.

Now, let us take Khamene'i and compare his rule as the Supreme Religious Guide to that of Khomeini's. First of all, it should be noted that Khamene'i was not even Khomeini's first choice to succeed him upon Khomeini's death. That honor initially went to Montazeri put principle above power and mindless revolutionary zeal to denounce Khomeini's rule as the slow-motion bloodbath and deprivation of political and human rights that it was. Only after Montazeri came out against Khomeini--and was punished for his dissident views--did Khamene'i receive Khomeini's blessing to succeed him once Khomeini died.

Khomeini died in 1989 and Khamene'i succeeded to the post of Supreme Religious Guide without incident. But this was because the leaders of the Islamic regime wanted to make sure there was not too much political turmoil in the aftermath of Khomeini's death. But at the time of Khamene'i's ascension to the position of Supreme Religious Guide, (Source of Imitation). The Islamic constitution specified that unless a candidate for Supreme Leader was a marja-e-taqleed, he could not be considered for the post; Khomeini had to institute a kind of affirmative action policy for Khamene'i by ordering that the constitution be amended so that Khamene'i could succeed Khomeini:

"The 1989 succession to the supreme leadership by Ali Khamenei and his hasty promotion to the rank of ayatollah was one such case. Khamenei was only a hojatoleslam but had served as president; the constitution was amended so the supreme leader no longer had to be a source of emulation (see article 109). With the deaths of Grand Ayatollah Abolqasem Khoi (1992), Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1993), and Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki (died 1994), there was an attempt to promote Khamenei to the rank of source of emulation. Khamenei himself withdrew from consideration.

Once Khamenei succeeded to the post, there was an effort to have him recognized as a marja-e-taqleed, but surprisingly, the Supreme Religious Guide had trouble convincing his clerical colleagues that he should be so honored:

Theoretically, the Islamic republic system (vilayat-i faqih, leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) is legitimate when a Grand Ayatollah who is recognized as a source of emulation (marja-yi taqlid) serves as the Faqih (jurisprudent). Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, like many others, did not accept Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a source of emulation. According to "Human Rights in Iran" (2001) by Pace University's Reza Afshari, Shirazi was "indignant" over Khamenei's efforts to be recognized as the supreme leader and as a source of emulation. Shirazi, who died in late 2001, apparently favored a committee of Grand Ayatollahs to lead the country. Shirazi was not the only senior cleric to suffer for questioning the legitimacy of Iran's political setup and its leading figure. One of the best-known dissident clerics was Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi. Others were Grand Ayatollah Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi and Grand Ayatollah Yasubedin Rastegari.

Thus, we see that Khamene'i lacked Khomeini's credentials as a learned theologian endowed with sufficient gravitas with which to command the allegiance and respect of the clerical community in Iran.

Khamene'i has always understood that his lack of theological credentials poses a handicap to his rule and that he must make up for this handicap by being more hardline than any other Iranian political or religious figure. Thus, throughout his time as Supreme Religious Guide, Khamene'i has been a loud and insistent voice on behalf of Muslims worldwide. He was a consistent advocate of the Bosnian Muslims during the upheaval in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and he has been a zealous and fierce advocate on behalf of the Palestinians. Indeed, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the comment that the Iranian people could be friends with the Israeli people despite the differences between the governments of both countries, Khamene'i shot the president down:
"Who are Israelis?" Khamenei told thousands of worshipers gathered for Friday prayers in downtown Tehran. "They are responsible for usurping houses, territory, farmlands and businesses. They are combatants at the disposal of Zionist operatives. A Muslim nation cannot remain indifferent vis-a-vis such people who are stooges at the service of the arch-foes of the Muslim world."
[. . .]

The comments came amid a controversy in Iran over remarks attributed to an Iranian official close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a vice president in charge of tourism, was quoted in a July interview as saying that Iranians were friends with the Israeli people, despite the conflict between the governments.

"Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people," he said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. "No nation in the world is our enemy."

Hard-liners close to the government pounced on Mashaei's remarks. But Thursday night Ahmadinejad appeared to back up Mashaei, voicing sympathy for the Israeli people, even as he predicted Israel's demise.

"The Iranian nation never recognized Israel and will never ever recognize it," he said at a news conference. "But we feel pity for those who have been deceived or smuggled into Israel to be oppressed citizens in Israel."

[. . .]

"It is incorrect, irrational, pointless and nonsense to say that we are friends of Israeli people," said Khamenei, who delivers prayer sermons only on special occasions.
Akbar Ganji's elaboration on this matter is worth reading as well. An apt excerpt:

At his first meeting with cabinet ministers as supreme leader, in 1989, Khamenei expounded a "theory of terror" that has since defined his approach to internal security issues. Based on his interpretation of the Koran and the early history of Islam, he said at this meeting, "The majority of the people in the state are silent. A selfless group of individuals can make the state endure by using terror." This theory has served as the justification for assassinating dissidents in Iran and abroad and otherwise silencing anyone who has posed an ideological challenge to the regime.

In keeping with Weber's understanding that under a sultan "traditional domination develops an administration and a military force which are purely personal instruments of the master," Khamenei has relied on the intelligence services and the armed and security forces to implement his policies -- to an unprecedented extent. After the overthrow of the shah in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries and left-wing groups called for the armed forces to be disbanded. Khomeini did not oblige, and instead he reconstituted the army, executing or dismissing many of the top commanders who had not already fled abroad. He also established a parallel military force, the Revolutionary Guards, to protect the revolution and ordered the creation of the Basij, an all-volunteer paramilitary organization to help with law enforcement, the policing of moral issues, and the provision of social services. The Revolutionary Guards developed air, naval, and ground capabilities in parallel to those of the conventional army, and they assumed command over the Basij. Still, Khomeini frequently and openly opposed its involvement in political affairs. As a charismatic figure and an established senior cleric with a solid base among the religious establishment and the pious masses, he hardly needed the military's backing.

Khamenei, on the other hand, lacks such credentials -- so much so that the conservative Association of Seminary Teachers, in Qom, refused to endorse him as a senior cleric until 1992, when the Revolutionary Guards surrounded its headquarters. Thus, he desperately needs the military's support. He has also long been interested in military and security work. He was Khomeini's representative in the Defense Ministry during the interim government in 1979, then worked on the military's joint staff, and later served as deputy defense minister. When the Intelligence and Security Ministry was created in 1984, while he was president, Khamenei argued that it should fall under his jurisdiction.

So the person President Obama views as a potential alternative interlocutor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a thug with a junta at his beck and call. And he needs that junta because he doesn't have the theological or revolutionary credentials to survive politically without it. Khamene'i is more interested in regularly winning the contest for "Most Hardline Person In The Room" than he is in working to craft a mutually acceptable deal with the United States.

Realist theory posits that a nation-state will act in its own long-term, rationally perceived interests and that those interests are influenced very little by the particular political composition of the governments of those nation-states. But while realists put the emphasis on long-term, rationally perceived interests (rightly, in my view), it is foolish to be entirely inconsiderate of the political composition of the government of a nation-state, especially when one contemplates negotiations with that nation-state. So we are left with the following question: Just how on Earth we are supposed to conduct negotiations with the likes of Khamene'i when he not only is the most stubborn of the hardliners, but when any softening of that hard line might endanger Khamene'i and his regime due to the fact that he lacks both Khomeini's revolutionary credentials as the intellectual and political progenitor of the Islamic Revolution and republic and lacks Khomeini's theological gravitas amongst the clergy and the Iranian populace?

These questions have not been answered by the Obama Administration. Indeed, ever since the campaign, the President has failed to even acknowledge the existence of these questions. He and his Administration assure us that they will engage Iran in "tough" diplomacy designed to tell the Islamic regime that its behavior is considered "unacceptable" by the United States--as if the regime hasn't had a heads-up concerning this fact since, oh, say, November 4, 1979. But beyond this promise of "tough" diplomacy, we have been offered no specifics whatsoever concerning the conduct of such diplomacy. I am not opposed to talks with Iran in principle, but such talks must have a strategy behind them. Where is the Obama Administration's strategy document?

Maybe such a document simply does not exist. Maybe it does not exist because the Obama Administration does not understand that negotiating with Ali Khamene'i will not gain the United States an interlocutor more amenable to the honeyed discourse of sweet compromise. I suppose that it is too much to ask that Barack Obama and others who tell us that negotiating with Iran's Supreme Religious Guide will yield good diplomatic fruit explain how the pickings are to be gotten given Ali Khamenei's political position, and given his commitment to backing the fraudulent electoral results that have come out of Iran. In the run-up to, and aftermath of the Iranian presidential election, naïve enthusiasm concerning diplomatic dealings with Iran has ensured that no intellectual room is left for such hard questions to be asked.

And so, for now, the Iranian people are on their own. They will demonstrate in the streets, the regime will lash back viciously and violently, and innocents will be injured, arrested, tortured, and killed.

Perhaps it won't be for nothing. Perhaps positive change will be effected. But those demonstrating for freedom in Iran are up against a vicious and ruthless enemy. And the government of the United States, for its part, has no idea how to deal with that enemy. None whatsoever.

It had better learn fast. The fate of Iran may depend on it.

By Pejman Yousefzadeh
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger