As the post-election crisis in Iran enters its third week, one thing is clear: the oxymoron that was the Islamic Republic is already dead.
If the radical faction led by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, wins the power struggle, Iran will drop its “republican” pretensions to become an Islamic emirate or an imamate. But if the opposition wins, the theocratic aspect of the regime will end, allowing Iran to become a normal republic in which power belongs to the people.
For 30 years, Iran has suffered from a split personality: trying to remain faithful to the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s ersatz version of Islam while pretending to have a people-based system of government.
The moment of truth for the death of the Islamic Republic came when Ayatollah Khamenei broke with tradition and declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the victor in the election even before the polls had closed. Over the past two weeks he has ignored demands for a rerun of the controversial election or even a complete recount of the votes, insisting that Mr Ahmadinejad is President not because the people elected him but because the Supreme Leader says so.
Over the past 30 years the Islamic Republic has organised 30 elections at various levels, from local to presidential. In every case the Supreme Leader merely endorsed the results once they had been established and announced by the Government. That kept alive the fictitious claim that the Islamic part of the system recognised the republican element. This time, however, that separation disappeared, as Ayatollah Khamenei not only announced the results but also stated publicly that he had wanted Mr Ahmadinejad to win.
The government-controlled media have highlighted the change in the nature of the regime. They now refer to Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech endorsing Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election as “Fasl el-Khitab”, a theological term that means “end of the discussion”. Propaganda now refers to the ayatollah as “Emir al-Momeneen” (Commander of the Faithful), a title initially used for Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law and the first imam of Shiaism.
An editorial last week in Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by the Ayatollah, put the new situation in graphic terms: “Imam Ali is back, the Commander of the Faithful. But this time he is not alone!” The editorial said that Iran was now ruled by “the Vicar of Allah” in a “pure Muhammadan system”.
The new system that seems to be emerging in Iran appears to be modelled on two Islamic states of recent times. The first is the imamate in Yemen — in which a descendant of the Prophet through Imam Ali ruled the country, with the Koran regarded as the imamate’s only Constitution. That was ended by a military coup in 1960. The second is the emirate set up by the Taleban in Afghanistan in the 1990s: any pious man could become emir, enabling Mullah Muhammad Omar, a Pushtun with no Arab ancestry, to gain the title of Commander of the Faithful. Ayatollah Khamenei, who claims descent from the Prophet, could base his claim of legitimacy on the more specifically Shia doctrine of rule in the absence of the “Hidden Imam”.
That Ayatollah Khamenei is no longer the arbiter standing above factions is clear from his almost daily interventions in the bitter power struggle in Tehran. Over the past two weeks he has tried to divide the opposition while uniting as much of the Establishment as possible behind the new emerging imamate.
That the regime is ready to abandon its democratic pretensions is clear from the crackdown that has claimed at least 25 lives and led to more than 3,000 arrests. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a spokesman for the hardline faction, has called for opposition leaders to be tried on treason charges. Mr Ahmadinejad is preparing a second phase of the purges he started four years ago by expelling “half-pregnant” elements — individuals who dream of keeping the theocratic system behind a democratic façade. However, it is becoming clear that force alone cannot impose authority.
The regime has deployed 100,000 men from the paramilitary Basij to control Tehran and eight other major cities. But such a build-up cannot be sustained. There is the risk of the fighters siding with the protesters. Hussein Taleb, the commander-in- chief of the Basij, said yesterday that “large numbers of individuals dressed as members of the Basij” have been arrested after they took part in protest marches. The Basij, mostly teenagers from the provinces, are vulnerable to “seduction”: people invite them into their homes, give them food and soft drinks, and ask them to swap sides. “Exposed to this kind of brainwashing, some might succumb to temptation,” Taleb admits.
If the Basij disintegrates, the regime could play its trump card: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. However, the IRGC is also split, with an unknown portion of it sympathetic to the opposition. Worse still from the regime’s point of view, the IRGC if unleashed may be tempted to grab power for itself rather than protecting the mullahs.
The unknown is the intention of the millions who remain angry at the regime. To judge by the continuing sporadic demonstrations, and chants of “Death to the dictator!” shouted from rooftops, the genie appears unwilling to return to the bottle.
My guess is that the movement will not just fade away. It may suffer setbacks and losses, but it is bound to end up finding its true leaders and demanding the changes that a majority of Iranians want. The fight for Iran’s future is far from over.
Amir Taheri, the author of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.