Iran is undergoing one of its most momentous changes since the 1979 revolution as the aging Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, strives to ensure that the Islamic republic’s revolutionary precepts will survive him. China presents a cautionary tale for the ayatollah; it proves that it is possible for an authoritarian political system to survive long after its ideological claims have faded from the scene.
China’s leaders, beginning in the late 1970s, were able to transform themselves from devout Marxists into advocates of capitalist prosperity while still claiming they had the people’s best interests at heart. They maintained their power while shedding communism (in all but name) by offering material well-being in exchange for freedom.
But in Iran, there is no such ideological fluidity. Religion — in the form of politicized Islam — is the foundation of the state and the sole source of clerical leaders’ legitimacy. Without a rigid Islamist ideology, the ayatollahs would become irrelevant.
For Ayatollah Khamenei, China is a model to avoid and its journey from defiance to pragmatism a path to resist. He is therefore seeking to fully transform the Islamic Republic into a police state manned by reliable revolutionaries.
If the Soviet Union’s collapse represented one fate for a revolutionary state, China embodies another model. Chinese radicals, led by Mao Zedong, overturned the existing social and economic order in 1949 and rejected prevailing global norms while preaching revolution. Foreign policy became an extension of domestic upheaval. But, over time, a new generation of leaders came to power. These reformers, led by Deng Xiaoping, first modified and then abandoned communist ideology. They purged Maoist die-hards and opened China to the international community, trading their ideological inheritance for Western commerce. Today Mao is a largely symbolic relic.
There were once alternative paths to legitimacy for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the early 1990s, pragmatic government officials, led by President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, sought to emulate Chinese reformers. They believed that prolonging the government’s rule was contingent on its economic performance. To accelerate economic growth, Mr. Rafsanjani sought to build strong institutions staffed with competent bureaucrats.
In the late 1990s, another model emerged. Reformers led by President Mohammad Khatami believed that faith and freedom could not only coexist, but also complement one another. They argued that the Prophet Muhammad’s emphasis on consultation and consensus justified modern ideas like pluralism and a religious polity based on a popular mandate. In both cases, Ayatollah Khamenei successfully undermined and subverted their reform efforts.
Hard-line clerics like Ayatollah Khamenei still believe that Iranians must purify themselves and adhere uncritically to their leaders’ ideological exhortations. Only then, these clerics believe, will Iranians be worthy subjects of their exalted republic.
Since 1989, when he succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei has not hesitated to use violence against his own citizens. The Green Revolt of 2009 was a sobering moment for Ayatollah Khamenei, who feared that the Islamic Republic, as constituted, was too weak and its guardians too uncertain to perpetuate the 1979 revolution without his domineering presence. In a major speech in June, he preached that the revolution is “permanent” and “continuous.”
He sees himself as defending principles as noble and lofty as his detractors’. In his own way, he is offering the Iranian citizenry a national compact, one that exchanges political freedom for religious salvation. He is determined to excise all unreliable forces from the body politic. So all would-be Dengs must be removed from the corridors of power.
Traditional police tactics have been complemented by purges that are devouring the old guard, the intelligentsia and the technocratic elite. A theocratic state that once featured a diversity of religious factions is being rapidly transformed into a totalitarian state.
And Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies don’t mind being ostracized by the international community; they welcome the isolation. They fear the subversive impact of Western engagement, which helped foment the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. They also know that China’s integration into the global order came at the steep price of relinquishing its ideological patrimony.
For now the Islamic Republic endures like other autocracies in the Middle East. But the alienation of the population and the fragmentation of the elite will mean an uneasy future. With its politics so polarized, Iran cannot sustain its legitimacy on the basis of economic performance, backed by oil. The violence of 2009 severed an essential bond between the state and society.
The Islamic Republic will either hang on as an autocratic theocracy or be transformed into a populist democracy. The irony is that Ayatollah Khamenei, by ruthlessly consolidating his power, might have ensured that the system he created will not easily endure without his steady hand.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.