We are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy in Iran. I don##t mean by this that the Iranian regime is about to collapse. It may—I certainly hope it will—but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. We are watching the failure of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian government. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, the idea of velayat-e faqih, rule by the Supreme Jurist, was at its heart. Last week that ideology suffered a fatal blow.
When the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “divine assessment,” he was using the key weapon of velayat-e faqih, divine sanction. Millions of Iranians didn##t buy it, convinced that their votes—one of the key secular rights allowed them under Iran##s religious system—had been stolen. Soon Khamenei was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. Khamenei has realized that the regime##s existence is at stake and has now hardened his position, but that cannot put things back together. It has become clear that in Iran today, legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular will. For three decades, the Iranian regime has wielded its power through its religious standing, effectively excommunicating those who defied it. This no longer works—and the mullahs know it. For millions, perhaps the majority of Iranians, the regime has lost its legitimacy.
Why is this happening? There have been protests in Iran before, but they always placed the street against the state, and the clerics all sided with the state. When the reformist president Mohammad Khatami was in power, he entertained the possibility of siding with the street after student riots broke out in 1999 and 2003, but in the end he stuck with the establishment. The street and state are at odds again—the difference this time is that the clerics are divided. Khatami has openly backed the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as has the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. Behind the scenes, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—the head of the Assembly of Experts, another important constitutional body—is reportedly waging a campaign against Ahmadinejad and even possibly the Supreme Leader. If senior clerics dispute Khamenei##s divine assessment and argue that the Guardian Council is wrong, it would represent a death blow to the basic premise behind the Islamic Republic of Iran. It would be as though a senior Soviet leader had said in 1980 that Karl Marx was not the right guide to economic policy.
The regime could certainly prevail in this struggle; in fact, that would have to be the most likely outcome. But it will do so by using drastic means—banning all protests, arresting students, punishing senior leaders and shutting down civil society. No matter how things turn out—crackdown, co-optation—it is clear that millions in Iran no longer believe in the regime##s governing ideology. If it holds on to power, it will do so like the Soviet Union in the late Brezhnev era, surviving only through military intimidation.
The Islamic Republic has been watching its legitimacy dwindle over the past decade. First came Khatami, the reformist, who won landslide victories and began some reforms before he was stymied by the Guardian Council. That experience made the mullahs decide they had to reverse course on the only element of democracy they##d permitted in Iran—reasonably open elections. The regime##s method of control used to be to select permissible candidates, favor one or two, but allow genuine, secret balloting. In the parliamentary elections of 2004, however, the Guardian Council decided that normal methods would not achieve acceptable results. So it summarily banned 3,000 candidates, including many sitting parliamentarians. Because public support was even less certain this time, the regime went further, announcing the election results in two hours and giving Ahmadinejad victory by such a wide margin that it would preclude any dispute. Khamenei revealed the strategy in his sermon last Friday. “A difference of 11 million votes—how can there be vote rigging?” he asked.
How should the United States deal with the situation in Iran? By reaching out to Iran, publicly and repeatedly, President Barack Obama has made it extremely difficult for the Iranian regime to claim that it is battling an aggressive America, bent on attacking Iran. That is why Khamenei reacted so angrily throughout most of his response to the New Year message. It undermined the image of the Great Satan that he routinely paints in his sermons. (Of course, ever the ruthless pragmatist, he also carefully left open the door to negotiations with the United States.)
The appropriate analogy is actually to George H.W. Bush##s cautious response to the cracks that started to appear in the Soviet empire in 1989. Then, as now with Obama, many neoconservatives were livid with Bush for not loudly supporting those trying to topple the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But Bush##s concern was that the situation was fragile. Those regimes could easily crack down on the protesters, and the Soviet Union could send in its own tanks. Handing the communists reasons to react forcefully would help no one, least of all the protesters. Bush##s basic approach was correct and has been vindicated by history.
But the real issue here is not a few words from Obama, but events on the ground in Iran. The faltering of the Islamic Republic will have repercussions all over the Muslim world. Although Iran is Shia and most of the Islamic world is Sunni, Khomeini##s rise to power was a shock to every Muslim country, a sign that Islamic fundamentalism was a force to be reckoned with. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, tried to co-opt that force. Others, like Egypt, repressed it brutally. But everywhere, Iran was the symbol of the rise of political Islam. If it now fails, a 30-year-old tide will have turned.