Tuesday, July 7, 2009

There is no time to lose. The Islamic Republic is derailed and must get back on track. The recent election was the last chance to do so. The supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has used the post-election “showdown” to begin his purging of all internal dissidents, to ostracize the moderate voices within the elite and dismiss the wimpy voices in his own clan.

The Islamic Republic was founded on the idea of political Islam, in which the goal — establishing an Islamic state — justified the means. This idea, which developed primarily in Egypt and Pakistan, has found followers among many members of the clergy in Iran. However, the leaders in Iran took it upon themselves to develop it to a full-bloom “just dictatorship” 30 years after the revolution.

In essence, the idea of an “Islamic republic” was a reaction to the rapid Westernization of Iranian society in the 1970s. Anti-secular and anti-Western ideologies infused the revolutionary ideology.

Inspired by Seyyed Qutb, the Egyptian scholar well-known for his anti-American stance in the 1960s, the current supreme leader believes Western countries are evil and corrupt. According to him, Western countries, particularly the United States and Israel, are perpetually “scheming against Islam.”

As the leader of Iran, he takes it upon himself to ensure the safety of Iran’s Islamic society. To him, Iran is both at the forefront of resistance to the hegemony of the West and the spearhead of an authentic Islamic ideology. He would do whatever it takes to secure that position even if it means uncharacteristically relying on brute force.

However, his calculation is based on incorrect assumptions: Iranian politics have never been monolithic and never can be by nature. Shi’ism has no central authority, and each religious authority can have his own ideas about politics and society, and his own followers. This is the reason for the contesting voices within the leadership of Iran that have become louder since the late 1990s.

Disagreements about revolutionary principles have increased over time, not only among moderates, but also among the conservatives and pragmatists. Since 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as president, there has been near-unanimous agreement among the elite across the spectrum over his regime’s mishandling of politics, especially foreign policy — the supreme leader’s Achilles heel.

For the supreme leader, who has always tried to remain above the political fray — the critics went too far this time and got out of control. His biggest challenge has come from answering criticisms from the outside world. He believes Iran needs a president who can stand up to the nation’s enemies. To him, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s chief election rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was too weak and too independent for the task.

For example, Mr. Mousavi’s detente plan for Iran’s future was unappealing to him. Furthermore, President Obama’s attempts to approach the Muslim world with an extended hand and pacifying words alarmed the Ayatollah Khameini, who has been leading his men behind an anti-Western banner. Several of his cronies have softened their positions against the United States and even were on the verge of breaking their loyalty to the revolution’s goals by talking about the possibility of making amends with the United States.

Feeling the danger, the supreme leader needed to play hard and fast to take care of unfaithful members of the elite, both moderates and conservatives. He needed to get rid of internal dissidents before dealing with the challenges of the enemy.

One month before the election, Ahmad Janati, chairman of the Guardian Council and confidant of the supreme leader, called on Muslims during a Friday prayer “to vote for somebody who can stand up to America.” The choice was made: A “just dictatorship would be more Islamic” than a “corrupt democracy.” Ayatollah Khamenei declared his position: “Anybody who is not with me is my enemy, no matter where they stand politically and how devoted to the revolution they are.”

Immediately following the June 12 elections, the regime arrested the most prominent political leaders of the reformist camp. On the conservative side, the ayatollahs were forced to endorse Mr. Ahmadinejad’s controversial victory.

The Expediency Council and the Council of Experts — both chaired by cleric and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — eventually offered a vague endorsement to the Ayatollah Khamenei. Most of the grand ayatollahs in Qum, the center of conservatism in Iran, remained silent.

The Ayatollah Khamenei waged a war against internal opposition by using raw force. He may have won in the short term, but he made an irreversible miscalculation in assuming that a firm stance would silence all the dissidents. Many political leaders in the conservative camp publicly questioned the mishandling of the election and toying with the laws and manipulation of public opinion.

On June 26, during Friday prayers in Qum, one of the conservative grand ayatollahs, Javadi Amolli, questioned the authorities’ dedication to the rule of law. He also warned that the lack of legitimacy will shake the stability of the regime.

It is too soon to draw conclusions about this internal conflict broiling among Iran’s leadership. However, one thing is clear: With the purging of reformist leaders from politics, the next batch of dissidents will come from different factions within the ruling conservative party. This has started already. In the meantime, the U.S. game can make quite a difference. If Washington takes the right steps, it will let the fissures deepen on their own.

The incorrect steps, however, could help the supreme leader consolidate the divisions. One thing is for certain: Bellicosity, heavy sanctions and isolating Iran — and by definition Iranians — will help the consolidators.

Asieh Mir is a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. The views in this column are those of the author and do not reflect those of the institute, which does not advocate specific policies.

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