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Democracy in Iran

The Erosion of the Mullahs’ Monolith


We may never know the true vote count in the recent elections – and it’s almost irrelevant now. Debate has ended, sides have been drawn, and a test of power, not votes, is underway. Over the last two days, in the face of serious yet restrained repression, street demonstrations are weakening. Relying largely on students and other young people, the opposition has only limited political potential. Maintaining support from military/paramilitary organizations and from important demographic groups, hardline clerics are still in control.

The opposition has not been successful in mobilizing broad support – nothing on the order of what ousted the shah in 1979. Middle-class participation today is in evidence, though limited in numbers and enthusiasm. The urban poor were important in the driving out the shah, but today they are more sympathetic to traditionalist appeals by Ahmadinejad and the clerics. For a decade or more before 1979, the urban poor had found affinities and social support in Islamic study circles, which led them into the massive street demonstrations that ushered in Khomeini’s return. In recent years Ahmadinejad has played to them with flamboyant speeches and generous expenditures – as he did with rural dwellers, who in any event are far from the centers of recent political action in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other cities.

The shopkeepers and merchants (bazaaris) are crucial parts of the urban middle classes, though their significance is often discounted by reform-minded activists and by Western observers. Resentful of the shah’s openness to foreign corporations, bazaaris were important in the events of 1979, but they have benefited from the Islamic Republic’s protectionism. Across Iran, tribal groups and ethnic minorities resent Persian rule, but thus far the Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Qashqais, and others have not initiated meaningful sympathetic actions.

The mullahs’ repressive capacity has remained strong. Police and irregular paramilitary formations (Basij) have repelled angry demonstrators, and the formidable Islamic Republic Guard Corps, comprising fervent supporters of the regime drawn mainly from poorer strata, are unlikely to show sympathy for young people they see as privileged and disloyal. Thus far, the full strength of the regime’s repressive power has not been deployed and as demonstrations wane, it may never be.

Ahmadinejad’s opponents are too weak, in numbers and fighting skill, to win this time around. Khomeini’s revolution was a long time coming and so will be any fundamental change in the Islamic Republic. Reformist energies are better off dedicated to political engagement for the future than to street fighting today. At this point the demonstrations might even be coalescing more domestic hostility than sympathy, and should they resurge, might lead to another Tiananmen Square.

It is significant for future political developments that the mullahs are clearly not a monolithic hierocracy. Several important ayatollahs, including former president Rafsanjani, have questioned the reliability of the election. Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts whose theoretical authority over the Supreme Leader may seek to become a practical authority. Some clerics represent an important but overlooked strand of Islamic thought that finds justification for democracy in the words of the Prophet and jealously defends the rule of law, including those governing elections. This raises the possibility of an elite divided by politics, interpretation of scripture, and perhaps even personal rivalries, all of which can be played upon before the next election in four years.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com