Iran's Long Backslide To Absolute Rule
By M. D. Nalapat, RFE/RL
Revolutionaries often end up adopting to the habits
and methods of those they once opposed.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blocked reform efforts and protected a
corrupt private sector.
It did not take long for the Bolsheviks to welcome former agents of the Tsarist
secret police, the Okhrana, and use them and their tactics against the Communist
Party's political foes. By the 1930s, a system of intimidation had been formed
in the Soviet Union that made the Tsarist period look benign in comparison.
Even in democracies, those who oppose the policies of the ruling party often
adopt many of them once they themselves gain power.
Since the Iranian presidential election on June 12 -- which, according to the
government, secured a second term for President Mahmud Ahmadinejad --Iran has
seen a spike in public protest that has few precedents since the 1979 movement
that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Although this has been
ascribed to reformist impulses, the bulk of the protesters are loyal to Iran's
post-1979 system, which replaced the monarchy with a religious state run by a
single cleric, the supreme leader, whose personal power is at least as extensive
as that exercised by the shah.
The military, the security system, the judiciary, and all other significant
elements of the machinery of governance pledged obedience to Khomeini as the
supreme leader, and he very soon reduced the presidents and prime ministers of
Iran to a subordinate status. Those who resisted, including Abolhassan Banisadr,
the first president of Iran (elected, according to the records, with a mandate
from 75 percent of the voters) were removed. Khomeini introduced not just a
veto, but full supervision over the decision-making process.
Despite his absolute power, Khomeini frequently went along with public opinion,
even on matters as internationally destabilizing as the takeover of the U.S.
Embassy by youthful zealots on November 4, 1979. The Khomeinists' refusal to
abide by international norms and free the U.S. Embassy hostages created an
international perception that Iran's ruling group was reckless, a view that has
harmed Tehran's international standing.
The sanctions that followed the embassy takeover have damaged the country's
economy, making it dependent on outside sources even for refined petroleum
products. They have also made it much more difficult for Iranian industry to
gain access to international markets or to get optimal commercial terms for
finance and other services.
Even the war with Iraq was not sufficient cause for Khomeini to seek a better
relationship with the developed world, and Iran has continued with a policy of
opposition, especially toward the United States, that continues today.
The only major power with which Iran has good relations is China, which has --
as in other parts of the world -- been content to endorse the regime in office,
irrespective of that regime's record on human rights or its support of groups
that indulge in acts of mass violence against the populations of third
Khamenei's Gradual Rise
After Khomeini's death in 1989, his place as the absolute ruler of Iran was
taken over by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who had served as president from
1981-89. Lacking Khomeini's charisma and theological gifts, the new supreme
leader initially took a much less visible role, emerging only in 1997 to
challenge the elected reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
After his election in 1997, Khatami sought to enlarge the boundaries of personal
freedom in Iran, especially for women, and forge a policy toward the United
States and the European Union that stressed cooperation over confrontation.
Khamenei, however, ensured that Khatami's reforms were not carried out, either
by getting them reversed by state bodies (including parliament) or by having the
bureaucracy sabotage them. The latter was visible especially in foreign policy,
where Khatami's conciliatory rhetoric did not lead to any change in Iranian
support for militant organizations in the region.
Despite this lack of progress, a desperate people -- eager for reform and for an
end to international confrontation -- gave Khatami an even bigger mandate in
2001, with 78 percent of the vote.
This alarmed Khamenei, who began cultivating a group of hardliners that included
the mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei selected Ahmadinejad to run
for president in 2005 against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who
was eager to dilute the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme
In Iran's 2004 parliamentary elections, Khamenei's followers succeeded in
ensuring the result they sought. Conservatives and hardliners swept away the
reformists to emerge as the overwhelming majority in the legislature. All that
remained was the presidency, and this came into the hands of the Khamenei group
the next year.
From then on, Khamenei worked to ensure that the powers of the supreme leader
were as absolute as those once enjoyed by the shah of Iran. The new president
declined to follow Rafsanjani and Khatami in seeking policies different from
those favored by the conservatives around the supreme leader. Instead, he gave
public voice to policies favored by Khamenei, especially in foreign affairs.
And Khamenei did not fail to reward this support. In the June 12 presidential
election, Ahmadinejad's victory was a foregone conclusion, despite widespread
dissatisfaction with his administration, and the widespread popularity of his
main rival, Mir Hossein Musavi. The supreme leader was unwilling to take a
chance with Musavi, who was far too close to Rafsanjani and Khatami to be
allowed to win.
Return To Dictatorship
Today, Iran has once again come under an absolute monarchy -- the difference
being that this time, a cleric has control, not a dynasty. As in the time of the
shah, arrests and intimidation are commonplace, and critics are silenced, often
with the loss of their liberty.
Clearly, in Khamenei's system, as during the time of the shah, there is only one
vote that counts.
Iran has developed a gargantuan state sector, run by oligarchs in a manner
reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The majority of these enterprises, most of
which are monopolies, have become corrupt and inefficient, so that the delivery
of services and commodities to consumers in Iran has been severely hampered.
At the same time, the country's international isolation has restricted its
development. Only substantial reforms of the economic superstructure of Iran can
free the economy to grow and provide adequate jobs to the youthful population.
Musavi understood this and was therefore a threat to the state oligarchs, whose
champion is Khamenei.
The supreme leader has become the patron and protector of the network of state
enterprises that are the source of patronage and private profit. Mixing the
practical and the spiritual usually means a decline in the quality of both, and
the involvement of the supreme leader in the economy has led to a decline in
what may be termed the "inner religiosity" of the pro-Khamenei elements in the
clergy. Many of these have abandoned the quest for theological wisdom under the
intoxication of having effective power over enterprises and institutions with
Today, those within the clergy who give primacy to the spiritual over the
temporal have become disenchanted with the supreme leader, although fear keeps
almost all of them silent.
Was 1979 only intended to create a new shah of Iran? And can the new autocratic
system work any better than the old?
The decline in living standards in Iran over the past three decades indicates
that it cannot. Musavi is a loyal Khomeinist, who was close to the founder of
the Islamic republic. Today, there is no longer any space for Khomeinists in
Iran. The only way to protection, power, and wealth is to align oneself with
Over the past weeks, the Revolutionary Guards and the rest of Iran's substantial
security services have been engaged in rounding up and confronting the followers
of Khomeini. After years in the shadows, Khamenei has judged himself strong
enough to take on even followers of the founder of the Islamic Republic.
However, because the system Ayatollah Khamenei protects is dysfunctional, and
because of widespread public disaffection, the people of Iran are like tinder
awaiting another spark. A people that could not be intimidated by the shah
cannot be expected to remain supine for long in the face of the present
incompetent and corrupt autocracy.
M. D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The
views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily
reflect those of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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