City of Brass

City of Brass


Iran 3.0: slower, please

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Two questions worth asking: What if the Green Revolution fails? And what if it succeeds?

If it fails, I argued that we still have to engage Iran, just like we continued to engage China after Tiananmen Square. Doing otherwise will guarantee more totalitarianism, not less – is there any evidence that sanctions and diplomatic isolation have ever had a positive effect on an autocratic regime? (maybe yes – thats why i pose the question to you all).

It it succeeds, I argued that it’s not going to be quite the nirvana that some imagine. Iran will still desire nuclear weapons (with good reason, IMHO). It still won’t exactly be friendly to Israel, sinnce both countries aree seeking regional hegemony in the same sphere (think China and the former USSR – never best of friends even with ostensibly identical government systems, unlike the two I’s). And frankly the election of Moussavi still doesn’t solve the constitutional obstacles to genuine reform and freedom in the Iranian society.

Fundamentally, Iran will be an Islamic Republic no matter the outcome. The question is, just how diverse is the space of possible Islamic Republics with respect to a free society? Reihan Salaam has a speculative piece about this, pointing out that structurally the Iranian regime has the elements for a successful balance between Mosque and State:

The Iran of the 1970s struck many as a cardinal example of authoritarianism run amok. Though parts of the country were modernizing rapidly, the Shah presided over a sharp increase in inequality and, in the view of his staunchest critics, he ruled as an absolute monarch through his brutal secret police. When the Shah was overthrown, his successors rallied around the ideal of a just and equitable Islamic regime, in which raw political power would be tempered by divine law. Shi’a scholars would be given final authority on all key decisions, thus guaranteeing, in theory, that greed would never again corrupt the workings of government.

This ideal has proved very attractive, not least among the Sunnis who constitute the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. A number of majority-Muslim states, including the struggling new democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq, have embraced aspects of traditional shari’a law. In the authoritarian states of the Muslim Middle East, the vision of Islamic democracy has inspired powerful opposition movements. In Turkey, the AK Party has crafted a decidedly imperfect but promising Muslim version of European Christian Democracy, in which Islamic ideals are pursued through democratic means.

For some time now, however, it has been clear that Iran’s constitutional order is broken. Revolutionary Iran is less a beacon of hope to Muslims around the world than an exporter of terrorist violence. Its military adventurism, economic failures and enduring inequality all stem from the consolidation of power in the hands of interlocking clerical and military elites. Rather than restore the checks and balances of a traditional Islamic regime, the Islamic Republic has become far more dangerous and authoritarian than the regime it replaced.

The key for the United States is to maintain an engagement with the Iranian regime regardless of outcome so that the domestic pressure for reform can build organically and gradually transform the state via liberalizing measures piecemeal. Outright and wholesale revolution has a much steeper hill to climb with respect to legitimacy and risk; a gradual transformation from within may bear far sweeter fruit in the long term.

And there is evidence that even if the Green Revolution does fail in its stated goal of overturning the election, the seeds for Iran 3.0 have already been laid. As this excellent and apolitical diary at Red State explains, the reform movement has caused deep fissures within the regime itself:

The only real test for the stability of a constitution is not how it copes with consensus, but how it stands up to the stresses of division. Iran’s complicated constitutional structure is about to face that test.

Some have suggested that all power lies with the Supreme Leader. Some media have even described the position of Supreme Leader as one chosen for life. This is not so. On paper, the real power lies with the Assembly of Experts. Whether that is so in practice, remains to be seen. The Assembly of Experts chooses, supervises, and can dismiss the Supreme Leader. There have, of course, only been two Supreme Leaders, and the first died in office, without ever having been challenged. But the constitution of Iran does not require that the role be a job for life, not does it require that the Assembly remain supine.

There is no evidence that the Assembly of Experts has ever challenged any opinion or position of the Supreme Leader – though since it meets only in secret, no such evidence would be likely to come to light, even if it had been a very boisterous organisation. But this crisis is one that has no precedent. At the very summit of the state, revolutionary loyalists who served with Khomeini are deeply divided.

The authority of the Supreme Leader has been challenged. He called for the demonstrations to stop, and they did not stop. The Assembly of Experts can hold him to account in his hour of weakness. The Assembly could summon him and ask him questions. Why, for example, did he declare that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected without waiting for the constitutionally mandated period in which candidates could challenge the conduct of the election? Why has he prejudged the enquiry into the election by the Council of Guardians, an enquiry which he himself requested?

Constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts can replace the Supreme Leader, and a new Supreme Leader could replace half of the members of the Council of Guardians. In law, it is with the Assembly that real authority lies.

The problem for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that his greatest political foe – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – chairs the Assembly of Experts. Candidates linked to Rafsanjani won 65 of the 86 places in the last election. So when the government – presumably with Ahmadinejad’s blessing – arrested members of Rafsanjani’s family, it was probably a tactical error. He may have threatened his own position, and that of his main protector, the Supreme Leader.

The fact that Rafsanjani’s list won the last elections does not mean that any of the things I have described are inevitable or even likely. That members of the Assembly of Experts were aligned with Rafsanjani at the time of the election does not mean they are under his control or necessarily agree with him on this issue. Many may be cautious of flexing the Assembly’s muscles, for fear of breaking the system entirely.

Can the Assembly of Experts assert the powers which the constitution gives it, but which have never been used? No-one knows. Could the constitution survive any attempt to assert those powers? No-one knows the answer to that either. If the Assembly were to dismiss the Supreme Leader, would the Revolutionary Guard or the army recognise the change? We live in interesting times.

These ideological differences and internal strains on Iran’s regime are more exploitable by ourselves if we maintain active engagement with Iran than if we slam the door.



  • Jonathan Edelstein

    Dude, this is at least Iran 5.0, possibly 6.0 or more. Let’s see: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11, the Pahlavi coup, the “White Revolution” under the last shah, the 1979 revolution and now maybe the Green revolution. 3.0 was long, long ago – gotta keep up with the software.

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    Hell, I forgot Mossadegh. His Iran would have to be 3.1, though – a beta that got recalled by the company before it really got started.

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