So they are one now?

As I have noted at various times over the last two and a half years of occasional analysis of Iranian elections and other developments, it has been clear that the Supreme Leader and the incumbent President are not exactly allies. There have even been signs that each might be trying to use the various elected and non-elected institutions established in the wake of the Islamic revolution to get rid of, or clip the powers of, the other.

However, it seems even more clear that in recent days, in reaction (and that is certainly the correct word here) to the protests against the suspicious ‘reelection’ of the president that the Supreme Leader has thrown his fate in with that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yesterday, the Supreme Leader’s attempt to appear above the fray, as a mediator among the clerics’ factions, evidently collapsed, when opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declined to attend what was hailed as a reconciliation meeting (seen at Juan Cole, but his link to the story no longer works).

The Iranian regime, with its odd combination of a narrow self-appointed ruling clique of clerics and relatively open (albeit restricted) elections, could regulate the significant divisions within the elite via elections so long as the electorate accepted the limited choices offered and the official results. Obviously, that equilibrium (if it can said ever to have been one) has now broken. As I noted a few days ago, it is rare for an authoritarian regime to tolerate the defeat of an incumbent president in elections and yet remain authoritarian. It seems as though the Supreme Leader himself understands that basic political-science fact, and probably has all along.

Now, mostly likely, either the ‘supreme leader’ and ‘president’ (inverted commas now because clearly their legitimacy is gone) either go out together (in which case Iran has a chance to become a democracy) or they stay (in which case the Islamic Republic survives, but in a much narrower and more openly authoritarian form). I have to agree with my colleague in Sociology, Gershon Shafir, that the latter is more likely now. However, writing at the same site, Augustus Norton is not so sure that the forces of repression can maintain the upper hand, if protests continue, and given the continued open divisions within the broader clergy.

How this might end is still uncertain, and may remain so for a time. But a solution within the framework of the Islamic Republic as we have known it looks increasingly out of reach.

5 thoughts on “So they are one now?

  1. I’m more optimistic than not. Khamenei’s health is poor and I wonder if this is not really about his successor as supreme leader rather than the presidency.

    Yazdi, the Khamenei/Ahmedinejad candidate for supreme leader, is also the cleric who issued the false letter of support from the Assembly of Experts. Rafsanjani, the actual head of the assembly is reported to be gathering votes to remove Khamenei or replace him with a council. The higher clergy, with the exception of Yazdi, have been markedly silent or have issued statements of support for the opposition.

    It may be important that Khamenei’s own religious standing is a tad dubious. He was recognised as an ayatollah only after he became supreme leader and has never gained the kind of religious following that other ayatollahs have.

  2. I think Iranian politics has been fundamentally about the looming succession for years.

    In some of the previous plantings I discuss (more like think “out loud” about) whether the regime has been getting more or less institutionalized, and what it might mean if the answer were “more.”

    This past week, “less” seemed like the answer. However, if the Assembly of Experts could convene and discipline (or even remove) Khamenei (which it clearly has legal power to do), then it would be a powerful indicator of institutionalization. More importantly, it would allow a transition to take place within the confines of the Islamic Republic after all.

    I just am very skeptical that they can pull that off, especially now that the succession battle (and other conflicts) have engaged the masses.

  3. Der Spiegel says Rafsanjani’s family were ‘briefly arrested’. I’d assumed they did not seize Rafsanjani because arresting the president of the Assembly of Experts would be almost a formal proclamation of dictatorship. If the arrest was only brief what it really suggests is a regime with little idea of what it’s doing. Trotting out Mesbah-Yazdi to issue a statement in the name of the assembly that the assembly had not even seen was not brilliant politics.

    Chatham House now has a fairly damning analysis of the province-by-province results.

    The Council of Guardians’ statement that reported votes exceeded registered voters in only 50 cities, not the 70 claimed by the opposition, does not suggest a deeply coherent strategy either.

    All reports agree that the regular army remains invisible. Most of the media natter about the IRGC, but Iran is not the first authoritarian state with a special security force and a militia and if that were enough to retain power people like Ceauçescu, and indeed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, would still be in their palaces.

    I suspect there is not a whole lot of unity among crucial elements of the regime and that may start showing soon.

  4. It is a milestone that there is even a sense of possibility here, that speculation is possible. Even before the elections I felt a sense of futility, it Iranian elections tend to have the same inevitable result. Just as protests in authoritarian countries in general tend to have an inevitable result. i saw a great video that compared Iran to other countries that have had civil uprisings–check it out.

  5. I was wondering, should the current theocratic political structure not survive, do you have any thoughts on what sort of institution will replace it?

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