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.