Iran's Theocracy is at Risk


When news broke that the Iranian government arrested dozens of teenagers for having a public water-gun fight, Iran gave Western comedians their biggest gift since President Ahmadinejad claimed Iran has no homosexuals. However, Iranian leaders probably saw this as an uncomfortable reminder of the Green Movement's presence – it was, after all, an instance of young people organizing online to publicly defy Iran’s gender restrictions, even if they only thought of it as summer fun. Although the catalyst for change is unlikely to be a child’s toy, both recent events and long-term trends put the Iranian theocracy at one of its weakest points ever, explaining its insecurity.

Iran’s weakness is partly due to the regime's shooting itself in the foot. In an effort to end years of economic struggle with inflation, President Ahmadinejad approved the removal of much of Iran's subsidy system, moving towards a free market. Although most Western economists would consider this an obvious necessity, Ahmadinejad risked the support of his major base, the urban poor, who tend to support the theocracy more than rural Iranians and the middle class.

Iran has also been rocked by regime infighting over the role of Islam in government. However, in a bizarre twist, it is Ahmadinejad and his supporters who have promoted relative secularism against Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies. Ahmadinejad has publically dredged up pre-Islamic Persian history that the government has suppressed since 1979, and both sides have tried to fire each other's allies. This squabble is unique for Iran’s government, since only two years ago Ahmadinejad relied on Khomeini's support to survive calls for his resignation and to implement his economic overhaul.

The regime's fracturing was further exacerbated when Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, recently declared that the Syrian regime needed to recognize its people's "legitimate demands." From a balance-of-power perspective, it is significant that Ahmadinejad's faction is tempering its support for Syria's allied regime, and contradicting Ayatollah Khomeni's generally unsuccessful narrative of the Arab Spring as a Muslim rejection of American imperialism. But the real significance is ideological. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out at the time, the Iranian Regime will never truly recover from the events of 2009, because the Green Movement proved that the Iranian public no longer accepts the Ayatollahs' divine mandate as the final authority in political affairs such as elections, thereby undermining the fundamental tenet of Iranian government since 1979.

Now, this dangerous idea – that government legitimacy comes from the people, not the Koran – has been publicly endorsed by a government technocrat who, despite being appointed this year by Ahmadinejad, was well respected by both hardliners and moderates.

When Iran's regime came to power by replacing a Western-backed, secular monarch, with a theocracy that controlled who could or could not run for elected positions, democracy was not on the table. Since the Tunisian and Egyptian governments fell, democracy has become a serious option, and the debate has been redefined. This is especially true for the younger Iranian generation, who have no memory of the Shah, and who are statistically over-represented among reformists. Khomeini tried again last Tuesday to frame the Arab Spring as a Muslim rejection of the West, warning that "if the imperialist and hegemonic powers ... manage to use the ongoing conditions in their own favor, the world of Islam will definitely face big problems for decades," while admitting that elections in Iran have always been a "challenging issue."

If the last year has taught anything, it is that revolutions are nearly impossible to predict. The United States cannot count on Iran's regime being overthrown. However, it should note that gradual changes in Iran's politics are a near certainty, and be on its toes for scheduled parliamentary elections next March and presidential elections in June 2013. Ayatollah Khomeini certainly is.

Photo Credit: Hamed Saber