The problem with any omnipotent being is that eventually Toto will pull open the curtain. What lies behind? Our fallible, feeble selves.
Thus is the problem facing the most controversial pantless men on the planet–and I don’t mean those tribes in the Amazon. Of course it is the all-powerful clerics that run the Islamic Republic of Iran, a 30 year floorshow that’s part Puritan witch hunt, part swap meet, and all problems for the United States, Israel, and just about any other country wear their leaders wear pants (or not, as in the Gulf emirates).
Yet turbans are getting hotter. Controversy is sweeping Iran over the recent presidential elections, where hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad claimed a 68% victory over former prime minister Mir Hossain Mousavi, bucking recent polls showing Mousavi ahead. Protests–in open defiance of the authorities–continue unabated in cities across the country. Allegations of election fraud run rampant. The Guardian Council, the clerics that must approve of the election results, are even okaying the recount of ballots at selected poll sites.
What makes this election more remarkable is that for possibly the first time, the mullahs must publicly pay lip service to popular dissent. This doesn’t mean there weren’t opposition movements before–the Khatami era of the 1990s comes to mind–yet those were mostly college kids. Give them free food and a Hacky Sack and all opposition is suppressed. Today’s opposition is made up of rank-and-file middle class Iranians: the same middle class that was crucial to the 1979 revolution that placed the mullahs in power in the first place.
Sally Buzbee’s article for the Associated Press highlights some of the scenarios that may happen, especially the fate of the Islamic regime. While I don’t think the Islamic republic will tumble any time soon, this kind of open defiance, even in the face of government censure, must really put the clerics on edge.
Why, you may ask? A little history is in order…we are devoted to history at the Neighborhood, after all.
In 1979, a coalition of radical leftists, trade unions, Communists, and Islamic fundamentalists succeeded in overthrowing the Shah, the autocratic, yet pro-Western, monarch of Iran. The shah, to be fair, was a prick of the worst order. His Savak, or secret police, committed atrocities that make the Gestapo look like traffic cops. He squashed all opposition to his rule, while plundering the wealth of the country for his lavish–and tasteless–lifestyle. It’s the same charge leveled at Saddam: is it some sort of requirement that Middle Eastern autocrats have to decorate their palaces like Tony Montana’s country home in Boca Raton?
Anyway, the coalition managed to get rid of the Shah. Great, now what? The Communists and trade unions didn’t have much of an answer, especially since their comrades up in Moscow were kind of busy in a little burg called Afghanistan. The clerics, unfortunately, did–a return to normalcy and stability. It’s ideas most people weary of turmoil and unrest would find refreshing and comforting. The rural poor yearned for a return to the rhythms of their daily lives, while urban voters in Tehran and elsewhere just wanted to go back to work.
What no one told the people was that normalcy and stability meant to the year 1300 under a strict–and not entirely accurate–interpretation of Islamic law. The fundamentalists gain power in a national referendum with an overwhelming majority based on their stability message. The Communists and trade unions were sidelined and persecuted, regardless of their role in the revolution. It’s probably one of the few times I feel bad for Communists, but they deserve sympathy. They’re usually the ones that throw coalition partners under a bus, so it hardly seems fair.
Thus is established the Islamic “Republic” of Iran–a democracy in theory, a republic in form and function, but a theocracy in reality. Even though there are elections, elected officials and a parliamentary process for legislation, the clerics have all real power. They approve the candidates, set the agenda, approve the laws, okay election results and basically use the elected legislature as a puppet for their program–a country under Islamic law.
The mullahs keep strict control over almost all aspects of everyday life. Most Western products, media and ideas are banned. Islamic dress codes and social morays are tightly watched. Women, religious minorities, atheists, dissenters and non-heterosexuals have none of the freedoms we enjoy. Religious police and paramilitary thugs maintain a terroristic iron fist over Iranian life. Public floggings are commonplace. Capital punishment is used often, especially stoning for women.
Thirty years have passed, and Iran has seen a lot. It has been through international isolation led by the United States. It suffered a nearly-decade long war with Iraq. It has been instrumental in Islamic uprisings in Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf States, Egypt, and in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Yet it has rarely seen a crisis like the one unfolding now.
In many respects, the clerics should have seen this coming. While they sat on their omnipotent thrones over their utopian Islamic state, Iranians have connected to the world via technology–in spite of official censorship. After years of sham elections, Iranians have longed for a transparency that was impossible in a place where the clergy ruled by fiat. Even without the loudmouth Ahmedinejad, the people would have eventually reacted to a ruling class that has gotten too remote from the realities of everyday life.
There is also demographics to consider: Iran is getting younger and younger. Most Iranians between 21-40 have little, if any, primary knowledge of the Islamic Revolution. They have no concept of the “bad old days” of the Shah. They’re probably not listening to you if you tried to tell them–those earbuds on that IPod really blot out that sound, don’t they? Stability and normalcy are their everyday life, and they are also aware of the rest. That “rest” is the corruption of the elites, the sham elections, and the lack of real progress in the Islamic Republic.
I think that after the protests and anger subsides, Ahmedinejad will stay in power but under a tight leash. The clerics will have no choice. Suppressing any dissent in the age of viral video and streaming media mean that the world will be watching. On the other hand, they have to save some sort of face, since Ahmedinejad was considered their guy. To preserve the power of the clerics, they must be pro-active and either remove or harness Ahmedinejad until the Guardian Council can plan their next move.
What the mullahs don’t want is the logical next step. When the ire of the people moves from the puppets of the clerics to the clerics themselves–and it will happen, eventually–the clerics had better invest in slacks.
And start running for their lives.