Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In Iran, a Struggle Beyond the Streets

Clerics during prayers in June. Many religious leaders have not spoken out in support of Iran’s president or supreme leader.

The streets of Iran have been largely silenced, but a power struggle grinds on behind the scenes, this time over the very nature of the state itself. It is a battle that transcends the immediate conflict over the presidential election, one that began 30 years ago as the Islamic Revolution established a new form of government that sought to blend theocracy and a measure of democracy.

That is more than has been reported; the analysis offered was that the protests were over what seemed election fraud, and only that.

From the beginning, both have vied for an upper hand, and today both are tarnished. In postelection Iran, there is growing unease among many of the nation’s political and clerical elite that the very system of governance they rely on for power and privilege has been stripped of its religious and electoral legitimacy, creating a virtual dictatorship enforced by an emboldened security apparatus, analysts said.

Well, it was always a dictatorship, for candidates had to be approved by a board of clerics before gaining permission to run in elections.

Most telling, and arguably most damning, is that many influential religious leaders have not spoken out in support of the beleaguered president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, even among those who traditionally have supported the government, many have remained quiet or even offered faint but unmistakable criticisms.

Yet Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr. Ahmadinejad and their allies still have a monopoly over the most powerful levers of state. They control the police, the courts and the prosecutor’s office. They control the military and the militia forces. And they retain the loyalty of a core group of powerful clerics and their conservative followers: for example, a hard-line cleric who heads the Qum Seminary, Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadai, said on Tuesday that “the case is closed.” No one, not even restive clerics, is in a position to strip this group of its power in the short term.

But the long term is what is in play as this conflict evolves.

For now, Iran’s most hard-line forces have been emboldened. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, has said elected institutions are anathema to a religious government and should be no more than window dressing.

At least he's honest about it.

To understand the nature of the conflict, it is essential to look back to the founding of the republic. Ayatollah Khomeini built on two different and often contradictory principles, one of public accountability and one of religious authority. To tie it all together, Ayatollah Khomeini imported a centuries-old religious idea, called velayat-e faqih, or governance of the Islamic jurist. Shiite Muslims believe that they are awaiting the return of the 12th Imam, and under this religious concept the faqih, or supreme leader, serves in his place as a sort of divine deputy.

The competing poles of Iran’s system have produced a fight-to-the-death ethos. Compromise is not just elusive but a sign of weakness.

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