“You cannot beat anybody with nobody!” This adage of American electoral politics seems to be the latest Americanism to enter the Iranian political folklore under the Islamic Republic. This is why the “loyal opposition” faction within the Khomeinist establishment is desperately trying to find “somebody” to stand against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in next year’s presidential election.
At first glance, it seems that almost anybody would do for the “loyal opposition.”
Among those approached is Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, an interior decorator and former Prime Minister, whose pseudo-leftist policies earned his group the sobriquet of “The North Koreans of Islam.” Another personality under consideration is Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah who has already acted as president for eight years. Those who believe the mullahs should be elbowed out and the military elbowed in, are talking of Mohsen Rezai, a former Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a leading businessman.
However, the loyal opposition ignores one crucial fact: the problems that Iran faces today are not due to personalities. Ahmadinejad’s radical posture may have aggravated those problems; but did not create them.
Iran’s problems are due to the deception that lies at the foundation of the Khomeinist regime. This deception is stark and simple. Here we have a regime that describes itself as a republic but is, in fact, a form of medieval despotism in which a single individual has virtually unlimited powers in the name of religion.
Students of history would know that the medieval despotic model worked well for a long time. Regardless of what one might think of that model in terms of ethics, it was an efficient form of government for its time. It kept the peace, provided the stability needed for economic and scientific development, and nursed the contradictions that, in time, produced its antithesis in the form of the modern bourgeoisie.
The problem of the Khomeinist regime lies in its uncertain identity. It claims to be a republic but insists that power is divine and must be exercised by doctors of divinity. It calls on people to turn up and vote but does not allow them to pick from among candidates of their own choice. Even then, once the votes are counted, the mullahs could simply annul the results or even declare the losers to be winners. That leads to a structural problem that no amount of rhetoric could hide. Iran ends up with all the disadvantages of a medieval despotism minus its advantages.
The adage “You cannot beat anybody with nobody” is relevant to the American situation because the US constitution is designed to allow the shaping of policies in accordance with the will of the people as expressed through elections. The Khomeinist system, however, is designed to prevent any meaningful change. In such a system, the president could achieve real influence and significant power only if he governs in accordance with the general direction of the system. This is what Ahmadinejad has been doing for the past three years. And, this is why he is the first President of the Islamic Republic to wield genuine power.
The first President of the Islamic Republic, Abol-Hassan Banisadr drunk himself into near madness by believing he had a personal support base. He tried to govern against the system, forgetting that without that system he would have remained a mature student in an obscure Paris university.
The second president, Muhammad-Ali Rajai, did not last long to develop any style whatsoever, as he was blown up by terrorists a few weeks after assuming office. His successor as the third president of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenehi, decided to keep a low profile and behaved as if the presidency was nothing but a thin shadow in a Chinese theatre. His gambit worked because the Khomeinist regime at the time had a prime minister who ran the executive branch. Sandwiched between the “Supreme Guide” on the one hand and the Prime Minister on the other, all the President needed to do was to keep quiet and stay out of trouble.
The fourth president, Hashemi Rafsanjani developed his own style, that of trying to govern alongside the “Supreme Guide”. The abolition of the post of prime minister also helped by allowing the president to assume the powers of the executive branch.
Another factor was equally important. While Rafsanjani went after money, Khamenehi, who had now become “Supreme Guide”, went after power. Since the two were not interested in the same thing, they could live and work together in perfect tandem. Rafsanjani became richer by the day while Khamenehi expanded his powers. Like the Americans, Rafsanjani believed that once you have money you could also acquire political power. Khamenehi, however, knew that in the East, money does not always translate into power while power can always be translated into money.
The fifth president of the Khomeinist republic, Khatami, tried to govern in spite of the “Supreme Guide”, albeit ever so gingerly. Misunderstanding the nature of the system that had allowed him to reach a position he would not have achieved in any other system, he deceived himself, and later tried to deceive others, by pretending that absolute rule could coexist with the relativism inherent in a pluralist system of government. Khatami led the regime to the brink of implosion by triggering dissent on a scale that Khomeinism was unable to cope with without having recourse to brutal repression.
Ahmadinejad has succeeded in developing his own style. As president, he has tried to govern through the “Supreme Guide” rather than against him, alongside him, or in spite of him. Ahmadinejad’s opponents have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
If the task is to run the Khomeinist system, Ahmadinejad is by far the most successful president that the regime has produced so far. On the other hand, if the task is to lead Iran out of revolutionary crisis and towards normalcy, what needs to be contemplated is regime change rather than a change of personnel at the presidency. That, however, is the one topic that the” loyal opposition” is not yet prepared to consider publicly although more and more of its elements are thinking of it in private.