Ever since human societies developed systems of government the exercise of power has depended on two factors: persuasion and coercion. Persuasion is needed to encourage subjects or, in more modern societies, citizens, to do the things that government wants them to do. When persuasion fails, coercion may be needed to obtain the desired results. Governments also resort to coercion to deal with threats to law and order.
As a rule, governments in the more developed and stable societies depend on persuasion, seldom using their theoretical monopoly or the use of violence as a political instrument. The politics of persuasion, however, requires a great deal of hard work. One has to constantly listen to any Tom, Dick and Harry. A great deal of time is spent on election campaigns with the inevitable rounds of hugging grandmas and kissing babies.
Politics of persuasion helps create an atmosphere of freedom and that, in turn, nurtures security. When coercion is the chief instrument of government there is little freedom and even less security.
This is what is happening in the Islamic Republic created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The wave of arrests launched against journalists, academics, and human rights activists is fomenting an unprecedented sense of insecurity.
“Today, no one feels secure,” says Abdullah Nuri, a mullah and a former Minister of the Interior who also served as Khomeini’s Special representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Nuri, was speaking about the raids carried out at night on the homes of two of the daughters of former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi. The two ladies were held for several days while their homes were ransacked by security men looking for “anti-state material.” Needless to say, Mousavi has been under house arrest for the past two years along with his wife Zahra.
Nuri knows what he is talking about. He spent five years in prison on charges of “undermining national security” because he criticized certain aspects of government policy in the 1990s.
Using insecurity as a weapon of intimidation, the regime has tried to silence other actual or potential critics. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has been forced to make a deal under which he would say nice things about “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. In exchange, Rafsanjani’s son, Mehdi, was released from prison on bail pending his trial on charges of anti-state activities. Rafsanjani’s daughter Fa’ezeh remains in prison on similar charges.
Another former president, Muhammad Khatami, also a mullah, has been silenced by having his passport withdrawn, becoming a virtual hostage in Iran.
Insecurity could affect anyone. Khamenei has had to cancel two provincial visits after warnings that he might face angry crowds. For his part President Ahmadinejad has also dropped a long-advertised visit to the southern provinces because of similar concerns.
The fear is not theoretical. Last month a number of regime grandees had to stop making speeches when they faced angry crowds. In Qom, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament, was whisked to safety by his bodyguards as protestors tried to drown out his speech. Larijani’s predecessor as Majlis Speaker, Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, yet another mullah, cancelled a speech in Mash’had after his bodyguards told him he might be molested by protestors. A third mullah, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the regime’s founder, had a similar experience, fleeing from an angry crowd.
All those incidents happened during the traditional 10-day celebration of Khomeini’s seizure of power in 1979.
But who were the protestors who tried to disturb the revolutionary festivities?
Because the protests affected members of all rival factions within the Khomeinist elite, one may conclude that the target was the regime as a whole. There is no doubt that economic meltdown, the spectacle of Khomeinist infighting and fears about the future have generated a great deal of anger across the nation.
However, it is also possible that the intimidation tactics that forced regime grandees to run for cover may have been the work of rival factions. Larijani’s friends claim that his humiliation in Qom, of which he is the Majlis member, was the work of Ahmadinejad’s faction. Ahmadinejad blames his decision to cancel provincial trips on Larijani’s scheme to take revenge against him by sending a rent-a-mob to disturb presidential rallies.
Regardless of which faction they belong to, leading members of the Khomeinist elite have developed what one might call the Ceausescu syndrome.
Nicolae Ceausescu was Romania’s seemingly eternal Communist ruler until 1989 when he was booed out of office and out of history by an angry crowd in Bucharest. In one of those ironies of history, Ceausescu met his end just 48 hours after returning from a visit to Tehran where he had concluded a “strategic partnership” with the Khomeinist regime. We now know that the angry crowd that revealed the nakedness of the emperor had been organized by Ceausescu’s rivals within the Communist hierarchy. Those rivals had hoped to drive the old dictator out while preserving the regime for themselves.
More recently, we have witnessed a new version of the syndrome in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt where the old weapon of insecurity, used for years against critics and opponents, turned against the despots in place.
In the final analysis, in a system based on insecurity no one is secure. The same crowd that hailed the despot on his triumphal march could boo him out with a vengeance.