The Magazine

The Struggle for Iran

The Islamic Republic is alive but not well

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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All the opposition must do is keep challenging the authority of Khamenei. This will let Iranians know that the regime isn’t omnipotent. And it will keep alive the possibility that the country’s collective embitterment about the failure of the Islamic revolution to provide prosperity and happiness could explode. A big difference between a Marxist totalitarian system spiritually running out of gas and an Islamic theocracy withering is that faithful Muslims maintain a less forgiving standard of measure: the Holy Law and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and, in the case of Shiite Iranians, the traditions of Ali, the fountainhead of the Shiite creed. Unlike Marxists, Iran’s Islamic rulers cannot just completely make it up as they go along. Although it sounds odd to Westerners, religion does not always play to the advantage of Iran’s avowedly religious government. Faithful Muslims have a deeply held sense of justice—the justice that God promises every believer through the Law. Although Western observers of Iran have a strong tendency to believe that religion has become a contrivance for the powerful, this is wrong. 

Certainly, there are members of the Iranian ruling elite who “know not God.” Yet both rulers and ruled are generally men of faith. Marxism had collapsed into utter cynicism by the 1980s. It had earth-bound standards of achievement; it failed them, but Marxists could suppress with gusto any sign of discontent. Man-made morality is infinitely flexible. Iran’s theocrats—and even their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guard Corps—claim to be operating on a higher level. Their regular disregard of the Holy Law can deeply anger the religious (let alone the millions of secular Iranians who now live more or less by Western norms). This is why the regime loathed the recently deceased Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who passionately denied the regime religious legitimacy. The more Iran becomes like a classic police state, the more the regime’s religious base cracks. Even the instruments of oppression—the faithful Guard Corps and the Basij—could have debilitating doubts. In Iran, the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun must contend with long-established Shiite Islamic ethics, which checks totalitarianism and gives the opposition, even the godless Westernized wing, some maneuvering room. 

This is why the revolutionary regime has always lived in fear of the unexpected spark, something that would set in motion a tidal wave of disappointment. Historically, Muslims have regularly risen up because of a burning sense of justice denied. Former prime minister Mousavi, a passionate lover of the Islamic revolution, has this sense in spades. It’s a good guess that the regime now sees the potential for sparks in many more places than it did before the fraudulent June 12 elections. The opposition certainly intends to play on this fear. Despite its success in squelching street demonstrations on February 11, the regime remains in a precarious state. It can use brute force to stay in power, but each time it threatens the use of force it risks making a fatal mistake. Iranian culture is martyr-obsessed. If the wrong person gets killed, it could galvanize the opposition. On February 11, the regime deployed overwhelming force and didn’t have to—so far as we know—kill anyone. This was ideal. But if the opposition takes to the streets again, in large numbers or with greater audacity, a deadly collision may be unavoidable. 

So far the regime has been lucky in a Shiite way: No really charismatic personality has taken center stage within the opposition. Former prime minister Mousavi is a stubborn and brave man, and he is not without friends inside the Revolutionary Guard. But he does not capture the imagination. And although Karroubi is a live wire capable of scathing criticism of the ruling elite, he, like former president Khatami, always gives the impression that he wishes the post-June 12 tumult had never happened. He has no compelling vision of the future. Khatami, however, does. Alone among the opposition’s VIPs, Khatami could probably play the role of an Iranian James Madison, sketching out a practicable vision of a new republic. But Khatami is conflicted. He remains respectful of Khamenei and the ruling clerics even though he often gives the impression that he hates both. And his fan club has shrunk appreciably since 1997 when he captured 69 percent of the presidential vote. 

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