In Iran, a Struggle Beyond the Streets
CAIRO - 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.
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.
Among the Iranian president's allies are those who question whether the nation needs elected institutions at all.
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.
According to Iranian news reports, only two of the most senior clerics have congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad on his re-election, which amounts to a public rebuke in a state based on religion. A conservative prayer leader in the holy city of Qum, Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, referred to demonstrators as "people" instead of rioters, and a hard-line cleric, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, called for national reconciliation.
Some of Iran's most influential grand ayatollahs, clerics at the very top of the Shiite faith's hierarchy who have become identified with the reformists, have condemned the results as a fraud and the government's handling of the protests as brutal. On Saturday, an influential Qum-based clerical association called the new government illegitimate.
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.
"In the short term, the dictatorial aspect of the regime is going to have the upper hand," said Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who has a network of contacts in Iran to keep him up to date. "If there is a next election, I don't believe a lot of people will vote, simply because they don't trust the system. But at the same time, this reinforced the reform movement and democratic movement, which already existed, and really made them stronger, in my view, in the long term."
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.
This trend toward a less democratic, less republican state was the reason several analysts said that Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister who worked beside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, emerged from retirement to run for president.
As the conflict has escalated, and Mr. Moussavi has refused to back down, he has warned that if the charges of fraud are not resolved credibly, the ideological underpinning of the state will be damaged and Iran's enemies will be proved right.
"If the large volume of cheating and vote rigging, which has set fire to the hay of people's anger, is expressed as the evidence of fairness, the republican nature of the state will be killed and, in practice, the ideology that Islam and republicanism are incompatible will be proven," wrote Mr. Moussavi in a letter calling for a new vote after the election.
But victory for the hard-liners, for Ayatollah Yazdi's vision of a state run exclusively by a clerical elite, is both ascendant and at the same time undermined by events. In immediate terms, many analysts say, Ayatollah Khamenei has compromised his divinely inspired authority by openly taking sides - a move that is in conflict with the legal, religious and customary role of the leader as a neutral arbiter of events. In essence, he has become just another politician, albeit the most powerful one.
"He has started kicking the ball on the side of one team, so that the system cannot be the same anymore," said a political analyst with years of experience in Iran who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
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.
From the start, there were intense disagreements over how this idea should work. Those conflicts, though, were muted partly by Ayatollah Khomeini's exalted status, and by a unity forged by an eight-year war with Iraq. When the war ended and Ayatollah Khomeini died, the conflicts erupted. On one side, many clerics once close to Ayatollah Khomeini, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, wanted to emphasize the republican aspect of the state without eliminating the special role of the supreme leader. Mohammad Khatami, a midlevel cleric, was elected president on a reform platform.
But Mr. Khatami's ability to carry out his policies was blocked by hard-liners who saw his vision of Iran as a threat to their interests. Then in 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad's election ended the Khatami era. Indeed, in what Iranians saw as a telling gesture, Mr. Ahmadinejad kissed the hand of Ayatollah Khamenei after he was elected. Mr. Ahmadinejad was first elected in a race also shadowed by charges of vote rigging, which were dropped in the name of national unity.
"The events of the June 2009 elections in Iran have largely stripped the Islamic republic of Iran of its republican claim and completed the process that was initiated by the presidential elections of 2005," said Rasool Nafisi, a professor at Strayer University who follows events in Iran.
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.