Edward Luttwak: Iran's Regime Will Never Be the Same





[Mr. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace" (Belknap, 2002).]

At this point, only the short-term future of Iran's clerical regime remains in doubt. The current protests could be repressed, but the unelected institutions of priestly rule have been fatally undermined. Though each aspect of the Islamic Republic has its own dynamic, this is not a regime that can last many more years.

When it comes to repression, Iran has a spectrum of security instruments that can be used synergistically. The national police can take care of routine crowd control; riot-police units can beat some demonstrators in order to discourage others; the much more brutal, underclass Basij militiamen enjoy striking and shooting affluent Iranians; and the technical arm of the regime can block cellular service to disrupt demonstrations, as well as stall Internet services.

If the protests were to seriously escalate, the Revolutionary Guard troops with their armored vehicles might also be called in, though at some risk to the regime, given that reformist presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai was their longtime commander. The alternative -- calling in the regular army -- would be much more risky since the loyalty of the generals is unknown. So far the regime has required neither.

What has undermined the very structure of the Islamic Republic is the fracturing of its ruling elite. It was the unity established by Ayatollah Khomeini that allowed the regime to dominate the Iranian people for almost 30 years. Now that unity has been shattered: The very people who created the institutions of priestly rule are destroying their authority.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leading rival for the presidency, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was prime minister from 1981-89 when the Islamic Republic acquired its administrative structure, including its unelected head, the supreme leader. Though the supreme leader must be obeyed in all things, Mr. Mousavi now flatly rejects the orders of Ali Khamenei to accept Ahmadinejad's re-election. In this, Mr. Mousavi is joined by another presidential candidate, former parliament speaker and pillar of the establishment Mehdi Karroubi, and a yet more senior founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. President from 1989-97, Mr. Rafsanjani is also chairman of the Assembly of Experts, whose 86 members choose the supreme leader and can ostensibly remove him.

During the campaign, Ahmadinejad accused Mr. Rafsanjani and his children of corruption on live television. So if Ahmadinejad's re-election is to be "definitive" and even "divine," as Supreme Leader Khamenei has declared, Mr. Rafsanjani would have to resign from all his posts and his children would have to leave Iran. Instead, he is reportedly trying to recruit a majority of the Assembly of Experts to remove Khamenei, or at least force him to order new elections.

The other key undemocratic institution of the Islamic Republic, founded in part by Messrs. Mousavi and Rafsanjani, is the 12-member Council of Guardians that can veto any laws passed by the elected parliament and any candidate for the parliament or the presidency. In recent years, the Council has persistently sided with extremists and Ahmadinejad, using its veto powers aggressively. Supreme Leader Khamenei logically chose the Council to deal with the election dispute.

Last week, the Council of Guardians announced that it might recount 10% of the ballots and summoned Messrs. Mousavi, Karroubi and Rezai. All three rejected the recount offer, and only Mr. Rezai showed up before the Council. Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi simply refused to appear, explicitly denying the Council's authority as well as that of the supreme leader.

This is highly significant. Were it not for the office of the supreme leader and the Council, Iran would be a normal democratic republic.

In theory, if Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the extremists of the Council of Guardians were all replaced by consensus figures, the Islamic Republic could continue as before. But in practice, that is impossible. Huge numbers of Iranians haven't been demonstrating at risk of beatings and worse for the uncharismatic and only marginally moderate Mr. Mousavi. His courage under pressure has certainly raised his popularity, but he is still no more than the accidental symbol of an emerging political revolution.

What's clear is that after years of humiliating social repression and gross economic mismanagement, the more educated and the more productive citizens of Iran have mostly turned their backs on the regime. Even if personally religious, they now reject the entire post-1979 structure of politicized Shiite Islam with its powerful ayatollahs, officious priests, strutting Revolutionary Guards and low-life Basij militiamen. Many Iranians once inclined to respect clerics now view them as generally corrupt -- including the Ahmadinejad supporters who applauded his attacks on Mr. Rafsanjani...



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