Monday, October 17, 2011

Happenings in Iran

As I've noted in earlier postings (and we're going all the way back to 2009), Iran has the capacity to be the lynchpin of democracy in the Muslim world, but like a lot of developing countries, it is currently stuck with an entrenched authoritarian regime that has no intention of giving up power.  Not surprisingly, its responded to internal pressure for democratic reforms through the usual methods - mass detention, torture, rape (seriously, the regime will gang rape prisoners, male and female, as a method of humiliation), propaganda, terrorism, etc.  But, despite that depressing news (and the fact that such horrific crimes are par for the course in authoritarian regimes), there are a few things popping up that could be hopeful.

For one, there is an interesting struggle between Iran's Supreme Leader, and just about everyone else.  Now, in the days after the overthrow of the Shah (dictator/self-styled king), nobody wanted a Shah-type figure, but were interested in creating a sort of constitutional monarchy.  Instead of a king born into power, a group of Islamic scholars would pick the best Islamic scholar amongst them to sit as the "Supreme Leader," but the Supreme Leader wouldn't have all the power, and there would be a Parliament and a President, elected by the people, and who had control over the everyday affairs of the people.  That way, the regime was supposed to be both democratic, and Islamic.

Now, this model could work if the guy who holds the position of Supreme Leader isn't that active and allows the elected officials to govern with impunity, and maybe makes a statement once in a while about divorce, or some other issue.  But, of course, the kind of people who'd be interested in the job of Supreme Leader aren't going to be the passive kind.  Instead, the two Supreme Leaders in Iran's history, Khomenei and Khamenei, have been very active.  In particular, Khamenei has been very active, and wants to turn his son to take power when he dies (Khomenei's family, apparently, was hit by hard times after his death, and Khamenei wants to avoid that fate).  To do that, he needs a patsy as President, who'll do whatever he says, and distract everyone.  Enter Ahmadinejad. 

Of course, Ahmadinejad doesn't know how to govern, and has managed a screw up of epic proportions: Iran has a crappy economy despite the fact that its an oil producing country and that oil prices have doubled over the past ten years.  The Iranians know this, and tried to elect someone else in the last election.  But then Khamenei would lose his patsy, and so the Supreme Leader fixed the election.  But, even Ahmadinejad knows he's a patsy, and wants to start asserting himself.  Bad idea.  His closest advisor is now being prosecuted for witchcraft or something, and its expected that Ahmadinejad won't last his term.

Moreover, the Supreme Leader has recently floated the idea of getting rid of the presidency altogether, which is VERY interesting.  As I said earlier, the presidency of Iran is all about the diffusion (or the appearance of diffusion) of power, to avoid a Shah-type situation.  It also creates the impression of democracy in an otherwise authoritarian regime - its window-dressing, but important window-dressing.  The economy sucks? Its the President's fault.  Goons raped your daughter? Its the President's fault. The office creates a go-to fall guy.  Getting rid of the office of president will only piss people off. 

So why do it? Probably because the President does have some power that could be used against the Supreme Leader.  After all, a even a hand-picked President could rally the people against the Supreme Leader if he (and its always a he) was ambitious enough. My guess is that this is exactly what the Supreme Leader is scared of, meaning he's feeling the heat. Expect more uncertainty and instability from Iran in the next few years.

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