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Iran’s Long Slide Back To Absolute Rule

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blocked reform efforts and protected a corrupt state sector.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blocked reform efforts and protected a corrupt state sector.
Revolutionaries often end up adopting the habits and methods of those they once opposed.

It did not take long for the Bolsheviks to welcome former agents of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, and use them and their tactics against the Communist Party's political foes. By the 1930s, a system of intimidation had been formed in the Soviet Union that made the Tsarist period look benign in comparison.

Even in democracies, those who oppose the policies of the ruling party often adopt many of them once they themselves gain power.

Since the Iranian presidential election on June 12 -- which, according to the government, secured a second term for President Mahmud Ahmadinejad --Iran has seen a spike in public protest that has few precedents since the 1979 movement that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Although this has been ascribed to reformist impulses, the bulk of the protesters are loyal to Iran’s post-1979 system, which replaced the monarchy with a religious state run by a single cleric, the supreme leader, whose personal power is at least as extensive as that exercised by the shah.

The military, the security system, the judiciary, and all other significant elements of the machinery of governance pledged obedience to Khomeini as the supreme leader, and he very soon reduced the presidents and prime ministers of Iran to a subordinate status. Those who resisted, including Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of Iran (elected, according to the records, with a mandate from 75 percent of the voters) were removed. Khomeini introduced not just a veto, but full supervision over the decision-making process.

Despite his absolute power, Khomeini frequently went along with public opinion, even on matters as internationally destabilizing as the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by youthful zealots on November 4, 1979. The Khomeinists’ refusal to abide by international norms and free the U.S. Embassy hostages created an international perception that Iran's ruling group was reckless, a view that has harmed Tehran’s international standing.

The sanctions that followed the embassy takeover have damaged the country's economy, making it dependent on outside sources even for refined petroleum products. They have also made it much more difficult for Iranian industry to gain access to international markets or to get optimal commercial terms for finance and other services.

Even the war with Iraq was not sufficient cause for Khomeini to seek a better relationship with the developed world, and Iran has continued with a policy of opposition, especially toward the United States, that continues today.

The only major power with which Iran has good relations is China, which has -- as in other parts of the world -- been content to endorse the regime in office, irrespective of that regime's record on human rights or its support of groups that indulge in acts of mass violence against the populations of third countries.

Khamenei’s Gradual Rise

After Khomeini's death in 1989, his place as the absolute ruler of Iran was taken over by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who had served as president from 1981-89. Lacking Khomeini's charisma and theological gifts, the new supreme leader initially took a much less visible role, emerging only in 1997 to challenge the elected reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Khamenei shares billboard space with Ahmadinejad and Khomeini.
After his election in 1997, Khatami sought to enlarge the boundaries of personal freedom in Iran, especially for women, and forge a policy toward the United States and the European Union that stressed cooperation over confrontation.

Khamenei, however, ensured that Khatami's reforms were not carried out, either by getting them reversed by state bodies (including parliament) or by having the bureaucracy sabotage them. The latter was visible especially in foreign policy, where Khatami’s conciliatory rhetoric did not lead to any change in Iranian support for militant organizations in the region.

Despite this lack of progress, a desperate people -- eager for reform and for an end to international confrontation -- gave Khatami an even bigger mandate in 2001, with 78 percent of the vote.

This alarmed Khamenei, who began cultivating a group of hard-liners that included the mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei selected Ahmadinejad to run for president in 2005 against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was eager to dilute the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme leader.

In Iran’s 2004 parliamentary elections, Khamenei's followers succeeded in ensuring the result they sought. Conservatives and hardliners swept away the reformists to emerge as the overwhelming majority in the legislature. All that remained was the presidency, and this came into the hands of the Khamenei group the next year.

From then on, Khamenei worked to ensure that the powers of the supreme leader were as absolute as those once enjoyed by the shah of Iran. The new president declined to follow Rafsanjani and Khatami in seeking policies different from those favored by the conservatives around the supreme leader. Instead, he gave public voice to policies favored by Khamenei, especially in foreign affairs.

And Khamenei did not fail to reward this support. In the June 12 presidential election, Ahmadinejad's victory was a foregone conclusion, despite widespread dissatisfaction with his administration, and the widespread popularity of his main rival, Mir Hossein Musavi. The supreme leader was unwilling to take a chance with Musavi, who was far too close to Rafsanjani and Khatami to be allowed to win.

Return To Dictatorship

Today, Iran has once again come under an absolute monarchy -- the difference being that this time, a cleric has control, not a dynasty. As in the time of the shah, arrests and intimidation are commonplace, and critics are silenced, often with the loss of their liberty.

Clearly, in Khamenei's system, as during the time of the shah, there is only one vote that counts.

Iran has developed a gargantuan state sector, run by oligarchs in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The majority of these enterprises, most of which are monopolies, have become corrupt and inefficient, so that the delivery of services and commodities to consumers in Iran has been severely hampered.

At the same time, the country's international isolation has restricted its development. Only substantial reforms of the economic superstructure of Iran can free the economy to grow and provide adequate jobs to the youthful population. Musavi understood this and was therefore a threat to the state oligarchs, whose champion is Khamenei.

The supreme leader has become the patron and protector of the network of state enterprises that are the source of patronage and private profit. Mixing the practical and the spiritual usually means a decline in the quality of both, and the involvement of the supreme leader in the economy has led to a decline in what may be termed the "inner religiosity" of the pro-Khamenei elements in the clergy. Many of these have abandoned the quest for theological wisdom under the intoxication of having effective power over enterprises and institutions with huge budgets.

Today, those within the clergy who give primacy to the spiritual over the temporal have become disenchanted with the supreme leader, although fear keeps almost all of them silent.

Was 1979 only intended to create a new shah of Iran? And can the new autocratic system work any better than the old?

The decline in living standards in Iran over the past three decades indicates that it cannot. Musavi is a loyal Khomeinist, who was close to the founder of the Islamic republic. Today, there is no longer any space for Khomeinists in Iran. The only way to protection, power, and wealth is to align oneself with Khamenei.

Over the past weeks, the Revolutionary Guards and the rest of Iran's substantial security services have been engaged in rounding up and confronting the followers of Khomeini. After years in the shadows, Khamenei has judged himself strong enough to take on even followers of the founder of the Islamic Republic.

However, because the system Ayatollah Khamenei protects is dysfunctional, and because of widespread public disaffection, the people of Iran are like tinder awaiting another spark. A people that could not be intimidated by the shah cannot be expected to remain supine for long in the face of the present incompetent and corrupt autocracy.

M. D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.