The Poor Ayatollah: Questions of Legitimacy in the Iranian Conflict

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeing the opportunity, grabbed a very angry tiger by the tail.  His support of current President Ahmadinejad, and his dire warnings against further protests exacerbates the problem of political legitimacy in Iran.  As the leader of Iran, Khamenei had to make a stand.  He had three main choices: concede, conciliate or crush.  It looks like he is choosing crush. His speech made clear that he will support the incumbent president (regardless of the fact that he’s a whackjob) and will unleash a bloodbath against those who contradict his wishes.

I can’t speak as to Khamenei’s motivations for making the “crush” decision.  As a Grand Ayatollah he is a top expert in Islamic law and expected to apply Sharia to every day life.  Since I’m not an expert in any sense with regard to Sharia it may well be that his support for Ahmadinejad is consistent with his position and title.  I do, however, know a thing or two about politics in general as well as the dissemination of power in a society.  Power seems to be a strong motivating factor. Khamenei’s stance seems inspired more by Machiavelli than Mohammad.  If so, he should understand that the Italian political philosopher is not the final say in politics.

Legitimacy is crucial in running a country.  Brutal force does not carry the day in the long run.  Those who make the nation work, the shop keepers and day laborers and teachers and soldiers must recognize those in power as having a legitimate claim to that power.  It is obvious that the legitimacy of the power structure of Iran is in dire straights.  Though it’s clear that Ahmadinejad has a broad following, his presence at the top of the domestic power structure is polarizing.  In essence, his presence, and to be fair, the presence of his key rival Moussavi, are dividing the Iranian house.  By embracing the status quo, Khamenei may be derailing the legitimacy of his government in the eyes of the people.  Resorting to violence may quell the protests, but will not re-establish lost legitimacy.  It will only fuel resentment on the part of the electorate.

But there’s an added dimension to this that is not getting much press.  Iran is a theocracy.  It is supposed to be run according to Sharia.  The ultimate representative of Sharia in Iran is the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei.  Since there is no separation between “church” and state in Iran, that which destroys the legitimacy of the state institution may also destabilize the religious institution.

Religious institutions, especially those as cohesive as Shi’a Islam, have a great ace up their sleeve.  The legitamacy of religious institutions are vouched by God, or Allah.  But that lends one to ask, could Allah have stirred up such a hornet’s nest? For any institution there are dissidents who question the status quo.  All it takes is a widespread issue, such as a contested election, to reduce the legitimacy of the power elite and increase the legitimacy of the dissidents.  This could, ultimately lead to a paradigm shift.  Could Iran, and ultimately Shi’a institutions, be facing such a paradigm shifting crisis? We shall see.

The policies of Grand Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, resorting to blunt threats of violence, is unlikely to squash the seeds of dissent that could shift the ideological make-up of the country, and perhaps the region.

In a related matter: Kudos to President Obama for refusing to stir this particular stink.  Let’s let the people decide the direction of their own nation. What a concept!


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