As the Iranian regime deals with yet another round of U.N. sanctions, it arguably has a much bigger problem on its hands than the actions of the Security Council. This weekend marks the first anniversary of the disputed elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and, despite outward signs of defiance, the Iranian government is preparing for what it fears may be the resurrection of the Green Movement.
The truth is that the Green Movement was never actually dead. On the contrary, the broad coalition of young people, merchants, intellectuals, and religious leaders that took to the streets to protest the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a year ago this week has been spectacularly successful in achieving the one goal that they all had common: the de-legitimization of the Iranian regime. Put simply, the Green Movement, through its blood and sacrifice, has convinced almost all Iranians, regardless of their piety or their politics, that the Islamic Republic in its current iteration is neither Islamic nor a republic.
The Iran that rises out of the ashes of the uprising will be unlike the Iran we know today, and for that we can thank the Green Movement, not another round of useless sanctions.
The Iranian regime bases its legitimacy on two fundamental pillars. The first is its self-ascribed role as the locus of Islamic morality. This has long been a persuasive argument for its supreme authority, particularly among the “pious masses,” the large, mostly rural, working-class Iranians who look to the state to provide moral guidance. It is this pillar that has been most severely damaged as a result of the post-election demonstrations.
• Geoffrey Robertson: Iran’s Hero Was a War Criminal The brutality with which the regime cracked down on protesters—the beatings and murder of unarmed children on the streets, the rape and torture in Iran’s sadistic prisons, the public attacks against some of the country’s most senior religious figures—are certainly not new events in Iran. However, unlike in previous uprisings over the last decade (and there have been many), these actions were broadcast all across the country. Through satellite television, the Internet, and sheer word of mouth, almost every Iranian was able to keep up with the daily deluge of images that poured out the country.
But perhaps the biggest crack in the façade of Islamic morality came not from any actions by the Green Movement, but through the militarization of Iranian politics. Iran analysts have for years been warning about the country’s slow drift toward military dictatorship. But the chaotic aftermath of the elections, and the resulting usurpation of the nation’s police force by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (something Iranian law expressly forbids), have formalized the transfer. Today, the Revolutionary Guard controls almost all levers of Iran’s government and, through its subsidiaries in the oil, natural gas, and telecommunications industry, nearly a third of Iran’s annual budget.
What’s more, Ahmadinejad, himself a former member of the Revolutionary Guard, has been steadily distancing himself from the mullahs who used to run the country. His cabinet has ceased attending meetings of the Expediency Council, whose members represent the interests of the clerical elite. Earlier this year, Ahmadinejad told a Persian-language newspaper that in his opinion, “administering the country should not be left to the [supreme] leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics].”
The regime’s religious credentials are even being questioned by some of the most senior religious figures and institutions in Iran. The Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who before his death this year was Iran’s highest religious authority (the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the country’s highest political, not religious, authority), issued a fatwa calling the government illegitimate. Even the hardline conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who has been one of Ahmadinejad’s most vocal supporters, has been critical of the government. Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the religious establishment has been so strained that some of the most prominent members of the powerful Assembly of Experts, the generally conservative religious body that chooses the supreme leader, boycotted his swearing-in ceremony—as did every single family member of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder.
From top to bottom, the patina of religious legitimacy that the state has thus far enjoyed has been scraped away, most significantly by a new crop of seminary students in Iran’s religious capitol, Qom. They are increasingly tempering their disappointment in the Islamic Republic with their excitement at the growing influence of the Najaf School, headed by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He represents a more traditional, apolitical interpretation of Shia Islam, and has been flooding Qom’s seminaries with his disciples. Najaf itself has also been admitting a steady stream of students eager to study a version of Shia theology un-tinged by the political theology of Khomeini.
I can think of no greater symbol for the deterioration of Iran’s unique religio-political ideology than the open calls for death to the supreme leader. Such words would have been inconceivable a year ago, considering that the law forbids any kind of public criticism of the supreme leader. But they have become de rigueur in the Iran being carved out by the Green Movement.
The second pillar upon which the Islamic Republic bases its legitimacy is the will of the people. Despite its autocratic tendencies, the Iranian regime goes to great extremes to maintain popular sovereignty. That is why elections are taken so seriously in Iran (in a population of approximately 70 million people, more than 50 million voted in last year’s election).
Make no mistake, this is a regime that is deathly afraid of its population. After all, the Islamic Republic came into existence on the heels of a popular uprising. It knows better than anyone the power of the Iranian people, which is why it has thus far learned to bend (but not break) when confronted with the popular will of its citizens, whether on matters of the economy, gas prices, education, or whatever else Iranians happen to be protesting. It is precisely for this reason that charges of “dictatorship” and comparisons to the rule of the shah are taken so seriously. Indeed, there is no more potent criticism of the regime than to say it is “acting like the shah.” Yet explicit comparisons of the current regime to the reviled dictatorship of the shah have become commonplace in post-election Iran, not just by the opposition but by some of Iran’s most reliably conservative politicians, including the speaker of parliament and the current adviser to the supreme leader.
Years from now, when the story of Iran is written, it will be the crumbling of these two pillars of legitimacy that will be seen as the most lasting legacy of the men and women who took to the streets last year in defiance of the regime. It is, of course, too early to know what will be the consequences of the success of the Green Movement. What cannot be denied, however, is that Iran is on the verge of the most significant social movement it has experienced in three decades. Whether for good or for bad, the Iran that ultimately rises out of the ashes of last summer’s uprising will be unlike the Iran we know today, and for that we can thank the Green Movement, not another round of useless sanctions.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.