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Tiananmen In Tehran

By Michael Hirsh, Newsweek - June 16, 2009

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When I visited Iran two years ago this month, one thing was clear from my reporting: there was virtually no prospect that Iran's Islamic regime would collapse any time in the foreseeable future. A lot of people hated the clerics, but apart from a few dissident voices, the political opposition was all but gone. Well, it's baaack. And the consequences for the clerics are likely to be far more dire than the last time political ferment appeared in force, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami took office in the 1990s.

Prior to this election, the government led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the radical Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had adopted the rather savvy approach of letting people enjoy themselves a bit and, above all, make money so as to induce political apathy. Religious conservatives openly embraced the "China model," whereby the mandarins in Beijing managed to quash political dissent after Tiananmen Square by sublimating the impulse for a better life into a booming economy. In Iran, the unrest of the '90s was addressed with an analogous formula: Ahmadinejad and his "new right" kept most of the Khatami-era social reforms and focused most of their ire on political dissenters.

  Eyewitness Report From Bloody Iran Protest Maziar Bahari

Tens of thousands march peacefully in Iran. But in the end, at least one man died a violent death.

Now, thanks to overreaching by Khamenei and his hardline allies, who apparently sought to secure their power with an electoral coup d'etat, even that approach must be called into question. While the legitimacy of the Islamic regime is still widely accepted, Khamenei's position atop Iranian society was never as certain as it was deemed to be in the West. The Supreme Leader's clear misreading of the situation"”his initial embrace of the election results as a "divine" victory for Ahmadinejad followed by a jittery call for an investigation into the vote"”has amply demonstrated his fallibility. Key figures like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, have dared to question Khamenei's judgment, an act considered an unbreachable "red line" in the past.

And now the extraordinary uprising in the streets will undoubtedly embolden the whisperers who for years in back rooms have derided Khamenei as an inadequate and faltering heir to the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And here is the key point: If Khamenei goes, there may be no Supreme Leader to follow him. Such is the factionalism among the clerics that no candidate seems to possess sufficient prestige"”at least, that is what I heard when I was there. Given the broad questioning of state legitimacy that is taking place now in the streets, this could all plant the seeds of future democratic transition from mullah rule. I say "could" because we are a long way from that.

For an autocratic police state, the Iranian power structure is uniquely pluralistic. It is governed by system of clerical checks and balances that leaves no figure, even Khamenei, with unquestioned authority. Rafsanjani, for example, is head of the Assembly of Experts, a council of senior clerics that at least theoretically has the power to remove Khamenei if he is judged unqualified to serve (highly unlikely, even now, given that Khamenei has stocked the assembly with allies). When I visited the religious city of Qom, where Khomeini got his start, I interviewed a few dissident clerics. One of that group, Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, urged me to write critically about the Guardian Council, which has the power to vet presidential candidates and has now called for at least a partial recount of Sunday's vote results.

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