Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iran's Embattled Supreme Leader: A Test for Khamenei

Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009
By Robin Wright

The fate of Iran's Islamic revolution now rests in the hands of an enigmatic cleric who is little understood at home, let alone by the outside world. For the past 20 years, pictures of Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, with his oversize glasses, black turban and untrimmed white beard, have adorned shops, government offices and living-room walls throughout Iran. His modest childhood home in Mashhad has become a virtual shrine, his edicts are binding and his powers absolute.

Yet protesters forced from the streets this week have taken to shouting "Death to the dictator" and "Death to Khamenei" from their rooftops. Endowed with the infallible powers of a political pope, Iran's leader has suddenly discovered that his authority has also made him vulnerable.

Since June 19, Khamenei's controversial decision to dismiss all allegations of vote rigging and throw his weight behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has produced the most serious challenge to his rule — and ultimately to the very concept of a Supreme Leader — since the 1979 revolution. Protesters have spurned his claim that foreign powers are behind the demonstrations, while opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi continues to demand that the disputed election be annulled.

Khamenei once again warned on June 24 that "neither the establishment nor the nation will yield to pressure at any cost." Demonstrations have abated under the unprecedented show of force by riot police and the paramilitary Basij vigilantes, but amid signs that the cost is a growing crisis of confidence in the Supreme Leader. (See pictures of the Iranian election and its turbulent aftermath.)

Despite his powers to overturn parliamentary laws, judicial decisions or presidential decrees, Khamenei has never been a very public figure, either as President between 1981 and 1989 or as Supreme Leader since then.

"There is perhaps no leader in the world more important to current world affairs but less known and understood than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," writes Karim Sadjadpour in Reading Khamenei, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Neither a dictator nor a democrat — but with traits of both — Khamenei is the single most important individual in a highly factionalized, autocratic regime."(See pictures of people protesting Iran's election around the world.)

Khamenei first emerged in politics as the Islamic republic's third President in 1981, during a period of violent political turmoil that saw a President, a Prime Minister, 10 Cabinet officials and 27 members of parliament killed in massive bomb attacks. He was among the victims. He has walked with a cane, his right hand dangling uselessly at his side, ever since a small bomb inside a tape recorder went off as he was giving a Friday prayer sermon in 1981. He depends on aides or family to cut up his food.

Khamenei's election marked the consolidation of clerical control over the state. Revolutionary leader Imam Khomeini originally banned the clergy from running for the presidency, but as he lost confidence in squabbling technocrats, he urged his protégé to run for office. The result was Iran's first "government of God." Tensions with Mousavi, who at the time held the more powerful position, of Prime Minister, date back to this period. Throughout the 1980s, Khamenei and Mousavi clashed repeatedly on key political and economic issues.

It was also during those early years that Iran's political spectrum began to take shape. At one end were ideologues like Khamenei, who wanted Iran to play the role of a revolutionary "redeemer state," championing the cause of the world's downtrodden, pursuing Islamic political rule throughout the Muslim world and creating a new Islamic geopolitical bloc capable of challenging both East and West.

At the other end were realists and leftists, like Mousavi, who favored institutionalizing the revolution and creating a model Islamic government. Although they supported an Islamist political system and social order as well as independence from the great powers, they also called for a pragmatic foreign policy. The difference boiled down to whether the Islamic republic's top priority was the revolution or the state. That debate remains at the heart of the current crisis.
See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.

Khamenei became Iran's second Supreme Leader after Imam Khomeini died in 1989. As a midlevel cleric with little theological standing among his peers, he was in many ways an unlikely choice. Because he inherited the Imam's political powers but little of the religious authority, Khamenei tried to compensate by forging alliances with the security establishment, particularly among the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. That relationship has been central to the attempts to put down the uprising since June 20.

Khamenei has also exerted his influence on Iranian society through thousands of fatwas aimed at regulating everyday life. Although he is widely reported to like poetry and play an instrument, Khamenei ruled that music can cause deviant behavior and moral corruption among the young. Foreign news, he ruled, should be outlawed if it in any way "lessens trust in Islamic government," while he deemed neckties part of a "cultural assault" on Muslims. When riding bicycles or motorcycles, Khamenei ruled, women must avoid actions that lead to the wrong kind of attention. He sanctioned clapping on "joyful occasions" but forbade it where religion is involved. Nose piercings, while not forbidden, would have to be covered. (See pictures of the lasting influence of Ayatullah Khameini.)

Some of Khamenei's micromanaging of the everyday was very practical: he condoned oral contraception for women and vasectomies for men to help bring down Iran's high birthrate. And he allowed stem-cell research and cloning, which led to the birth of Iran's first cloned sheep in 2006.

The Supreme Leader's traditional role has been to balance rival factions. Having aligned himself so closely with one political faction in a fiercely contested election, however, Khamenei's greatest challenge may now also come from some of his fellow clerics who have long questioned both the principle of a Supreme Leader as well as the role for the clergy in government.

In the current crisis, most of the senior Ayatullahs in the theological city of Qum have refrained from either endorsing Ahmadinejad's re-election or publicly supporting Khamenei's handling of the crisis. The diversity of opinion among Iran's clerics is reflected in Khamenei's younger brother Hadi, a cleric and former member of parliament who has long advocated cutting back the powers of the Supreme Leader. (See pictures of Ahmadinejad's supporters on

"The most important thing we're looking for today in Iran is the rule of law," Hadi Khamenei said in 1999. "And that means no one, whatever his position, is above it. Unfortunately for the rest of us, there are still people at the top who don't accept that basic right."

Despite the challenge to his rule, Khamenei appears prepared to take an increasingly tough stand, leaving little room for retreat or political compromise and forcing him to rely even more heavily on both hard-line allies and Iran's security forces. The outcome of Iran's crisis is likely to affect his political standing as well as whoever ends up as President.
See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lessons for the U.S. As Iran Unravels

By Robin Wright

Monday, Jun. 22, 2009

Who would have thought that Iran, a country that has been the nemesis of the past five American Presidents, might actually become a model for what Washington wants to see happen politically in the Middle East?

Who would have thought that a Berlin Wall moment for the region might happen in the strict Islamic republic, where a revolution 30 years ago unleashed Islam as a modern political idiom and extremism as a tool to confront the West? (See pictures of violence used as intimidation in Iran.)

Unlikely as it seems, the rise of a popular movement relying on civil disobedience to confront authoritarian rule — in the last bloc of countries to hold out against the tide of change that has swept the rest of the world over the past quarter century — is almost a diplomatic dream for the Obama Administration.

I’m not talking about the regime's obstinate reaction or the brutality it unleashed on the streets of Tehran this past weekend. Even in his terse comments since the beginning of the electoral chaos in Iran, Barack Obama has made it clear the violence upsets him greatly. But in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4, Obama spoke about the same principles that just eight days later galvanized millions of people throughout Iran to take to the streets.

"All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," Obama said. (Read "Dennis Ross, Iran Adviser, Moves to White House.")

With what now looks like uncanny prescience, he added, "There is no straight line to realize this promise ... Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."

Yet in the midst of a debate over the U.S. role in Iran — recent past, present and future — Washington can take almost no credit for what is happening. The $400 million allocated by the Bush Administration for intelligence operations and the $75 million the State Department budgeted to promote democracy in Iran had little if any impact in changing the regime's ways or empowering Iranians. Many Iranian NGOs even publicly said they did not want, need or dare to be tainted by U.S. financial assistance.

This is a revolution that has been unraveling steadily over decades, beginning in its early years. Indeed, Iran's social transformation — educating, energizing and empowering a stronger and more demanding society, part of which has now turned on the regime — may offer Washington important lessons about what does lead to change in the Islamic world.

The symbol of Iran's uprising is a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan, reportedly a philosophy student whose death during the first clashes on June 20 was gruesomely captured on an already famous cell-phone video sent round the world on YouTube. A new generation of feisty women has been at the forefront of the protests. And the female factor is at the heart of Iran's reform movement. See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

But the ruling clerics probably did not understand how it happened until it was too late. During the monarchy, many traditional families were reluctant to send their girls beyond elementary school — or to school at all — for fear of exposure to miniskirts, makeup and westernizing ways during the Shah's rapid modernization programs.

But after the 1979 upheaval, traditional families began sending girls to school — and beyond. Today, the majority of university students in Iran are female — at Tehran University, they make up 65% of the student population — and they have places in virtually every profession. Iran has even had a female Vice President. And women want a bigger say still. (See pictures of people protesting the Iran election around the world.)

The other engine of change is the boomeranging of a policy by the revolutionary regime that in 1979 called on Iran's women to breed an Islamic generation. They complied. Within a decade, Iran's population almost doubled, from 34 million to 62 million.

The theocracy soon realized that it did not have the resources to feed, educate, provide social services for and eventually employ twice the population — and the next generation of children that it in turn would produce. It was the moment the government of God plummeted to earth — because all those young people would also have the vote.

As Iran's baby boomers have grown up, the government has gradually raised the voting age – from 15 to 16, and more recently to 18. Otherwise, the young would be the only sector of society that really counts in an election. Both better educated and savvier about the world, in large part because of access to technology, many young Iranians want something more than what the system has been willing to provide — politically, economically and socially. (Read "White House on Iran Election: A Diplomatic Plus.")

In an attempt to slow the swelling demographics, in the early 1990s the regime introduced a sweeping family-planning program. It dispatched 35,000 women door-to-door to preach the benefits of limiting the number of children to two or less. It provided widespread and often free access to birth control — the Pill, condoms, IUDs, Norplant, tubal ligation and vasectomies — and made the U.N.'s World Population Day a time for clerics to preach the benefits of small families.

An innovative program also required couples to attend a graphically descriptive sex-education and family-planning class before they could get a marriage license. (I attended one class with several couples — and learned a lot.) Iran has brought down the size of the average family from more than seven children to closer to two, winning a U.N. award for family planning in the process.

The overall impact, however, of each of these issues and many others has been to shift the focus from rigid religious ideology to earthly realities, with solutions based on 21st century ideas like sustainable development — and, gradually, even shades of greater democracy.
See TIME's Pictures of the Week.
See TIME's Iran Covers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The evolution of Iran's revolution

The current confrontation is another phase of the country's century-long political journey. And this one, like the others, will bring lasting changes.
By Robin Wright
June 21, 2009
How ironic. A regime that came to power through a brutal revolution, in a country suspected of secretly developing a nuclear weapon, is now facing its biggest challenge from peaceful civil disobedience.

The largely silent street demonstrations by day and haunting chants echoing across rooftops by night are not -- so far -- a counterrevolution.That's not even their intention.

What they are doing, however, is forcing Iran's Islamic regime to face the same ideals that have swept across five continents over the last quarter of a century -- the supremacy of popular will, justice, accountability and the transparency of power.

The demonstrators may not succeed. Iran's "New Right" -- the war-hardened second generation of leaders, who wear hats instead of turbans -- still has the political power and the physical tools to contain the current confrontation. That could well mean a second (and final) term for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and if it does, the theocracy may increasingly evolve into a thugocracy during the next four years.

But long term, the feisty election campaign and the postelection protests have given legitimacy to the core ideas of political change. It's all so central to what the United States wants to see happen throughout the Middle East. Yet it's also so Iranian.

For 14 centuries, Shiism has been about passionate belief, about sacrifices in the name of perceived injustice and challenges to leadership. These are the principles that stirred people to action when questionable election results were announced just two hours after the polls closed.

For a century, Iranians have been political trailblazers in the 57-nation Islamic bloc. During the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution, a powerful coalition of intelligentsia, bazaar merchants and clergy forced the Qajar dynasty to accept a constitution and Iran's first parliament. In 1953, the democratically elected National Front coalition of four parties led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh pushed constitutional democracy and forced the last Pahlavi shah to flee to Rome -- until U.S. and British intelligence orchestrated a coup that put him back on the Peacock Throne. And in 1979, yet another coalition of bazaaris, clergy and intellectuals mobilized the streets to end dynastic rule that had prevailed for about 2,500 years.

So the angry energy unleashed this week from the northern Caspian coast to southern Shiraz is the natural sequel, spurred on by 21st century technology and the Internet. Each of the first three phases left indelible imprints on Iranian politics. The fourth will too.

The 1999 student protests failed because they involved only one sector of society; it was a body without a head or a strategy. But the current green-swathed uprising involves an emerging coalition that includes students and sanctions-strapped businessmen, taxi drivers and former presidents, civil servants and members of the national soccer team.

Key clergy have thrown in their turbans too. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri -- the designated heir to the revolution's founder until his criticism of the regime's injustices in 1989 -- issued a virtual fatwa dismissing the election results and urging Iranians to continue "reclaiming their dues" in calm protests.

He also warned security forces not to follow orders that would eventually condemn them "before God.""Today, censorship and cutting telecommunication lines cannot hide the truth," Montazeri wrote.

Senior clerics in the holy city of Qom, many of whom never favored an Islamic republic for fear its flaws would taint Islam, have also failed to embrace the election outcome.

Even the brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hadi Khamenei, himself a cleric and former member of parliament, urged that an impartial committee probe the election results and provide a full public accounting.

As the coalition expands, the stakes are also widening well beyond who ends up as president. The two faces of the Islamic Republic -- Ali Khamenei and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi -- are now pitted against each other. The religious ideologue against the lay technocrat.

The two men embody the central debate that has increasingly obsessed Tehran over the last three decades: Is the Islamic Republic first and foremost Islamic or a republic? In other words, does God's law or man's law have the last word?The debate was once beyond public reach. No longer.

Unless Khamenei can satisfy the protesters, all the brutal tools of 150,000 Revolutionary Guards and 300,000 paramilitary Basij will be unable to sustain his legitimacy. At the same time, however, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have not taken to the streets to reject the current constitution but rather to demand that the individual rights it guarantees are enforced.

Past international crises are now being invoked to forecast Iran's fate: Mousavi supporters fear Iran's security forces will reenact China's crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Regime supporters compare Mousavi to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, fearing the undoing of their own revolution if he prevails.

But whatever happens in Iran will be distinctly Iranian in style and outcome.

The movement has already invoked Shiite symbolism. Mourning is traditionally marked in commemorations on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, a cycle also used to galvanize greater public outrage when the shah's forces killed protesters in 1978. The commemorations often led to new clashes and more deaths -- and then volatile new cycles of mourning. It was no accident that Mousavi called for the mass demonstration Thursday to mourn the dead killed on Monday.

And the cycle is only beginning. The 40th-day commemorations are traditionally most important. The stunning protests in this fourth phase of Iran's century-long political journey will change the country further. The only question is how long it will take.

Robin Wright, the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," has been covering Iran since 1973. She is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

In Iran, One Woman's Death May Have Many Consequences

Sunday, Jun. 21, 2009
By Robin Wright

Iran's revolution has now run through a full cycle. A gruesomely captivating video of a young woman — laid out on a Tehran street after apparently being shot, blood pouring from her mouth and then across her face — swept Twitter, Facebook and other websites this weekend. The woman rapidly became a symbol of Iran's escalating crisis, from a political confrontation to far more ominous physical clashes. Some sites refer to the woman as Neda, Farsi for "the voice" or "the call." Tributes that incorporate startlingly up-close footage of her dying have started to spring up on YouTube.

Although it is not yet clear who shot Neda (a soldier? a pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything. The cycles of mourning in Shi'ite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shi'ite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran's rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the Shah's security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles. (See pictures of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death has rallied the opposition.)

The first clashes in January 1978 produced two deaths that were then commemorated on the 40th day in mass gatherings, which in turn produced new confrontations with security forces — and new deaths. Those deaths then generated another 40-day period of mourning, new clashes and further deaths. The cycle continued throughout most of the year until the Shah's ouster in January 1979.

The same cycle has already become an undercurrent in Iran's current crisis. The largest demonstration, on June 18, was called by opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they were killed.

Shi'ite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for Neda and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th-day events are usually the largest and most important.
Neda is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shi'ism. With the reported deaths of 19 people on June 20, martyrdom provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran's regime. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)

The belief in martyrdom is central to modern politics as well as Shi'ite tradition dating back centuries in Iran. It, too, helped propel the 1979 revolution. It sustained Iran during the eight-year war with Iraq, when more than 120,000 Iranians died in the bloodiest modern Middle East conflict. Most major Iranian cities have a martyrs' museum or a martyrs' cemetery.

The first Shi'ite martyr was Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. He believed it was better to die fighting injustice than to live with injustice under what he believed was illegitimate rule.

In the 7th century, Hussein and a band of fewer than 100 people, including women and children, took on the mighty Umayyad dynasty in Karbala, an ancient city in Mesopotamia now in modern-day Iraq. They knew they would be massacred.

Fourteen centuries later, Hussein's tomb in Karbala is one of the two holiest Shi'ite shrines — millions of Iranians make pilgrimages there every year. Just as Christians re-enact Jesus' procession bearing the cross past the 14 stops to Calvary before his crucifixion, so, too, do Shi'ites every year re-enact Hussein's martyrdom in an Islamic passion play during the holy period of Ashura.

Because of Hussein, revolt against tyranny became part of Shi'ite tradition. Indeed, protest and martyrdom are widely considered duties to God. And nowhere is the practice more honored than in Iran, the world's largest Shi'ite country.

The revolutionaries exploited the deep passion of martyrdom as well as the timetable of Shi'ite mourning in whipping up greater opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. With the deaths of Neda and others, they may now find the same phenomena used against them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Supreme Leader's Gamble: Iran's Crisis Deepens

The Huffington Post

By Robin Wright
Posted: June 19, 2009

Iran's political crisis is no longer only about the disputed presidential election. In taking an unyielding stand behind the results of the contested vote, Iran's supreme leader put his own position and powers on the line too.

The unusual speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Friday prayers was the most important in his 20 years in power. It was also a huge gamble. By endorsing President Ahmadinejad's relection, rejecting compromise with the opposition, and condemning the protests, he has now set the stage for an even bigger confrontation.

The test of whether the opposition that has galvanized around former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi has real legs will now be determined by whether it defies Khamenei's authority this weekend and turns out in the same stunning numbers it did during the first week of Iran's crisis.
If they do, the focus will now be a challenge to the supreme leader as much as of the questionable election results. Whether Ahmadinejad really won a landslide over the widely popular Mousavi becomes almost a secondary issue.

The crisis has been building in that direction all week. The undercurrent of the defiant protests, which have now spread to cities across Iran, have increasingly become a rebuff of Khamenei.
In Iran's unique blend of religion and state, Khamenei is effectively an infallible political pope. The position was originally designed to be the sage providing oversight on government leaders and guidance in blending the laws of man and God. But over the past three decades, the velayet-e faqih, or rule of the jurist, has steadily become more authoritative about all functions of state, the judiciary and the military -- and more authoritarian. His word is, literally, final.
His message Friday was that he is willing to condone whatever it takes to end the turmoil -- and the opposition has now been warned.

"Some may imagine that street action will create leverage against the system and force the authorities to give in to threats," he said at Friday Prayers in Tehran.

"No, this is wrong... "It must be determined at the ballot box what the people want and what they don't want, not in the streets," he warned. "I call on all top put an end to this method...If they don't, they will be held responsible for the chaos and the consequences.

The position of supreme leader has been controversial since it was created in the chaotic early days of the revolution to deal with internal squabbling. After his return from exile, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had originally returned to the religious center of Qom, but was forced to move back to Tehran as disputes among the fractious coalition that ousted the last shah began to fall apart.

Many of the Shiite clerics in Qom never embraced the idea of either a supreme leader or a central role for clerics in the new Islamic republic. Iran's revolution represented not just a political upheaval. It was also a revolution within Shiism, which for 14 centuries had prohibited a clerical role in politics. With clerics taking over government, many senior Shiite clerics feared that Islam would end up being tainted by the human flaws of the state.

The current crisis has effectively revived that debate -- and deepened the divide between the government and the Shiite clergy as well as with the public. The government includes many clerical institutions, including the 12-member Council of Guardians, the 86-member Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. But not even all of its members are happy with the election.

More importantly, senior clerics in Qom have noticeably failed to either endorse the election results or embrace Ahmadinejad, while long-time critics within the clergy used the crisis to encourage resistance to the supreme leader's dictates.

Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who was originally designated to become supreme leader until he criticized the regime's excesses in 1989, dismissed the election results and called on "everyone" to continue "reclaiming their dues" in calm protests. He also issued a warning to Iran's security forces not to accept government orders that might eventually condemn them "before God."
"Today censorship and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth," said Montazeri. "I pray for the greatness of the Iranian people."

Others have also bestowed legitimacy on the protests. Grand Ayatollah Saanei -- one of only about a dozen who hold that position -- pronounced Ahmadinejad's presidency illegitimate.
If Ahmadinejad's election is upheld at the end of Iran's deepest crisis since the 1979 revolution, the legitimacy of the supreme leader -- and potentially his ability to exert his powers--will almost certainly be diminished. Millions who have taken to the streets of Iran have already made that clear.