Since Iran’s contested presidential elections in mid-June, the world has watched with shock and horror the Iranian regime’s systematic silencing of political dissenters. From the perspective of some Western commentators, the nation’s political turmoil is indicative of an fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democratic governance.1 Subsequently, these observers contend that the experiment that is the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed because its Islamic-ness restricts its capacity to respond to the ‘modern’ social and political yearnings of the nation’s youth. This common interpretation of Islamic governance and the Iranian experiment is deeply flawed, however, due to its reliance on superficial observations influenced and reinforced by a modernity discourse that situates the modern in the West. In fact, recent research persuasively demonstrates that adherence to Islam is not antithetical to representative governance.2 With this information available, the Iranian regime’s current legitimacy crisis must be analyzed at the subjective, rather than objective, level. An examination of the country’s dominant political elite – and their stake in the status quo – will reveal that the Iranian government has long deviated from its official title. That is, the regime presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is neither a republic nor Islamic, but a well-established oligarchy with a vested military elite.

For some Iran-watchers, the suspect victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Khamenei’s unwavering support for the declared victor, signaled the country’s shift from religious to military rule. In Spring 2008, distinguished Islamic historian Richard Bulliet even warned a group of Columbia University students and academics that Iran’s recent presidential election could redistribute power from religious authorities to the military establishment. He noted, as others have, that during the mid-1990’s the IRGC methodically seized political and economic power from some of the revolution’s most influential clerics – most notably Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – with the support of the Supreme Leader. The June 2009 election, predicted Bulliet, would determine the IRGC’s future level of participation (or one might say interference) in the nation’s politics. While individuals such as Bulliet correctly identify the IRGC as the nexus of power in Iran, they misplace the group’s emergence on the nation’s political time line. Iran’s political transformation from an incomplete republic to a martial oligarchy commenced the day following death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when Ayatollah Khamenei, a religiously unqualified but politically adroit individual strongly affiliated with Iran’s security establishment, was appointed to replace the father of the Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s collaboration with the security forces began in the early days of the Islamic Republic. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the current Supreme Leader served as Deputy Defense Minister and later as a leader of the IRGC. In both positions, he frequently visited the front to assess the situation and boost morale. In early 1981, Ayatollah Khamenei was wounded by a would-be assassin and, later that year, was elected president following the assassination of his predecessor. The political chaos fomented by internal and external foes impelled the Khamenei administration, under supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, to crackdown on opposition groups and implement policies that ensured the security establishment’s loyalty. Initially, it seems unquestionable that the president was dedicated to preserving the gains of the revolution. Yet, at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime was burdened with the task of reintegrating veterans into civilian society. Ayatollah Khamenei, secure in the position of the Supreme Leader, understood both the nation’s indebtedness to the soldiers and the existential dangers of inadequately responding to the needs of an armed, battle-hardened constituency. In a stellar example of selectorate theory, the Khamenei-led government thanked IRGC members by implementing social and economic assistance programs benefiting veterans and their families. The state’s generosity, though, did not stop at the individual level. Iran was not only indebted to the veterans, but the IRGC organization, which planned and performed the bulk of the ‘holy defense’.

As the 1990’s progressed, the Revolutionary Guards emerged as an economic and political powerhouse. With the tacit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC and umbrella organizations were awarded no-bid contracts by the state, from benign construction projects to nuclear technology research and development. Eventually, the organization’s growth in economic power translated into political influence. During the middle of the decade, former guardsmen formed political alliances and movements that today dominate Iran’s government at the national and local levels. Tehran’s current mayor, for example, previously spent virtually his entire adult life in the Revolutionary Guards and internal security apparatus. Moreover, in Iran’s 2008 parliamentary elections, just over 40 percent of the candidates had served in the Iran-Iraq war, the vast majority as guardsmen. While the IRGC is more overtly participating in politics – in both democratic and non-democratic capacities – they have dominated decision-making for over a decade. With economic clout and political legitimacy conferred by a Khamenei-led coalition, the group drowned-out the voices of more democratically-minded clerics. The IRGC, with its sizable economic concerns, predictably used its position to preserve the status quo and enhanced its political position over the years. There is even evidence suggesting that the group’s power has exceeded that of the Supreme Leader, whose orders are not infrequently dismissed by Ahmadinejad.3 By brazenly ignoring the concerns of supposed allies, the IRGC has revealed its previousl-veiled leading role in the governing apparatus. When a subordinate actor influences the policies of a excessively responsive superordinate actor, it logically follows that the subordinate will take actions to supplant the superordinate when its privileged position is jeopardized. Such a scenario presumes the entrenched, demanding power of the subordinate. Consequently, the violence following the June election did not signal the inception of a military-heavy regime. It was merely the existing martial oligarchy’s first public exposure.

The IRGC’s preferential treatment from the Supreme Leader displaced the revolution’s old guard, comprised of politically active ‘reformist’ clerics including the aforementioned Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and laypersons committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic such as 2009 defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For many in the West, these figures represent Iran’s ‘Western-liberal’ movement. Yet, as a group the ‘reformers’ promote the Islamic Revolution’s post-modern elements. According to scholar Reinhard Schulze, post-modern Islamic politics is determined by the practitioners of Islam: “Stated simply, Islam is what the Muslim makes of it.”4 While Ayatollah Khomeini certainly embraced a modern, post-colonial notion of Islamic politics that sought to create a utopian Islamic society founded upon religious jurisprudence, he simultaneously endorsed the post-modernist vision. As Khomeini once said, “The measure [of legitimacy] is the people’s vote.” Inspired by this pronouncement, the ‘reformists’ have constructed a counter-revolutionary political platform aiming not to replace the idea of an Islamic system, but to imbue the state with the 1979 revolution’s post-modern ideology. In what seems like an odd pair to those in the West, an alliance between Iran’s clergy – which has traditionally provided moral legitimacy for dissent and facilitated unrest – and the people is forming to combat the IRGC’s usurpation of the Islamic Republic.

By and large, the West has framed Iran’s current political unrest as a predominately secular society revolting against Islamic overlords hellbent on subjecting the nation to tyrannical rule. This interpretation of the events unfolding in Iran, though, is deeply flawed. Ayatollah Khamenei, in his capacity as the nation’s Supreme Leader, elevated the IRGC at the expense of the post-modern revolutionaries, creating economic and, eventually, political schisms that, when exploited by the IRGC resulted in the organization’s political ascension. Iranian resistance to marital-oligarchical rule, though, is deriving political inspiration from Islamic post-modernism, to the chagrin of Western secularists. Protestor’s oft-repeated slogans of “Marg bar diktator” (death to the dictator) and “Allah akbar” (God is great) and their adoption of the color green, which is as much a symbol of allegiance to Islam as it is Mousavi, is a testament to the desire for the post-modern symbiosis of Islam and republicanism. In the end, the protesters’ struggle against the fraudulent result of the June 2009 presidential election has not only bared the licentious role of IRGC in Iranian politics but also – and perhaps more importantly – demonstrated the compatibility of Islam and representative governance.

1See Michael Lind, “Wanted: Freedom from religion,” Salon.com, 23 June 2009, [http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/06/23/religion_iran/index.html] and Martin Amis, “The end of Iran’s Ayatollah’s?” The Guardian, 17 July 2009, [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/17/martin-amis-iran].

2Mark A. Tessler and Ameney Jamal, “Attitudes in the Arab World” Journal of Democracy 19 (2008): 101.

3Muhammad Sahimi, “Showdown between Khamenei and IRGC?” Tehran Bureau, 28 July 2009, [http://tehranbureau.com/looming-confrontation-khamenei-irgc/].

4Reinhardt Schulze, “The Ethnization of Islamic Cultures in the Late Twentieth Century or From Political Islam to Post Islamism” in Islam, Motor or Challenge of Modernity ed. by George Stauth (Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 190.

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