The Closet Moderate: Ayatollah Ali "All In" Khamenei Speaks

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ayatollah Ali "All In" Khamenei Speaks

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave an ominous sermon as part of Friday prayers, which marks an escalation of tensions between the Supreme Leader and the protesters. In the speech, Khamenei makes a case for the integrity of the electoral process, arguing that there are mechanisms in place to assure the validity of results. The problem? It's about, oh, five days too late for that argument to persuade anyone. Given that, the ending phrase, "who would be responsible if something happened?" feels like a promise of future brutality, complete with an insinuation that it would somehow be the protester's fault if they happened to get beaten, arrested or killed.

I think it's still premature to assume that Khamenei has the political support to engage in mass repression of the Iranian people. The protests have been nonviolent, and so far they seem to be primarily a threat to the President. However, by doubling down on the election results today, Khamenei seems to tying his own fate to that of Ahmadinejad. That strikes me as puzzling. On the one hand, it means that any attack on the election is implicitly striking at the heart of the Revolution, which may give Khamenei a freer hand when dealing with the protesters. However, it also seems to increase the risk that the Council of Experts will decide that Khamenei is part of the problem, and that by dismissing the two people at the center of this scandal they can return order to the country.

The protests planned for tomorrow will clarify a few things:

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First, are the Iranian power elite thinking about outcomes or processes? The protests have achieved a national scale, and any effective repression would have to be similarly broad. While that might produce a favorable outcome in the short term, I tend to think it will do a lot more to accelerate the process of destabilization. It will be a defining moment for millions of Iranians and will further divide the state from society.

Khamenei has one potential way out of this trap without surrendering either his position or (much of) his legitimacy: using the Basij as a provocation. If he can use the paramilitaries to incite violence and chaos in the street, the Revolutionary Guard can be called in to restore order. Although the Basij are known to be loyal to the government, the reports of locals hunting them at night could easily be used to justify paramilitary attacks on demonstrators. Khamenei can achieve his goals while posing as a law-and-order figure rather than a brutal, self-interested cleric.

The second question is whether or not it's possible to stem this tide. From what I've read, a simple procedural trick has created a new environment in Iran. It will take time and determination to roll that back, assuming it can be done. Token repression could be counter productive. As Juan Cole and others have pointed out, every death provides another opportunity to march and indeed, such marches have already happened at Mousavi's request.

I tend to disagree with Clemons about the outcomes in Iran. I think that a true revolution is off the table. That would require the ulama to essentially commit political suicide, which doesn't happen all that often. However, a recognition that it is the will of the people that Mousavi serve as President would go a long way towards resolving the situation. Khamenei will probably have to be replaced with another conservative cleric who will act as a check on reformist ambitions. By doubling down on the election results today, he's talked himself out of a compromise. Any backpedaling will look too much like capitulation, and it's hard to be the Supreme Leader after you've been so visibly rebuffed by the people. Of course, the other option is blood in the streets.

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