Rise of the Sultans

How Far Will Iran's Rulers Go to Consolidate Their Power?

Courtesy Reuters

Iran is a paradoxical nation. On the one hand, its political structure is a fundamentalist sultanism run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and personified at least in the eyes of the outside world, by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the other hand, Iran is farther along the path to democracy than most countries in the Middle East. It has a sophisticated political culture: its intellectuals, women, and young people are highly literate, cosmopolitan, and committed to the ideals of democracy, human rights, and nonviolent social transformation. The majority of Iran's population stands against the country's fundamentalist regime.

As I explained in my essay "The Latter-Day Sultan" (November/December 2008), oppression has been the Iranian regime's principal means of sustaining sultanism. The aftermath of the recent presidential election clearly demonstrates this point. The preponderant majority of Iranians voted against Khamenei by voting against Ahmadinejad, Khamenei's factotum and mouthpiece. (See the preliminary analysis of the election published by Chatham House on June 21, 2009, here.) But Khamenei has refused to abide by their choice. In a colossal fraud, his loyalists have counted the people's vote in favor of Ahmadinejad and then dubbed his victory a "divine miracle."

Rejecting the lies and the chicanery, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have turned to the streets in search of justice. Khamenei has responded with repression. His henchmen have stormed universities, attacking students and destroying public property. They have opened fire on innocent protesters and imprisoned reformists they suspect of having roused the people into action. Last Friday, Khamenei delivered a much-anticipated sermon in Tehran. Acknowledging "differences of opinion" among the presidential candidates, he said that "when it comes to serving the nation . . . the viewpoints of the president [Ahmadinejad] are closer to mine." He said allegations that the election had been rigged in Ahmadinejad's favor -- with 11 million votes artificially created -- were lies manufactured by Iran's enemies, the United States and Israel. Khamenei threatened his critics, claimed he was ready for martyrdom, and called on protesters to clear the streets,

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