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Paul Rahe: Iran’s trajectory

Paul Rahe is the distinguished intellectual historian and professor of history at Hillsdale College. Professor Rahe is the author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. If any scholarly study in the history of political thought was ever timely, Soft Despotism is it.

Professor Rahe’s new book has inspired much witty and learned commentary. Mark Steyn freely draws on the book in the lead article featured in the current issue of the New Criterion. The reviews by Professor Harvey Mansfield in the Weekly Standard and by William Voegeli in NR are must reading.

Professor Rahe has forwarded us his thoughts on the events in Iran:

I spent the mid-1980s — when the Iranian Revolution was young, when Hossein Mousavi was the Islamic Republic’s Prime Minister, and the Iran-Iraq war underway — in Istanbul as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, writing about Turkey primarily and also about Greece and Cyprus (which I visited with some frequency). In previous years, I had closely followed events in Iran, and I continued to do so while residing nearby. I was at the time haphazardly working on a book that would bear the title Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, and I was fascinated by the progress of a revolution that was at the time same theocratic and republican.

I can remember thinking that the combination was likely to be unstable. The nascent regime might be led by a Supreme Leader drawn from the Shiite clergy and respected for his understanding of the Koran, and the Council of Guardians, whom he appointed, might veto legislation and carefully vet candidates for office with an eye to protecting the clerical regime, silencing its critics, and suppressing opposition. But the fact that the voters had a choice, that the candidates had to campaign, and that they had to tailor their campaigns with an eye to popular sentiment allowed in a fashion hard to circumscribe for the more or less free formation of public opinion.

Something of the sort had taken place in ancient Athens under the rule of Peisistratus and his sons — when the regime had been in form a republic and in reality a tyranny — and, after the death of its founder, form asserted itself and reshaped political reality. In such a polity, semi-free elections may be necessary for the purpose of rallying popular support, but they also have the effect of confering a measure of authority on the populace and of suggesting to ordinary citizens that they have a role to play in public deliberation and in setting the polity’s course. What began as a theocratic republic might easily evolve into something else. So I thought.

In March, 2002, while on a visit to Istanbul, I had an opportunity to question an Iranian journalist as to the validity of my hypothesis. I had not been in Turkey for some years; I wanted to get a sense of what 9/11 meant in the one Muslim country I knew well; and I had been invited by another former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs to a dinner to which he had also invited a number of Turkish journalists.

Michael Ledeen had been suggesting in articles published hither and yon that Iran might be on the verge of a revolution, and I began by asking my Iranian acquaintance what he thought of the likelihood. He responded that many of the men who ran the Islamic Republic had been graduate students in eastern Europe. “They know how to control a population, but they do not know how to control their own children,” he observed. “There will some day be a revolution–but not any time soon. Iran will change in the manner in which China did–when a new generation comes to power.”

As I have tracked events over the last few days, I have come back to that conversation again and again. I have no idea whether my Iranian acquaintance was accurate in describing the educational background of many of the Iranian leaders, but I have long suspected that he was correct in his estimation of their ability to keep the population in line and of their inability to control their own progeny. Five things are nonetheless clear.

First, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not win anything like 63 percent of the vote in the recent election. Over the last four years, he has brought Iran to the edge of economic disaster; many Iranians are fully aware of their plight; and the authorities, fearful that he would go down to defeat, rigged the entire process from the start. Second, the ruling order in Iran is bitterly split over what amounts to a coup d’état. Third, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has put his prestige and that of the regime itself on the line. Fourth, the people of Iran are aware that they have been hoodwinked, and the Islamic Republic is now without a shred of legitimacy. And, finally, if the police and the militia should prove unable to control the crowds in Teheran, and if the Revolutionary Guard is called out and the guardsmen refuse to fire on their fellow citizens, things really will come apart.

If the authorities manage to restore order (as, I suspect, they will), the pot will nonetheless continue to boil — unless they resort to severe repression and purge those within their own ranks who lent support, open or tacit, to the demonstrators. But if they do this, they will at the same time seriously narrow the base of the regime’s support, and that will only hasten the day of reckoning. As Reuel Marc Gerecht argues in a trenchant piece in the Weekly Standard, we are witnessing a game-changing moment.

From all of this, the supporters of George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq should draw consolation, for the elections that took place in that country under the American aegis contributed mightily to the discontent in Iran. The people of Iran were witness to the emergence within Iraq of a secular republic sponsored by an Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, possessed of an erudition and an authority rivalling and arguably surpassing that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They were witness to elections that were really free and to public debate open in ways that debate within the Islamic Republic is not. Morever, in Quom, the stronghold of the Shiite clergy, the clerics who most fully command respect have long rejected, as contrary to Shiite tradition and the interest of Islam, the path of direct clerical rule pursued by Khomeini.

Iran today looks something like England in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s death. There has been a religious revolution; it never commanded full popular support; it is now seen, even by many of its most ardent supporters, to be a failure; and there will be a scramble to attempt to sustain the polity it produced. Ordinarily, American leverage does not amount to much. In this situation, it could nonetheless be considerable. Economically Iran is on the ropes. If we keep the pressure on, following the policy of the Bush administration, the regime may in fact collapse. If, however, in the interests of stability, in the manner of the so-called “realists,” the Obama administration opts to take the pressure off and, in effect, bails out Iran’s bankrupt regime, it may stumble on for some years to come.

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