THE ROVING EYE
Meet Shah Ali Khamenei
By Pepe Escobar
Amid blood in the streets, cries in the rooftops and daggers drawn at silky
corridors, the 30-year-old Islamic Revolution in Iran has a date with destiny:
the challenge is to finally celebrate the marriage of Islam and democracy.
Former president Mohammad Khatami, the man of the dialogue of civilizations,
revealed once again his moral stature when he praised the massive silent street
protests (before the bloody repression); and stressed that almost 40 million
Iranian voters, including those who dispute the final, "official" result, are
"the owners" of the revolution.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the other hand, preferred to brand
the sea of protestors as "terrorists".
Khatami also brushed off the leader of the Guardians Council, President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad-friendly Ahmad Jannati, as "a
referee who is under suspicion and complaint". The "only solution", said
Khatami, to "settle the crisis in the best interests of the Iranian people and
the principles of the revolution" would be for an impartial commission to fully
examine the evidence for ballot rigging. Losing presidential candidate Mir
Hossein Mousavi, for his part, depicted the work of such a commission as "a
given right", capable of "achieving a new type of political life in the
As it stands, there's no evidence the theo-political oligarchy which has just
solidified its power in Iran will even contemplate the possibility of
appointing such a commission.
Montazeri to the rescue
The key move for the next few days revolves around Grand Ayatollah Husayn
Montazeri's call for three days of mourning for the dead, from Wednesday to
Friday. The progressive view in Tehran - and among the exiled Iranian
intelligentsia - is that this is a very sophisticated, back to 1979, civil
disobedience code, suggesting citizens should go indefinitely on strike.
To strike is safer, and much more subversive, than hitting the streets and
being bloodied by the paramilitary Basiji. Strikes were a fundamental element
for the success of the revolution 30 years ago. Montazeri is also subtly
signaling the strategy to seduce Iran's silent majority - which may hover
around 30% to 40% of the total population. This strategy, judiciously applied
over the next few days and weeks, may expand the people power river into a
It's as if an irresistible force might be whispering in his ear - "Mr
Montazeri, tear down this [Islamic] wall."
Meanwhile, at street level, people power will be grieving the dead but at the
same time fighting the state's implacable crackdown on all forms of modern
technology by resorting to ... paper. Welcome to the 21st century return of the samizdat
(distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc
In only one week, the green revolution, then people power, in Iran, has morphed
into an entity way beyond Mousavi. The anger, rage, sense of having suffered a
tremendous injustice (never underestimate this feeling in a Shi'ite society),
the pent-up resentment; these emotions were so phenomenal, the regime so lost
control of the arena of political debate, and the repression has been so
brutal. A very simple idea underneath it all has finally revealed itself: we
are fed up. You are liars. Death to the dictator. Allah-O Akbar. And we will
cry every night, across our rooftops, at the top of our lungs, and we will not
be silenced, until you get the message.
Blame foreign "terrorists", blame the United States, Britain, France and
Germany - the theo-political oligarchy's panicky reaction is totally beside the
point. As are vast, proselytizing sectors of the Western progressive left -
bound by the iron chains and faulty logic of "everyone fighting US imperialism
is my friend". They have been duped - uncritically swallowing regime
propaganda, blind to the complexities of Iranian society, and unable to
identify a completely new political equation for what it is. To believe that
"Western puppets" are crying Allah-O Akbar all over Iran's rooftops, or being
shot at by Basiji in the streets, is criminally absurd.
Mousavi, Khatami, Montazeri - they are not neo-revolutionaries (much less
counter-revolutionaries). They are all accepting the principles and
institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basiji, but criticizing "deviations
and deceptions", in the language of Mousavi and Khatami. They want nothing else
but the "return of the pure principles of the Islamic Revolution". And they are
keen to stress this implies every single form of freedom of expression.
People power in Iran now dreams of a constant, no-holds-barred dialogue taking
place within civil society. And this step ahead does not necessarily have to do
with Iran adopting Western liberal democracy. Persians are way too
sophisticated; the whole thing goes way, way beyond. It's as if a road map was
being laid out not only for Iran's post-modern remix of the French Revolution,
but for Islam's Reformation as well. This is as serious as it gets.
Rafsanjani's Qom game
Meanwhile, mundane palace intrigue goes on. Not surprisingly, former president
Hashemi Rafsanjani's whole game is taking place in Qom. He may not co-opt the
IRGC - which fears and hates him - but he may well unbalance many an
influential ayatollah and have a go at illlegitimizing Khamenei. Niceties
apart, it goes without saying that the supreme leader's entourage has told
Rafsanjani that if he keeps on scheming, he and his whole family will land in
Qom is being microscopically monitored by the supremacist Khamenei
Leader/Ahmadinejad/IRGC faction. They all know that many important ayatollahs
have traditionally promoted their leadership as vehicles for wider social
grievances. The "papacy" in Qom supports mostly pragmatic conservatives and
reformists. People like Mousavi and Khatami. Definitely not people like
The widow of Mohammad Rajai, a former prime minister assassinated in the
beginning of the revolution, went to Qom to talk to some key ayatollahs. Not
surprisingly, she was arrested. According to the informed Iranian blogosphere,
there are quite a few ayatollahs under house arrest and practically
incommunicado. It's easy to forget in the West that millions of Iranians do not
fundamentally agree with political power submitted to religion. Public
pronouncements of ayatollahs in favor of the separation of church and state may
not be too far away.
Rafsanjani wants an emergency session of the 86 clerics-strong, no women,
Council of Experts. Another crucial point: Qom as a whole is also not very fond
of Khamenei. Khamenei was and remains an ultra-minor scholar; he was a mere
hojjatoleslam when, through a white coup, he was installed as the late
ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor. He's not a revered marja (senior
spiritual leader) or a source of imitation.
The problem is Rafsanjani is fighting a formidable foe - the apocalypsist,
Mahdist Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor who lost
influence to - who else? - Rafsanjani in the last election for the Council of
Experts, in late 2006. So this, once again, is an (invisible) battle between
the "shark" and the "crocodile", as Rafsanjani and Yazdi, respectively, are
known in Iran. Al-Arabiya is relying on sources according to which Rafsanjani
is trying to come up with a collective leadership to replace the supreme
leader. No Iranian blogger has confirmed the possible emergence of an ayatollah
Meet Shah Ali Khamenei
For now, the theo-political oligarchy (Khamenei/Ahmadinejad/IRGC) that has
solidified its power and privilege has made it abundantly clear it wants an
Islamic government where popular sovereignty is reduced to zero. The divine
legitimacy of power is self-sufficient. That's the meaning of Khamenei's speech
last Friday. This oligarchy won't let go of their power - not by a long shot.
But amid all the crackle and static coming out of Iran, one thing is certain.
It's too late to turn back now. All the evidence points out to people power
hanging in for the long haul, no matter how desperately violent the scruffy
working-class Basiji, despised by the Iranian-educated, urban middle and upper
middle class, behave. The key message will remain simple and modest. And cracks
at the top are bound to emerge.
The other option is an illegitimate, brutal military dictatorship of a
(fractured) mullahtariat, supported by legions of Basiji. This arrangement
can't possibly last.
There are insistent rumors in Tehran that the theo-political oligarchy
supremacists are receiving crack counter-insurgency help from both Russia and
China. Khamenei/Ahmadinejad/IRGC can always insist on turning Tehran into
Tiananmen and prevail - for now. But Iran in 2009 has nothing to do with China
As for Mousavi, hurled in spite of himself into the eye of this historic
hurricane, he now follows the human flow. The human flow has indicated that the
supreme leader is illegitimate. His credibility as a religious scholar was and
remains shaky. Now his credibility as supreme leader is shaky as well.
Khamenei's central thesis of velayat-e-faqih (the rule of jurisprudence)
was never a divine revelation (by the way, it was influenced by Khomeini's
reading of human, oh-so-human Plato and Aristotle). It's just a particular
Shi'ite interpretation of political Islam, according to which an Islamic
jurisprudent has divine powers and rules absolutely surrounded by guardians.
(Influential ayatollahs in Najaf, for instance, simply don't buy it).
Now people are saying, "We have had enough of guardians". And they're also
saying that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the rooftops. That's what
people power is collectively thinking: if God is great, he's got to allow us
democracy within Islam. As for the supreme leader, he is now naked. Mousavi may
not be Khomeini. But Khamenei increasingly is remixing himself as the shah.