The imam behind the curtain

June 17, 2009

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s "Supreme Guide," may have blown it in more ways than one regarding Iran’s recent fraudulent elections. First, he endorsed an obviously stolen contest by claiming Ahmadinejad’s reelection was a "triumph for Islam." Then, facing massive demonstrations by outraged voters, he backed off a bit, promising to look into "errors that might have occurred" in the election. Amir Taheri explains the problem this causes for the regime:

No one now expects Khamenei to order a real recount, let alone a re-run of the election — if he can get away with it. Yet his hasty endorsement of the results, followed by his partial U-turn, has already shattered a good part of his authority.

In the Khomeinist system, Khamenei is supposed to represent divine power on earth, via the "Hidden Imam." He is supposed to be the leader of all the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, with the power to suspend the rules of Islam itself, if and when he so wishes.

His word is supposed to be final on all matters; when he speaks, Allah has spoken. Now he looks like just another politician engaged in a bitter power struggle for the control of the country.

The authority of the Supreme Guide rests on infallibility and, unlike Papal infallibility, this includes unerring righteousness in mundane matters, too, such as elections, for in Islam there is no separation of Church and State – they are one and the same. So what happens when the man who speaks for Allah admits error? The regime loses legitimacy, and He Who Is The Voice Of God becomes the schmuck behind the curtain no one was supposed to pay attention to:

Taheri names the various factions at play in Iran’s turmoil, including a former head of the Revolutionary Guard, the regime’s elite troops, who also ran for president and feels he was cheated. It’s never a good idea in a dictatorship to anger your own soldiers. Now that Khamenei has made himself just one among many players, he has no special protection in the power struggle.

But Taheri neglects the perhaps most dangerous fallout of all for the now-fallible Ayatollah: his pronouncement of Allah’s pleasure at the election results and his subsequent recantation means large swathes of the people themselves no longer see the aura of the Divine around him. He’s just another black-robed theocrat trying to rip them off and deny them their rights. The people are angry, the military is splitting, and other would-be rulers sense weakness. If he doesn’t somehow contain this soon, perhaps by sacrificing Ahmadinejad and claiming to be shocked, shocked to find electoral fraud in Iran, the Great and Powerful Ayatollah Khamenei may find himself ripped from behind that curtain and strung up from a lamppost.