It is now clear that the population of Iran is in full revolt against its leaders. There is a better than even chance that the government will fall before summer. Sadly, there is no clear successor leadership on the horizon. This may prove to be the worst of all possible revolutions—a leaderless coup often leads to a regime that feeds on itself.
The current governmental regime in Tehran, including spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made error after error in dealing with the opposition. Iran is a hierarchical society. Persons in high positions are paradoxically in the most fragile positions. Either they must support their followers, or be toppled from power.
The government has, in the face of the questionable presidential elections in June, repressed, murdered and incarcerated thousands of legitimate protestors. They have jailed former architects of the Revolution of 1978-79 that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and former government officials such as ex-Foreign Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi. These actions are a betrayal of the social ties that bind political leaders to their followers. In essence, Iran’s political elite has utterly lost its public support. There is no other possible result than that they leave the scene.
The situation has been exacerbated by the confluence of this repression with the annual observances of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Hossein’s legitimacy to rule the Islamic community was opposed by the Umayyid Caliph, Yazid. Yazid then ordered his army to Kerbala where Hossein was encamped with his family. The male members of Hossein’s clan were beheaded and the women and children led into captivity in the Umayyid capital, Damascus.
Now the public is equating opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Musavi with Imam Hossein. They chant “Ya Hossein, Ya Mir-Hossein” in their opposition marches. Ayatollah Khamene’i is now equated directly with the Caliph, Yazid in street slogans and banners. Currency is being defaced with insults against the government. As veteran Middle East commentator, Robin Wright, has noted, the current Iranian resistance “is arguably the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign anywhere in the world today.”
However, should Ayatollah Khamene’i, President Ahmadinejad and other high officials be toppled from power, it is unclear who will replace them. The opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has proved to be utterly feckless as a leader. His fortunes only improved shortly before the June election when he suddenly was seen as a viable opponent for the increasingly unpopular President Ahmadinejad. Since the election he has been more a follower than a leader. In fact, his wife, the intrepid Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, who apparently organized his campaign, emerged as a greater political force.
Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former President and supreme political operative also engineered Mousavi’s campaign. Usually outspoken, he has been exceptionally cautious in recent weeks, and his relatives have been terrorized by Tehran’s leaders. Now in his 70’s, it is unclear that he could emerge as a strong leader in a new government.
There is also the sticky business of the bedrock principle of the Islamic Republic, the “Velayat-e Faqih,” or “Regency of the Chief Jurisprudent.” It is this principle that legitimizes the supreme authority of Ayatollah Khamene’i, who is said to be ruling as regent, or substitute for the 9th Century Imam, Mohammad al-Mahdi, who is believed to be alive, but “in occultation,” until the Day of Judgment. This doctrine was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1978-79 Revolution and is ensconced in the Iranian Constitution. If Ayatollah Khamene’i is toppled from power, either the constitution must be scrapped, or a successor must be found. Most religious leaders reject this doctrine today—a fact that has already created a de facto constitutional crisis.
Humanity has seen leaderless revolutions before, and they don’t turn out well. Those vying for power early on are condemned by those who arise after them. There is a perpetual scramble for both power and control of the ideology of the revolution. Much blood flows, and decades can pass before order is restored.
In light of this situation, the Obama administration is wise to stand aside and wait before making any commitments to the present power elite. More importantly, it behooves the administration to start preparing for a post-revolutionary phase, making sure that U.S. actions do not alienate the Iranian public or those who will accede to power.
Sadly, the U.S. Congress is not as wise as the executive branch. Still stuck with a crude and inaccurate fetishization of Iran’s nuclear energy program, they are on the brink of approving economic sanctions that will only cement the Iranian public’s already fixed notion that America only wants their nation to sink in misery and failure.
William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is past president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is "'The Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other." (Chicago, 2008).