The Militarized Death of the Republic

This was first published by Tehran Bureau on July 6, 2009.

The momentous June presidential election in Iran and its bloody aftermath will probably be remembered as a turning point in the life of this strange republic. The true face of the state, so meticulously hidden beneath a confusing veneer of “Islamic democracy,” surfaced in its true form — something conveniently forgotten after eight years of reformist rule under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Khatami.

The aftermath of the June 12 election dealt a major blow to the hope for a realignment of Islam and a representative state. In lieu of any form of a hybrid Islamic Republic, a militarized regime has emerged in earnest — a regime that had been taking shape since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his mark in the 2005 elections. This regime is now embodied in a coalition of actors including Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC).

The question is not whether this is some form of indigenous Islamic democracy, but instead: What is the role and influence of the clergy? In other words, is Iran still a clerical state, and if not, what is the nature of clerical power in this process, this metamorphosis to a militaristic state?

The Islamic Republic has been in a state of metamorphosis over the past four years. In fact, the state was never purely clerical, as the West has assumed. The war with Iraq during the 1980’s changed and twisted it at its onset. Symbolically, the post-revolution clergy carried rifles when leading Friday prayers. The emergence of a military/security clergyman rather than a purely religious figure was intensified when clerics were dispatched to the war fronts, and became ideological commissars of the new regime. They inspired soldiers with recitations of the pain and sufferings of the martyred Shi’a imams. In the meantime, they spied on officers and tried to convert them to the new politicized Islam. But what happened was that the clergy converted to a military-security ethos — rather than the other way around.

Clerics such as Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Hassan Lahooti were among the first clerics put in charge of military personnel and commissioned by Ayatollah Khomeini to create the IRGC, a security apparatus designed to run parallel to the state’s army, navy and air force. Khamenei quickly learned where the center of the state’s gravity rested, and consequently, never left the security forces. Today Khamenei is the consummate security-military cleric. As the commander in chief, Khamenei probably knows more about military and security issues than about traditional Figh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Shi’ite narratives. A militaristic state, vested in a clerical robe, and aided and abetted by uncountable Basij militia, extends its reach to all corners of society.

The state readily adorns its Islamic trappings whenever the need arises. Clad in burial shroud, scores of Qum seminary students are always ready to parade around vigilantly in order to demonstrate their readiness to fend off the enemies of Islam, while underscoring their belief in the sanctity of the regime at the same time.

The June election and the ensuing violence served the purpose of bringing the regime’s oppressive character to light, and obscuring any claims to a democratic republic. By conducting more than twenty national elections in the past thirty years, the Islamic republic trained people in the ways of democracy. The June demonstrations were squarely a national call for more democracy, preceded by months of real campaigning and six televised debates. To have curtailed the process would benefit neither the citizens of Iran nor their governing institutions, but it was bound to happen. In all likelihood the new militarized regime will find no benefit in continuing the democracy game and will, begin to transform Iranian leadership based almost exclusively upon traditional forms of hereditary faux-republicanism — similar to the Arab and North Korean models.

The gloves-off nature of this exposed Islamic republic is evidenced by Ahmadinejad’s declaration in late June that “Communism, liberalism and democracy are all dead; it is high time for [the rise of an] Islamic State.” What he did not spell out was that the Islamic State wears boots, and parades in military fatigue.

© 2009 Tehran Bureau — distributed by Agence Global


Originally published at www.pbs.org.