Monday, July 20, 2009

Khamenei Plays the Moderate

The dangerous (both to regimes and participants) debate over the source of legitimacy in Islamic states rages on in Iran.

Apparently getting at least part of Rafsanjani’s message, Khamenei reverted publicly to his formal role as neutral arbiter today, observing:

The political elite should maintain great vigilance because they currently face a significant challenge; their failure to rise to this challenge will lead to their collapse.

The part of Rafsanjani’s message he got, then, was that Iran’s governmental structure faces a crisis; the part he continues to evade is the emphasis by Rafsanjani and his allies that the threat to the political system comes from the weakness of the democratic pillar. At least as summarized by Press TV, Khamenei’s remarks were so abstract and neutral that each side can read them as a criticism of the other, though his moderation certainly sounds like a rejection of calls by Ahmadinejad allies for “gouging out the eyes” of opponents and putting other members of the elite on trial.

Meanwhile, former president Khatami called for a referendum on what Press TV called “the legitimacy of the government,” a stark contradiction with the view of Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Mohammed Yazdi, who responded to Rafsanjani’s emphasis on democracy by saying, “The legitimacy in Islamic government comes from God and popularity comes from people.”

Reminiscent of the Sunni debate in Saudi Arabia between the regime that demands strict observance of Wahabbite ideas as the foundation of its secular power vs. reformers such as Professor Abdullah al-Hamid and Sheikh Hasan al-Maliki who defend the right of people to participate in government and criticize authority, this debate over whether the Iranian regime’s legitimacy rests on its own self-serving claims that it represents God’s will or on a popular mandate strikes at the heart of secular political power. As in Saudi Arabia, regime defenders are not content to debate but want to marginalize if not murder their opponents.

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