No regime has an unlimited supply of political legitimacy. Any government, democratic or non-democratic, needs to constantly read public opinion and to try to respond to people’s minimum expectations and demands.
By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News
All is not well in Iran. The country has been undergoing an upheaval of sorts, although much of the coverage of Iran is influenced not only by the blatant agenda of the U.S.-Israeli alliance, but also the agenda of the Saudi regime.
Riyadh has succeeded in coopting much of the Iranian exile opposition as it sponsors Iranian multilingual opposition media around the globe. The London-based Iran International is a Saudi network from which much of the Western coverage of Iran is derived.
There are two major factors at play in the Iranian crisis. One is a U.S.-led conspiracy which has not relented since 1979, aimed at toppling the regime. This conspiracy — like Cold War efforts to undermine the U.S.S.R. — is multi-pronged and includes Israel and the Gulf regimes.
The U.S. has neither forgiven nor forgotten that Iran was lost from the American camp after the 1979 revolution. Since Iran increased its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and armed and financed resistance groups in Lebanon and Palestine, the U.S. and Israel have been trying to undermine the Iranian regime.
Terrorism, sabotage and unrest have been instigated and engineered by Washington and Tel Aviv. Israel, for instance, brags in Western media about its role in murdering Iranian scientists and officials.
Iran, on the other hand, still harbors illusions that the American conspiracy can be negotiated with and that reason and diplomacy can sway the U.S. from its course of sanctions and aggression.
Recent protests in Iran, however, can’t be blamed on the U.S. alone. To be sure, the West will exploit any division or crisis in Iran to instigate – as much as it can – more trouble for Tehran.
If a country’s population is content overall, however, no outside conspiracy can undermine a sitting regime. Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt, for instance, faced an international war on his government and those efforts failed. (The exception was the United Arab Republic where Syria and Egypt united under Nasser’s leadership, but also where Gulf governments of the West and the Gulf sponsored a 1961 coup to destroy the unique experiment in unity).
No regime has an unlimited supply of political legitimacy. Any government, democratic or non-democratic, needs to constantly read public opinion and to try to respond to people’s minimum expectations and demands. When the gap between people’s expectations and demands and governments’ performance and policies becomes too wide, the government faces a serious crisis of legitimacy and performance.
Elements of Political Legitimacy
The Iranian regime has enjoyed various elements of political legitimacy since it came to power in 1979.
Political legitimacy is derived there from multiple sources not limited to electoral political legitimacy where a regime is supported or obeyed because the government speaks on behalf of the majority. The crisis of political legitimacy in Brazil and the U.S., for instance, stems from the fact that the population is split down the middle allowing the losing side to question the integrity and legitimacy of any election.
The leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini constituted the first major source of legitimacy for the Iranian regime after the revolution. Rulings and statements by Khomeini carried the religious and political legitimacy of the leader of what most Iranians at the time saw as a glorious revolution. The current office of the supreme leader is intended to draw upon the personal and religious legitimacy of Khomeini into the post-Khomeini regime.
With the passage of time, this source of legitimacy has lost power and appeal. Many Iranians never lived under Khomeini’s aura. He remains a historical figure but is no longer able to give the regime the same legitimacy.
The second source of legitimacy was the abolishment of the repression and torture of the Shah’s era. The Shah’s regime, as much as it was respected and admired in the West, was detested by most Iranians. Iranian opposition was the direct result of people’s insistence on ending the horrific SAVAK apparatus (which the U.S. helped set up in order to prolong the Shah’s rule and crush any opposition to it).
But the revolutionary aura waned over time as the new regime engaged in repression of its own. Most young Iranians cannot compare it to the Shah. The alternative-to-the-Shah formula of legitimacy may have worked in 1980s but no longer does today.
The third source of legitimacy is related to the Iranian regime’s ability to ward off external threats and aggression. Right after the toppling of the Shah, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launched — with Western and Gulf support — an unprovoked invasion of Iran. Thinking that the regime was too inexperienced and weak to respond effectively, Saddam sought the downfall of the revolutionary Iranian government.
Far from accomplishing this goal, Iran regrouped and launched a counter offensive that could have toppled Saddam had it not been for generous Western and Gulf support. Gulf regimes may have given more than $80 billion worth of military and economic aid to Saddam.
Winter Fund Drive!
Moreover, Iran effectively used the act of foreign aggression as rallying cry for Iranian nationalism. Today, while Iran faces a sinister international (Western-Gulf-Israeli) campaign of covert aggression, the Iranian public may have grown too accustomed to this conspiracy and become too skeptical about claims of foreign intervention. The people are far more able to identify with a nationalist stance in time of war. A period of covert operations is not as useful for nationalist mobilization.
The fourth source of Iranian government legitimacy was its ability in the 1980s to chart a third course, which was independent from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The time of Cold War rivalry is over. Iran is now solidifying its alliance with Russia in the hope of countering the international alliance against itself.
Iranian foreign policy does not necessarily appeal to the new Westernized college students in Tehran to the same degree that it once did back in the 1980s and 1990s. Consumerism and fetishism of commodities are the new global object of emulation for the youth.
Fifthly, the regime benefited from its early adherence to a regular, albeit flawed, election process. Elections are a staple of the political system in Iran and the Iranian parliament — contrary to Western media claims and assumptions — hosts vigorous debates and arguments, as does the press. But elections were never ideal: there is a special council run by the Supreme Leader which screens candidates and decides on political qualifications.
Furthermore, the Guardians’ Council (which supervises elections) has become more stringent and narrow: only those who adhere strictly to the hardline camp are approved to run for office.
In addition, some elections have been marred with irregularities as was the case in the last election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The regime — or any regime — may rig elections but by doing so it loses a major source of political legitimacy.
Lastly, the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected as a favorite of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He ran on a platform of “virtue” and the imposition of Islamic standards — or the regime’s definition of those standards. The president empowering the morality police to punish violators of the hijab code sent a message about the regime’s priority at a time of great economic distress.
For people in Iran, the country contrasted favorably with the governments of the Gulf. Recent changes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, as far as women and Islamic standards are concerned, have worsened the image of Iran, among Iranians themselves.
If Saudi Arabia (which is still more repressive than Iran) was able to remove the dress restrictions on women and able to loosen social restrictions, then surely Iran can do the same, especially if it does not want to be seen as more backward socially than Saudi Arabia.
As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004) and ran the popular The Angry Arab blog. He tweets as @asadabukhalil
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Winter Fund Drive!