Tehran Politics: Are the Mullahs Losing Their Grip?
You are not a wise man, you tyrant,” raps the Iranian female singer Bahar. “Why do your clothes smell like blood? . . . Why do you crush this cry for justice? The people don’t deserve such disdain.” Her chiding words against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei go to the heart of the problem that the Islamic Republic faces: the growing illegitimacy of a cruel and inaccessible theocracy whose control over Iran might well be slipping.
Throughout Iran’s history, political power has clustered around strongmen—often shahs or kings until the Islamic revolution of 1979—rather than institutions. So not surprisingly, the most serious challenge to Iran’s post-revolutionary system of theocratic government, known as velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, has also arisen from a politician at the center of the executive branch of national politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is best known to the world as a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite given to apocalyptic threats and bombast, but despite this somewhat grotesque international image, he still is viewed internally as an astute, successfully manipulative politician with a sure populist touch. His reelection to a second term in office was engineered by his appointees in the Interior Ministry, then endorsed by the theocratic Guardian Council and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei after the clergy recognized the fait accompli. As attention among protesters shifted away from the fraud involved with his reelection to the far more central issues of why Iran needs a supreme leader and other clergymen running the state, Ahmadinejad and his appointees have capitalized on the public challenge to the theocratic center by wresting away more power and independence.