Cracking Theocracy

Posted July 08, 2009, at 6:12 p.m.

Although the full results likely won’t be seen for some time, last month’s election in Iran and its aftermath have left cracks in the country’s theocratic regime. Those cracks can’t simply be filled in — although a brutal leadership intent on staying in power will try, through violent means, to pretend they don’t exist. The difficulty for countries that seek an open, democratic Iran is to help the opposition in Iran widen the cracks without seeming to meddle in the country’s affairs.

Hours after voting ended on June 12, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by more than 11 million votes, prompting protests by backers of the more moderate Mir Houssein Mousavi. The Guardian Council, Iran’s top governing body, promised a partial review, but certified Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory in a matter of days.

The Iranian government increasingly used power to disperse street demonstrations and has threatened to sentence protestors to the death penalty. Mr. Mousavi has been labeled a traitor. The ruling regime, in other words, is working to cement its hold on power.

So it is significant that The Wall Street Journal this week reported that the Assembly of Qom Scholars and Researchers, a diverse group of clerics, called the election results “invalid” on its Web site. The assembly, which has been marginalized for its questioning of government policies, had called for an investigation of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory, but sent him a congratulatory message after the cursory review found him to be the winner.

The assembly apparently has changed its mind. According to the Journal, a statement on the assembly’s Web site says: “Candidates’ complaints and strong evidence of vote-rigging were ignored … peaceful protests by Iranians were violently oppressed … dozens of Iranians were killed and hun-dreds were illegally arrested.

“The outcome is invalid,” it concluded.

Over the weekend, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential cleric and former Iranian president, met with relatives of some of the jailed protestors. This was viewed as support for the political opposition.

Such a divide among the country’s religious leaders is significant.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is built on the notion of velayat-e faqih, roughly translated as divine power in government and moral matters. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, for example, called Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election a “divine assessment.”

“Millions of Iranians didn’t buy it,” Fareed Zakaria wrote of this statement in the June 20 Newsweek. “[They were] convinced that their votes — one of the key secular rights allowed them under Iran’s religious system — had been stolen.”

Later, Mr. Zakaria concluded: “It has become increasingly clear that in Iran today, legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular will.”

This does not mean that clerics who back Mr. Ahmadinejad will simply change their minds. Sadly there will be deadly crackdowns on future opposition protests as he and his backers try to stay in power. Eventually, however, their hold will be broken.

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