Iran's Crisis of Legitimacy

07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TORONTO -- Ever since the first days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there have been two sovereignties -- the divine and the popular.

The concept of popular sovereignty, which is derived from the indivisible will of the Iranian nation, is inscribed in Article I of the constitution of the Islamic Republic. And the divine concept of sovereignty, which is derived from God's will through the medium of Shi'i institutions of an Imamate, is bestowed on the existing "faqih" as the rightful ruler of the Shiite community, a perception that forms the foundation of the doctrine of the "Velayat i Faqih."

Increasingly, divine sovereignty has been less about religion than about political theology. As for the popular sovereignty, it has found its due place in social networks and political action of Iranian civil society. The presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of sovereignty, authority and legitimacy have always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of the political power struggle among contending forces.

The present crisis in Iran following the Iranian presidential elections is rooted in the popular quest for the democratization of the state and society and the conservative reaction and opposition to it.

But there is another factor distinguishing the current political crisis from the previous instances of political factionalism and internal power struggles in Iran.

This is a crisis over a deep-seated ideological structure inherited from the Iranian revolution. On the one hand, those, like Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, who have been among the architects of the Islamic regime and the challengers for the presidency, believed that the Islamic nomenclature allowed scope for reform and renewal. They now find themselves at the head of a pro-democracy and pro-reform movement that seeks to defy the very essence of illiberalism and authoritarianism in Iran.

On the other hand, there is another and equally important factor that must be taken into consideration. Most of the demonstrators who have been questioning the entire legitimacy of Iran's electoral process in the past week are not, unlike their parents, revolutionaries. They belong to a new generation who did not experience the revolution of 1979 and wants another Iran. Most of them were not around or are too young to remember the revolution. They made up one-third of eligible voters in the Iranian presidential election.

These youngsters are a reminder of the fact that a monolithic image of Iran does not reflect the mindset of the 70 percent of the population who are under the age of 30. The young Iranians' quest for democracy has presented serious challenges not only to the status of the doctrine of the "Velayat i Faqih" and questions of its legitimacy, but also to the reform movement and its democratic authenticity.

Having said this, one needs also to add that Islamic Iran is more divided than at any time since 1979, a divide between traditionalists and modernists that has been deep in Iran since the Islamic revolution.

But in this election the divide has become deeper than ever before between the state and the nation. It also created a gap between those who believe that normal economic and political relations with the West are vital to Iran's future and those who disdain such relations as violations of the Islamic revolution's ideals.

Clearly, the outcome of the 2005 presidential elections, which led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in the first place, was already indicative of the internal crisis between popular sovereignty and authoritarian rule at the heart of the Islamic Republic's political framework. The current conflicts between pro-reform and pro-Ahmadinejad groups after his re-election represent, in fact, a political struggle between the republican essence of Iran and its clerical oligarchy. The republican gesture pays attention almost exclusively to the legitimacy of the public space, but the clerical establishment refuses to grant any legitimacy to the judgments of the public.

At moments like this, it should not be forgotten that each time democracy is intimidated, silenced and postponed for another day by a show of force in a country like Iran, it is a loss of credibility for those in charge and a crisis of legitimacy for the entire political system. Should street violence in Iran escalate, it also spells the possibility of an escalation of violence in the Middle East. This could also complicate international efforts to deal with Iran on issues such as its nuclear program, Iraq's future or Afghanistan.

The American president has made it clear that he would like to engage Tehran in diplomacy. But the re-election of Ahmadinejad adds to the fears of the Israelis and Saudis regarding the security of their country and their citizens living within range of a hostile Iran. The U.S. hoped for the victory of the reformists. These hopes have been belied, and the U.S. will have to make do with Ahmadinejad. The American president apparently counted on Ahmadinejad's defeat to justify his administration's decision to punt on the nuclear issue.

In the end, it is highly doubtful that the current Iranian unrest will somehow blossom into a flame that burns away Ahmadinejad and his group. Even so, for the first time in its political history, Iran finds itself thrown into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy.

This is a turning point in Iran's domestic and foreign policies that the world cannot ignore. Letting the genie of democracy out of the bottle in Iran is like opening a Pandora's box that the Iranian regime is clearly fearful it won't be able to close.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran's best-known dissidents, headed the contemporary studies department of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran until his arrest in April 2006. He was released that August and now lives in exile in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.

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