The Campaign Spot

Maybe Everything You Know About Iran Is Right After All

I wonder if Fareed Zakaria still thinks his cover piece in Newsweek, on how “Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think,” is accurate.

In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as “a messianic, apocalyptic cult.” In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary.

Does the management of the election, and the reaction to the protests, seem shrewd and calculating to you?

Iran isn’t a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy. The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship. It might be best described as an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites. Even the so-called Supreme Leader has a constituency, the Assembly of Experts, who selected him and whom he has to keep happy. Ahmadinejad is widely seen as the “mad mullah” who runs the country, but he is not the unquestioned chief executive and is actually a thorn in the side of the clerical establishment. He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs—which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the Supreme Leader in the 2005 election. Even now the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority.

Divisions in the ruling class seem rather moot at this point. Those who counted the votes seemed set on declaring Ahmadinejad the winner by a landslide; the cops are running around beating protesters in the streets. We’ll see if supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei really offers anything resembling a serious investigation, but I’m not seeing many folks holding their breath. At this point, there’s those in power who have the guns, and there’s the folks in the street getting shot. A “pure” dictatorship would not behave terribly differently.

It seems like every story about Iran for the past two decades has featured young, hip, urban Iranians with the subtext, “Iran: It’s not just the Ayatollah anymore.” And from that, a lot of us outside the country had hoped or wondered that the country’s changing culture would eventually prompt a change in the way they are governed. Well, this is it. Either this shakes the regime, or the regime comes out of this with a firmer grip on power than ever before. It’s great that there are young, hip, urban Iranians who like America and the West. But as long as they’re powerless, American policy has to recognize the regime for what it is — ruthless, heavy-handed, oppressive, brutal, and menacing to the region and to our interests.

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