By Karl Reiner
Authoritarian rulers are not uncommon to Iran. As Iran's June presidential election nears, the Guardian Council has yet to announce the list of approved candidates. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to see a suitable conservative elected as president. In a country facing a faltering economy, sanctions and entanglement in Syria, the Supreme Leader may face some difficulty in getting his way.
In the 1960s, the Shah of Iran wanted to turn Iran into a new Persian Empire. He aspired to make it a major force in the Persian Gulf area. As the British withdrew their military presence east of Suez, the Shah was ready to step in and put his plan into action.
Oil revenues allowed the Shah to make large arms purchases. Using the Cold War to his advantage, he knew if he couldn't buy military equipment from the U.S., the Soviet Union would sell him all the arms he wanted. Within a few short years, Iran's military was turned into one of the most technologically advanced forces in the world.
In 1971, Iran was America's largest arms export customer, the Shah cultivating his image as a pro-American leader in a troubled region. Unfortunately, due to its overemphasis on the military, his plan was flawed. The Shah ignored warnings that Iran's interests would be better served by a more diverse allocation of resources. More emphasis needed to be placed on countrywide economic development.
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown by an anti-American Islamic regime that reoriented Iran into an Islamic Republic. The revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted to ensure that Islamic rulings applying to governance were adhered to and implemented. Not all Iranian clerics shared his view. The dissenters argued that clerics should not become involved in the administration of government.
Khomeini had no use or leniency for those who he felt betrayed his concept of the revolution. He had them executed. Worried moderates predicted that the absolute authority vested in the clergy's right to rule might degenerate into religious and clerical despotism. The events following the June 2009 election exposed the absolutist nature of the country's highest religious authority.
The prediction made by the moderates came true as the authorities announced that 85% of voters had gone to the polls. President Ahmadinejad won reelection with 62% of the votes cast. Protesters, who believed fraud and massive vote rigging had occurred, got a forceful response from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He would not tolerate protests questioning the validity of the election. Expressing dissent, he said, was the greatest crime one can commit against the nation of Iran.
Defeated candidates were bluntly told that they would be held accountable as the security forces moved in. Khamenei gave hardliners permission to use force in putting down protests. Other clerics denounced the brutal tactics used to suppress those peacefully protesting the election result. They have also criticized the mistreatment, abuse and torture of imprisoned protesters.
The government's harsh actions have prompted a rethinking of Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of governance and the notion of clerical sovereignty. The arbitrary rulings that send people to prison for propagating slander and lies against the Islamic Republic of Iran are being questioned.
There are muted calls for limits on the power of the ruling clerics. There is a desire for the establishment of checks and balances, a way to reduce the abuse of power and corruption. The election will show if the Supreme Leader is willing to relinquish some of his power. Given the fact that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the chances are slim. The growing internal friction in Iran further complicates finding a a resolution to the sanctions and nuclear issues.