Ever since the first days of the Islamic Republic there have been two sovereignties in Iran, a divine and a 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 is derived from God's will, which, through the medium of Shi'ia institutions of an Imamate, is bestowed on the existing 'faqih' as the rightful ruler of the Shi'ite community, a perception which forms the foundation of the doctrine of the 'Velayat-i-Faqih'. Increasingly, the divine sovereignty has been less about religion than about political theology. As for the popular sovereignty, it has found its due place in the social work and political action of Iranian civil society. The presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of sovereignty, authority and legitimacy has always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of political power struggle among the contending forces. The advocates of civil and democratic liberties in Iran have tried to give the popular conception its due place in the framework of Iranian social and political institutions.
The present crisis in Iran following the Iranian presidential elections is rooted in the popular quest for the democratisation of the state and society and the conservative reaction and opposition to it. Furthermore, there is another factor distinguishing the current political crisis from the previous instances of political factionalism and internal power struggle in Iran. This is a crisis over a deep-seated ideological structure inherited from the Iranian Revolution.
On the one hand, those like Moussavi and Karubi, who have been among the architects of the Islamic regime and the challengers for the presidency in Iran and who believed that the Islamic nomenclature allowed scope for reform and renewal, find themselves at the head of a pro-democracy and pro-reform movement that continues defying beyond the results of the presidential election the very essence of illiberalism and authoritarianism in Iran.
On the other hand, there is another and equally important factor which 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 want another Iran. Most of them were not around or were too young to remember the revolution, but 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 necessarily the mindset of 70 per cent of its population who are under the age of 30. After all, the young Iran's 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 ninth presidential elections, which led to Ahmadinejad's election, was already indicative of an internal crisis at the heart of the Islamic Republic's political framework exemplified by the conflict between popular sovereignty and authoritarian rule. The current conflicts between pro-reform and pro-Ahmadinejad groups after the re-election of the former president 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 judgment of the public space.
At moments like this, it should not be forgotten that each time democracy is intimated, 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 the nuclear one, Iraq's future or Afghanistan.
The American president has made it clear at different occasions that he would like to engage Tehran in diplomacy. But the re-election of Ahmadinejad would add to the fears of the Israelis and Saudis regarding the security of their countries and their citizens living close to a hostile Iran. The US would have hoped for the victory of the reformists. These hopes have been belied and the US would have to make do with Ahmadinejad. It is true that the American president counted on Ahmadinejad's defeat to justify his administration's decision to punt on the nuclear issue. However, it is highly doubtful that the Iranian unrest would somehow blossom into a flame that burns away Ahmadinejad and his group.
But we should not forget that 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. In short, 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.
The writer, former head of the Contemporary Philosophy Department of the Cultural Research Centre in Tehran, has written more than 20 books including Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity. This piece was first published in The Indian Express.
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