While some may argue that Iran is a democracy, it is, in fact, a nation controlled within the Bayt, or house of the Ayatollah. A house that is crumbling.
At the core of the Ayatollah’s empire is a small group of leaders who have planned for and created a Shia theocracy for the past thirty years. The Bayt followed a straightforward but dynamic course. It elevated the Ayatollah to a mythical character with supernatural powers. It accumulated as much wealth as possible to buy and support street thugs in Iran and neighboring countries. It took credit for any victory and blamed elected officials for any defeat. In contrast, the elected officials had to balance the books and face the music.
Now, this house of cards is collapsing. The empire is lost, and the Zionist archenemy is 21 miles from the border. The coronavirus has ravaged the nation. The economy is in shambles. Corruption is rampant, and the disgruntled population is in the majority. Strikes have spread across several economic sectors. Financial market crises are adding more fuel to discontent, and massive unemployment creates survival problems for many. Environmental disaster, in the form of air and water pollution, degradation of farmland, and increasing climate change, looms overall.
In such dire circumstances, the old trick of dodging responsibility no longer works. The mounting problems are eroding the core of the theocracy. Some of the Ayatollah’s more daring associates see that the emperor has no clothes even if they don’t acknowledge it publicly. Still, the daily inertia of decision making at the Bayt has created a political vacuum that elected officials cannot fill. The demoralized and discouraged elected president has lost all his capabilities. He faces an empty treasury, the scorn of the public, and a demoralized working class.
These realities have forced Bayt to find a way out. As expected, the solution is more of the same familiar approaches and none has the potential to elevate Iran from its current condition.
Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, the Ayatollah’s son and heir apparent, represents one attempt at preservation. His radical tendencies promise a return to the original revolutionary zeal and the bloody fundamentalist principles of the Revolution. In an effort to solidify control and address growing corruption, Mojtaba developed and began to implement a plan to replace some 8,000 aging and corrupt leaders in the judiciary, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its intelligence, military and national radio and television.
Such Bayt housekeeping attempts have caused pushback from the institutions’ senior leaders. This group of leaders represents the second power center at the top closest to the supreme leader. Perhaps fearing for their own careers, these senior officials also include General Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and many high ranking officials. This group advises a slower course of reform, insisting any change should be gradual and not generational.
A third group, which possesses a good deal less power and influence, advocates reconciliation with past reformers, the rehabilitation of former president Mohammad Khatami, and ending the house arrest of Mir- Hossein Moussavi and Medhi Karoubi. Their proposals seem to have little chance.
In fact, none of the proposed solutions represents the magic bullet Iran needs to rescue itself from complete collapse. Here, the reality of dictatorial power reveals itself; commands alone are not enough to save a corrupt and wounded nation. If they were, many of history’s great empires would still stand. This predicament has left the regime in a precarious position, one from which it has no way to extricate itself.
On August 30, disgruntled leaders expressed their concerns in a secure video conference with the Ayatollah, who came out in full support of his son, adding more to the confusion and dismay of his leaders. It seems that the only solution has been to incite fear among the population by increasing punishments for active protests or demands for political reform.
But long jail sentences and executions of many innocent young people will not solve Iran’s fundamental social problems. These actions will cause the regime to lose even more of its legitimacy. Like all other totalitarian regimes, somehow, they have managed to paint themselves into a corner. An end to the regime is the only escape, and it will come sooner than later.
Kamal Azari and Mohsen Sazegara are Founding Board Members of the Iran Transition Council, an alliance of Iranians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds launched last year as an alternative voice to the government in Iran. Azari directs the ITC in the United States. Sazegara directs the ITC Civil Resistance group and was one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran.