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Belmont Club

Sea change

June 23rd, 2009 - 8:28 pm

The Financial Times described the dilemma of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who has been forced by events to either lead from the front or be left behind. It is the dilemma of every leader who seeks to “ride the tiger”. The Chinese phrase “Ch’i ‘hu nan hsia pei” means that “he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount”, which means that members of the elite who seek to ride a popular wave are often obliged to go where it takes them. The Financial Times writes:

“Poor Moussavi, we took the easel away from his hands and gave him a gun,” quipped a supporter of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the aggrieved reformist Iranian presidential candidate who is now the country’s main opposition leader. … But within the political establishment that backed him, and the protesters that anointed him their leader, everyone is waiting for signs of how firmly he can hold the “gun” and push forward protest…. Some of Mr Moussavi’s supporters are so enraged that their demands are already shifting from a re-run of the election to a challenge of the regime itself. “People, especially the middle class that supports Moussavi, have demands now that go beyond the law – they are moving to wanting bigger change,” said one opposition supporter. What they lacked was planning, he added.

As I wrote in the Day After, if Moussavi cannot stay at the head of forces he has tapped, they will find a new leader. So the odds are that Mousavi will drop the easel and take up the gun or be left behind. On that occasion I wrote: “But even if Khamenei has beaten back the demonstrators, or bought off Mousavi it is not over. In all likelihood some of the opposition movement will move into a less spontaneous, more clandestine phase: out of the public gaze to be carried on, on both sides, by those with the determination and relentlessness for the job. It’s the world of the cell, cutout, safehouse, the samizdat, the pistol — and alas for some — the bomb. How the resistance will fare, or what its members will evolve into is hard to predict. One thing is probable: that if Mousavi has sold them out, the remnants will require another leadership core.”

Now we have news of concrete demands not for justice within the system, but for the end of the system itself. The Saudi news site Al Arabiya writes:

Religious leaders are considering an alternative to the supreme leader structure after at least 13 people were killed in the latest unrest to shake Tehran and family members of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were arrested amid calls by former President Mohammad Khatami for the release of all protesters. … The discussions have taken place in a series of secret meetings convened in the holy city of Qom and included Jawad al-Shahristani, the supreme representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the foremost Shiite leader in Iraq. An option being considered is the resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president following condemnation by the United States and other European nations for violence and human rights violations against unarmed protestors.

Riding the tiger is dangerous. Maybe some clerics, having discovered a large striped feline beneath them bounding toward a cliff, have decided to try and lead things from the front. Good luck to them in dismounting the tiger. Events in Iran have taken on a dynamic all their own. If proof were needed that a really important change has happened, and that leaders are seeking to get in front of it news that the Southern Iraqi religious leader Sistani has become involved has provided the final confirmation. Radio Free Europe reports:

Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah television, which has been doing some provocative reporting and whose Tehran bureau has been ordered shut by Iranian authorities, has reported that Hashemi Rafsanjani met very recently with representatives of the Shi’ite world’s highest authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives in neighboring Iraq.

Threatswatch writes (and read the whole thing):

This is a huge development. One of the biggest questions I and others have had since the Iranian protests/revolt/revolution began was whether Mousavi would be any different in tangible effect (Hizballah & Hamas support, etc.) than Ahmadinejad and whether Rafsanjani was seeking to sack ‘Supreme’ Leader Khamenei simply to acquire the powerful position for himself. That question perhaps may have been answered today. My ears first perked up when word made it through the grapevines over the weekend that Rafsanjani had been meeting with other Ayatollahs and clerics in Qom, and had among them a representative of Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Why? Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2007 made two very critical statements: that “I am a servant of all Iraqis, there is no difference between a Sunni, a Shiite or a Kurd or a Christian,” and that Islam can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. You will never hear such words slip past the lips of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. Ever. Sistani’s presence at the Rafsanjani talks in Qom, Iran, through a representative brings therefore added significance. And the al-Arabiya report above seems to suggest that Rafsanjani is not seeking Sistani’s support for superficial reasons. In November 2007 at National Review Online, I wrote about this aspect of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, including a reference to another analysis I had written earlier in the spring.

In fact, what exists is a deep rivalry between the revolutionary Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the traditionalist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, both claiming authority over the Shi’a faith. While the Khomeinist revolutionary Khameini clearly believes in Shi’a theocracy, the Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani believes that the faith can exist within a democracy without theological conflict. And while the Iranians work to spin the growing Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda as Americans “negotiating with terrorists,” Sistani himself has always had open channels of communication with American forces and the Iraqi government.

Why does this matter for Iran and Iranians? Pay close attention here, for Iraq’s Sistani carries great weight among the Iranian Shi’a faithful.

Sistani’s appeal does not end at the Iraqi border, as Iranians increasingly observe his leadership with interest and fondness. Some are “intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi’ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq,” which is fundamentally different in approach than the Iranian theocratic brand of dictated observance and obedience. The Boston Globe’s Anne Barnard reports that within Tehran’s own central bazaar, “an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric.”

If that didn’t quite sink in, go read that paragraph again. many Iranian merchants have been sending their 20% tithes to Sistani, not Khamenei. Since at least 2007. I spoke to the significance of Rafsanjani seeking Sistani’s support earlier on ‘The Steve Schippert Show’ on RFC Radio just before the al-Arabiya story broke. His name is an attention-getter for those aware of players and forces in both Iran and Iraq. And for good reason. Perhaps in Iran, just as in Iraq today, true democracy can exist “without theological conflict” with the Shi’a faith. And perhaps the most unlikely cast of available men in Iran are set to bring that to be. Perhaps only something close, or closer. But whatever the change, and the extent of the change – and it appears the intent is significant change and not simply a game of Shuffling Ayatollahs – it will be positive for Iranians, for the region, for Americans and for the entire world. I think it is nearly inevitable at his point, and time is not on the regime’s side.

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Earth to Richard Cohen, Earth to Richard Cohen. Kitties are cool.


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