Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives at the United Nations this week for what promises, once again, to be a belligerent address. Media speculation is sure to focus on his diminishing political fortunes — underscored by tensions with the judiciary over the fate of the two American hikers held since July 2009 — the shifting balances of power within the theocratic state and, as always, Iranian nuclear ambitions. Missing from this narrative is a key point: The Islamic Republic has entered its post-authoritarian stage.
To be clear, the clerical regime in Tehran is not embracing democratic principles, nor has it softened the forced repression central to its rule. The clerical regime is an untypical authoritarian state — different from, say, Syria — in that it relies on ideological conformity to arbitrarily apply its power. The momentous accomplishment of the Green movement is that it has exposed the regime’s systematic lies and turned an enduring light on its abuses. Opposition efforts since the 2009 presidential election have undermined the regime’s durability. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s bluster is irrelevant, as he is an inconsequential emissary of a regime uneasily heading toward the dustbin of history.
The Tehran regime’s pledge to harmonize pluralistic values with Islamic religious injuctions was always as fraudulent as democratic centralism or socialist legality. As with the Soviet Union, the theocratic regime needs more than brute force to survive. Its viability rests on its ability to permeate society with its hypocrisy. Within this Orwellian context, consider the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recent exhortation: “This year, we have elections at the end of the year . . . everyone should be vigilant and attentive in order to guard the elections as a gift of God.” In clerical mystification, fabricating electoral results is called safeguarding elections. The regime’s manufactured reality rarely observes limits. The state claims to uphold human rights standards, yet it presents show trials and other transgressions as sanctioned by divine ordinance. The regime claims to seek diplomatic accord with the West, yet its conduct is an affront to international convention. The clerical oligarchs claim to fear nothing, yet in fact they fear everything: their citizens, their neighbors, each other.
The real question is: Why does the regime hold so tenaciously to a narrative that convinces no one? The Islamic Republic, like all intensely ideological states, seeks to condition a citizenry that may not believe its absurd assertions but is willing to concede to them. If everyone tolerates the lies, then the society becomes conformist and obedient. As vicious as the regime’s police apparatus may be, it, too, requires a degree of popular self-regulation to efficiently carry out its functions. In other words, for the Islamic Republic to survive, the Iranian public must deny some basic truths. The Iranian people have cooperated for decades.
The Green movement, however, has crossed the boundaries of permissible discourse, shattering the national discipline by declaring that the emperor wears no clothes.