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.
Through everyday acts of defiance such as work stoppages, student protests and denunciations through social media, the opposition contests the regime’s justifications, unraveling its fabrications and denigrating its claims of omnipresence. Such dissent is subversive, as it lifts the ideological veils that loyalists must cloak themselves in to endure and enforce regime commands. For instance, the Islamic Republic had offered its torturers the comfortable illusion of morality by saying that their brutal acts were designed to uphold a virtuous republic forged in the path of God. The Green movement’s ideological triumph has exposed the lie: State functionaries can no longer deceive their conscience. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad oversee an elite divided against itself, with first-generation revolutionaries and esteemed clerics joining the rank of dissidents and security organs unsure of their cadre.
On top of their domestic stress, Khamenei and his cohorts have to confront the contagion of the Arab Spring. Iran cannot remain hermetically sealed from the transitions taking place around it. The regime’s crude attempts to link the Arab uprisings to its own Islamist revolution underscore the depth of its concerns. For its part, the Green movement needs to respond to the challenge of the Arab awakening and move beyond de-legitimizing the regime into confronting it on the streets. As the region evolves and the Islamic Republic’s power structures continue to erode, change is likely to come full circle from where it all started — the streets of Tehran. The Green movement and the Arab Spring are intimately linked, sharing the same values and shaping each other’s destinies.
When Ahmadinejad takes the stage at the United Nations, the only thing that will become apparent is how the world — now including the Iranian people — has moved beyond his republic’s stale shibboleths and discursive postulates. In the end, Ahmadinejad speaks neither on behalf of the religion he is sure to invoke or the nation he purports to lead.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.