Two misconceptions attach themselves to the current regime in Iran. The first — favored by supporters of the last administration — considers it a backwards-looking, medievalist enterprise. In fact, its institutions resemble nothing in the history of Iran or Islam. An “Islamic republic” was cobbled together from Western models by Ayatollah Khomeini, longtime exile in Paris. Thus there are no caliphs, sheiks, or shahs, but one will find a president, a prime minister, and a parliament. Elections, as we know from the present turmoil, are regularly held.
Enter the second misconception, apparently entertained by some in President Obama’s camp. This is that Iranian elections matter. In fact, candidates for all offices are screened — pre-selected, really — by an entity called the Guardian Council, which represents the interests of the clergy. Agreement on principles is pretty universal, as is support for the Islamic Revolution. The purported dissident in Iran’s unfolding power struggle, Hossein Mousavi, belongs to the ruling elite and was prime minister during the hard years of the war against Saddam Hussein.
The Guardian Council, apparently alien to modern practice, can trace its origin to the oldest and most influential book of Western political theory: Plato’s Republic. In that work, the question is posed: what political system will produce a virtuous citizen? Since, in his view, virtue depended on reason, and the rational life was accessible to very few, Plato comes down in favor of government by an enlightened minority, armed with wide discretionary powers. They were the Guardians, and their job was to make sure the majority, with their addled, consumerist passions, didn’t go astray.
To this end, the Guardians assumed control of every aspect of life. In Plato’s ideal commonwealth, they forbade emotional music and closed down the theaters, because “dramatic poetry has a most formidable power of corrupting even men of high character.” Rationalist zealots, who believe the citizenry are like children to be protected from themselves, have followed this line ever since.
I count the Iranian mullahs in that number. They command a system in which customary authority has been “rationalized,” modernized, expanded. They too have banned emotive music. They have tried, without much success, to keep out the formidably corrupting power of Hollywood. They have put women in their place, and treated young men like a herd of sheep. Like Plato’s Guardians, they have access to secret wisdom; like pushy parents, they know better.
Iran’s political system is illiberal and anti-democratic. But it is a republic on the Platonic model.
I note that our own government has, over the last century, suffered the creep of guardianship. The Federal Reserve has vast authority over banking and the money supply. The Securities and Exchange Commission does the same for the stock markets. The FCC shields us from indecent broadcasting. These entities are unelected and not transparently accountable. They rule and regulate behind closed doors, to ensure that, in their limited fields of purview, we Irrationals don’t go astray.
This brings us to the crisis of legitimacy playing out in the streets of Teheran. The election results, declaring the sitting president the winner, have been called into question. Whether fraud was committed or not is by now besides the point. Whether Mousavi becomes president or not is also besides the point. The mobilization of huge crowds, the confrontations with regime thugs, the anger and the excitement visible in the photos and videos from Teheran, are not aimed at installing one elite figure over another.
Quite literally, the Iranians marching in the streets want regime change. They chant, “Death to the Taliban, in Kabul and Teheran.” Their manifesto calls for the “dissolution of all organizations — both secret and public — designed for the oppression of the Iranian people.” They are sick of being treated like children. They demand the overthrow of guardianship, so they can become, at long last, moral and political adults, and guardians of their own lives.
This is a pre-revolutionary moment. Half measures appear unlikely to settle anything. Either the regime will end the protest in blood and iron, Tiananmen-style, or it will find itself exiled right out of Plato’s republic.
The President, I observe, has been criticized for his reticence on the matter. Certainly, we should maintain our moral compass, and proclaim, loud and clear, that Americans consider those men and women struggling to break the grip of self-anointed guardians to be kindred souls. But we should hold no illusions about our power or influence. The final act of the Iranian drama will be decided in a clash of irreconcilable ideals, and there’s a vast disproportion in the brute power available to the two sides.
Usually, the people with the guns win. But not always.