In the Platonic republic of Iran, the guardians fall out

December 23, 2009

Events in Iran are moving in an interesting direction.  Large, anti-regime demonstrations have erupted once again, following the death of a dissident ayatollah.  The police chief promises “fierce” confrontations with any who take to the streets, and a paramilitary mafioso threatens “physical action” against same.  The putative president of Iran, who began the crisis last June by rigging his election, has cut short a trip to the provinces to keep an eye on the situation.

But this is just the surface of things.  The interesting development is taking place behind the drama of demonstration and repression:  the ruling elites of Iran, its guardian class, appear to be losing their grip.

Recall my contention that this regime, far from a medievalist fantasy, rests on political ideas borrowed almost entirely from the West.  It doesn’t have a caliph but it does have a president and a parliament, for example.  It holds elections, however fraudulent.  None of these practices are even mentioned in the Koran.

The regime has embraced Western trappings, but with a difference.  A Guardian Council makes all real decisions.  Of course, this body can also be found in the political philosophy of the West.  Iran today is a fully-loaded version of Plato’s republic.

The Platonic veneer gave Iran a stability and a legitimacy it would not otherwise have enjoyed.  To sustain themselves in power, the ruling elites didn’t require majority approval, but they needed unity, based on self-interest, among themselves.  The failed  elections in June began to fracture that unity.  While the huge demonstrations in the street were almost certainly anti-regime in inspiration, the opposition candidate was a member in good standing of the guardian class.

When the guardians turn on one another, the only recourse is to brute force – and when that happens, the brutes take charge.  With every passing day, Iran looks less like a Platonic republic and more like a thugocracy on the Hugo Chavez model, with the police and paramilitary in command.  Such bully-boys love “physical action” which ends in blood and death.  It’s what they do best and, from their perspective, it makes sense:  brutality will be justified if the demonstrators are beaten into silence.

So far, that hasn’t been the case.  The BBC reports the anti-regime crowds chanting “Criminals, rapists, death to the leadership” and – in a strange echo of John Paul II – “We are not afraid, we are not afraid.”

The ayatollahs have lost their threadbare legitimacy, and left the field to the gangsters and thugs clustered around the president.  Terror is the order of the day, the only strategy understood by this group.  If they succeed, the regime will have become more nakedly  savage, less stable, and – I suspect – more short-lived.

If they fail, and the opposition in truth is not afraid, Iran will be in for an interesting winter.