Which Christmas will the mullahs pick?

A key aspect of the current situation, it strikes me, is that the opposition’s best hope for the future is the  clergy. I am not just thinking about the struggle Ayatollah Rafsanjani appears to be having in Qom to persuade the Experts  Assembly to get off its hands and do something (last I heard he hasn‘t managed to firm his support much past 30%, with a lot sitting on the fence).

I am talking about the wider context of propelling Iran forward in the way Moussavi and his followers appear to want.

The huge problem the country now faces is that it appears horribly polarised between two large and totally opposed camps. These  essentially boil down to those that want to lighten official interference in their lives, to varying degrees, and stop being an international pariah,  and those who think there still isn’t enough interference and view anyone from the West as the spawn of the devil. And the only people capable in the short term of making a stab at bridging the gap in a peaceful manner are the clergy.  What are the alternatives?

—  A hard-line victory that continues and intensifies the level of repression in Iran. This still looms large and could work in the short term, but over a longer period it would surely unravel on several  fronts, not least that it is undone by the economic rigidity and incompetence at the heart of the system.

—  A victory for “the people” that actually sweeps the clergy aside along with the hardliners as a new democratic republic is established. This would alienate so many people that those currently in power could continue to be a highly destabilising opposition  and, without repression of the kind the opposition has fought so hard against,  the new regime would be a dead duck.

—  The emergence of an Iranian “Napoleon”, perhaps from the ranks of a very subdued army,  to take over a nation increasingly frustrated by the chaos into which it has fallen.

Only the clergy can hope to steer Iran in a way that avoids these outcomes. The problem, apart from the fact that they find it hard enough agreeing on the most basic Islamic rules,  is that they are stuck between two equally unappealing scenarios that would likely result in them losing their grip on power.

Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his belief that the clergy is riven with corruption, so he and his allies won’t want them to have a long-term future. He pays them scant regard as it is.

And, while the clergy might play a significant role in events after any Moussavi victory,  liberalisation would inevitably bring with it pressures over the longer term to relax their grip on the levers of power. They only have to look at the history of democracy in the West to see how that one works.

Ah, you might say, but what if they simply try  to make the existing constitution work a bit better than it has?

After all, Iranians have for 30 years pretty  much put up with the deprivations imposed on them by the regime and played to its rules, because at least they had the fig-leaf of a sort of democracy where they could make their feelings felt every four years, even if nothing much came of it. It was only when the regime broke its own rules and tried to change the game by stealing votes  on a massive, mind-boggling scale, robbing the people of even that tiny fig leaf,  that the trouble really erupted.

Unfortunately it  is too late. To make the constitution work now would need the ousting of Khamenei, and  Ahmadinejad along with him. And that would signal a clear victory for the Moussavi camp. Imagine how they would react if the mullahs then tried to enforce the status quo.

So you might think that what is concentrating the minds of Iran’s turbanned turkeys at the moment is which Christmas to vote for.

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