Legitimacy in Iran

Before we bake an intelligence cake, there is a case that the way Iranians behave today has roots going all the way back to the Sassanian Empire of ancient Persia. I’m not a big fan of  heavy historical influence because so many civilizations shed their skins and fuggadaboudit. But Iran, something in the water? In this case, it might have to do with poetry.

The apex of Iran’s government is a theocracy, but it must contain unusual, hidden features. As Robert Baer remarked (previous post), Iran frustrates analysts, providing continual surprise. This suggests that, at the unconscious level, we share a common framework of thought that needs revision.

The concept of power we intuitively reach for may be the result of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which mostly killed off the early Christian heresies. Apart from the Eastern Orthodox split-off, the right to rule became a mostly bipolar contest between the monarchs, and the Church, and remained so until  Martin Luther. And the number 2 admits the most simple definition of power: A having power over B means that A can make B do something. This is the street meaning, which has lead to many misunderstandings, such as the notion that the U.S. President is the most “powerful” chief executive in the world.

The most powerful rulers in the modern period were probably the stronger Russian Czars, culminating with Stalin. For them, and for Saddam Hussein, the visible symbol of power was capricious execution.   Hitler was by comparison  a political animal, a minter of power, which he cannily distributed among various fiefs.

But the  arc of Iran is not the arc of the West. It is a path with surprising twists: pluralistic, communistic, “free love”, multicultural tolerance; episodes of fascinating social experimentation echoing modernity; each ending with the barbarity characteristic of the ancient world.

Persian poetry is everything the chador hides. Theoretically, it should have been digested away by the puritanical aspects of Shi’ism, but there it is, as perfect as a diamond pulled from a dark rock seam. It is actually an intelligence question to ask: Who in the leadership likes Persian poetry? For those who wonder if music is a mind-virus, Ferdowsi is proof that a meme can survive fifty generations. And Ferdowsi, who wrote when Islam had already come to Persia, was himself motivated as a preservationist. The persistence of pre-Islamic cultural memes could include legitimacy of the right to rule: how it is acquired, transmitted, and rescinded. At least two historians of Iran have looked at this.

At the apex, political power springs from legitimacy. In the West, although the “divine right of kings” was not codified until late, it actually goes way back. Any “Christian” victor in a bloody hatchet job was eager to use sanctification for validation. Perhaps this worked because it was imposed, along with Christianity, on a culturally primitive Europe.

In A History of Iran, (Basic, 2008) Michael Axworthy relates a more sophisticated theory of legitimacy (p57). Quoting, “The king ruled on the basis of divine grace… (kvarrah)…and was allowed to raise taxes and keep soldiers, but only on the basis that he ruled justly and not tyrannically…The abstract principle could be used by either side.”

The contrast with the Magna Carta, the first attempt in the West to limit monarchical power, is striking. The Magna Carta is a legal document. The Persian equivalent is based on a principle, without specifying who is to interpret, or judge. Another writer, whose name eludes me, analogizes with the Tyrian purple dye of royal use, saying that the legitimacy of a Sassanian ruler was like a dye that stained the ruler, and his inheritors. But under certain circumstances, that dye, the sign of legitimacy, could be lost. Most Persian dynastic changes occurred in the usual, brutal way, but there is at least one case, (ditto, p65) where the ruler was put on trial.

But how operative is such an ancient principle in modern times? Axworthy’s account of the revolution of 1905-1911 is telling. Multiple poles (excluding the foreign elements) emerged in contention: the ulema (religious establishment), defending religious prerogative, a Majlis (legislature), seeking legitimacy, an intelligentsia seeking revolution, and the Shah, defending himself. In1906, Iran had more than a hundred newspapers (ditto, p204.)

In addition to the usual revolutionary bullets, they were arguing. No other 20th century revolution resembles this. The modern revolution is a secretive decapitation strike, where movements of force are visible, but with communiques rather than literature.

Axworthy’s subtitle, “Empire of the Mind”, gains inspiration from Churchill, who said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind” (Harvard University, September 6, 1943). The 1979 revolution shared this split nature, the richness of the factional landscape, accompanied by the usual measure of horrific brutality.

The violence was horrific enough, yet it did not achieve the stunned silence of Stalin’s Russia, or of Chinese villages when Mao was executing landowners. Instead, a largely secular society rebounded, denied public expression, but with accommodation by the theocracy in the private sphere, by what we might call institutional hypocrisy. The dichotomy between public and private behavior in what is more than nominally (and less than totally) a theocracy is striking. And theocracy is a Khomeini innovation, new to Shi’ism. This is why Ayatollah Sistani is so withdrawn in Najaf. According to classical Shi’ism, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So Islamic theocracy is vulnerable from the perspective of Shi’ite ideology.

This is a scene where the right to rule cannot be settled. Each faction tries to acquire the purple dye; each fails. It gives reason  to Ahmadinejad’s strategy: a religious claim to legitimate rule, yet independent of Qom. But what made him think he would succeed?

Next: Applying this to the Ahmadinejad weirdness; intelligence factoids; baking the intelligence cake.





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