No less an authority than Robert Baer, former C.I.A. operative and author of The Devil We Know (Crown, 2008), expressed frustration with the opacity of the Iranian political system (YouTube interview, 36:12->). On July 26, 2009, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by removing the intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, who traditionally reported directly to Khamenei ( YouTube interview, 39:40.)
But the greater challenge actually preceded, on July 17th, when Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie as his chief of staff. The alleged association of both men with Hojjatieh, a secretive religious sect, was a challenge to the religious establishment, which Mashaie verbalized in the following two years. Besides his public pronouncements, which comprised heretical conflations of religious and secular, there was this:
- Khamenei is the boss. While secular aspects of the Iranian government are allowed a bounded independence, Ahmadinejad’s rebellion was actually religious, an area where the mullahs brook no trespass.
- Shia “Twelvers” believe that the twelth, Hidden Imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdī is not actually dead, but hidden, and will return to save the World. It appears direct analogous to the Second Coming of Christ.
- Ahmadinejad and Mashaie believe they have special, personal relations with the Hidden Imam, to the extent of carrying on personal conversations with the figure.
- As with other religions where some individuals claim special relationships with deities and accessory spiritual figures, this arouses negative feelings among those not part of the circle. This is particularly significant because of the hierarchical nature of Shi’ism, where pronouncements about religious affairs are restricted to religious scholars, particularly the highest rank, ayatollahs.
There are two ways to take this. Either Ahmadinejad was nuts, or there is a lack of understanding of the Iranian political system that created the surprise. Ahmadinejad was a protege of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the most orthodox, hardline, and perhaps powerful of the Iranian ayatollahs. So, in passing the orthodoxy test, and then rebelling, Ahmadinejad fooled a lot of smart people.
As for motive, suggestions have been made that Ahmadinejad was trying to preserve a political constituency after his term, or build an alternative power base. The nature of his religious beliefs does not concern us. What does concern is why he thought the challenge was a viable strategy, while in our Iran playbook, such a strategy is disallowed.
Theories of political power, as conceived by thinkers of the liberal arts tradition, seem to fall short with Iran. This is an attempt to plug the gap with a little supplementation. It’s a little lengthy. I’ll make reference to modern systems theory, prediction, and the “group mind”. But no math, I promise.
When an alien steps out of his flying saucer, he approaches the nearest Weimaraner, activates his helmet vocoder, and says, “Take me to your leader.” The idea that a society of people has a leader may be the social extension of bilateral symmetry into the social spectrum. You have a left side, a right side, a head that leads, and a tail of obligations that must be dragged along by both the left and the right. Some species, such as lizards, have developed the ability to shed the tail, which must be envied by politicians.
The words of this are part of the gestalt of government, elaborated by historians, political theorists, and legal scholars. Words are the means of expression, and one has to consider whether they are favored too much. With the rise of the brain sciences, starting with 19th century introspective psychology, psychoanalysis, experiment, and now, mathematical modeling of neural networks, there has been an evolution in the description of the underpinnings of mind, away from the primacy of words, and towards the modeling of the human brain as a mathematical system, a mesh of billions of elements that transmit, receive, excite, equilibrate, oscillate, and quiesce, according to mathematical descriptions that are only now being divined.
In system theory, there is a process called state reduction that is used to create simplified, usable descriptions of complex systems. It can be used to simulate a system, and to send information about a system somewhere else. We would like to do that with our brains. While animals do it with sounds, postures, and facial expressions, we have the facility of speech. It was the result of hard-pressed evolution trying to keep up with the ever-increasing need of the complex brain to share. A liberal arts education does not make brain science accessible, except in the form of “physics for poets” courses, which are highly recommended.
Everybody wants to attack a problem from their own particular rut. Historians go fact-heavy, venturing contemporary analysis mainly in the form of analogy. Political theorists borrow from the social sciences, but give little weight to the minds of the constituents. Vilfredo Pareto did, but his contribution seems in the process of erasure by the sands of time. Law applies the algorithmic approach, envisioning government as a gigantic state machine, which, if in proper working condition, methodically cranks away until it reaches a (temporarily) final state, such as a policy, law, order, or adjudication.
None of these analytic approaches accurately describe how the system works. The participant may not need one. Only required is what to do next. How the individual decides may not have expression in words, a situation likely to be missed by the liberal arts, with which words are the only objective currency.
Recently, it was discovered that the shape of a flock of birds has aerodynamic purpose. They do this without discussion. They don’t know anything about aerodynamics. They may not think about it at all. It is a collective, automatic behavior. The army ant is also interesting in this regard. Put a few dozen on a table, and they organize to run in a circle. In the hundreds, the behavior becomes more complex, with swarms branching at optimized angles. These are mindless behaviors. Having minds, we like to believe that we possess free will.
Next: power structures that defy formal description.