So a "moderate" has won the Iranian presidential election. He's a moderate who advertises himself as a sly defender of Tehran's nuclear aspirations. He's a moderate who's been warning Western countries to stay out of Syria's civil war (where Iran has been giving massive support to the beleaguered dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad). He's a moderate who was allowed to run only after a host of more pragmatic candidates were cut from the field by the current leadership's vetting commission. And he's a moderate who's made it clear that he's not about to tamper with the principle of clerical rule that stands at the core of the system Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established in 1979. So should we be celebrating?
Well, the upside is that Hasan Rowhani won on Friday's election because Iranian voters were intent on showing their leaders that they prefer as their president a man who suggests even the most minute revisions reigning order (such as vague promises to rein in the widely hated morality police). But the fact remains that, even if Rowhani wanted to implement even more far-reaching changes, Iran's current power structure gives the president minimal space to do so. Iranian voters may have signaled their desire for reform by voting for Rowhani, but that doesn't mean they're any likelier to get it.
And that's just the way that Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution, would have wanted it. From the very beginning he and his followers aimed to transform Iran into a state where the Shiite clergy had the final say. The Khomeinist constitution passed in 1979 (and revised a few years later) included some opportunities for limited political competition by embracing direct elections for local government, parliament, and the presidency (with the proviso that only approved candidates were allowed to run). But no one elected the Supreme Leader, the man who holds ultimate power. That's because, as clergyman-in-chief, he embodies the principle of divine rule. God's sovereignty trumps the people's.
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In reality, of course, it's actually a very small group of human beings at the top who interpret God's wishes for earthly ends. Indeed, as became clear soon after the revolution, Khomeini's vision of clerical rule didn't even extend to all of the Shiite clergy; those leaders of the clerical establishment who disagreed with his theocratic vision -- a group both more numerous and influential than most people in the West have ever realized -- were systematically marginalized and outmaneuvered until they were silenced altogether. They included, most remarkably, Khomeini's handpicked successor, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who fell from grace when he began criticizing human rights violations committed by the revolutionary regime. He ultimately died in obscurity after enduring long years of intense persecution.
That should tell you all you need to know about Iran's capacity for reform. There are few who would seriously dispute the imperative for change. Today, the Islamic Republic is an international pariah and an economic basket case, a supporter of Bashar al-Assad and a close ally of North Korea; it's also a country whose governing class faces growing demands from its own citizens for greater freedom and political participation. Thirty-four years after the revolution, however, it's become increasingly obvious that the system established by Khomeini has ossified -- and is now correspondingly brittle. The limited space for democratic participation originally allowed by the first generation of revolutionary leaders has steadily yielded to unvarnished authoritarianism.