Michael Axworthy: Crisis of legitimacy leaves reformers few choices

Related Topics

The Islamic Republic of Iran is now facing a crisis of legitimacy, with the basis of the state and the entire system set up by the revolution 30 years ago, called into question.

The government has never before interfered with elections in such a total way. This wasn't just a case of manipulating the nature of the candidates, but fixing the result itself. And this represents a major change in the politics of the Islamic Republic. It wasn't so much an election, as a coup, carried out by the regime against its own people.

It is conceivable that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have won more than 60 per cent of the vote although the impression was widespread that there was a burgeoning wave of support for Mir Hossein Mousavi in the final week. But the election results were handled in a way that has to raise deep suspicions. The vote was not broken down by region which has always been the case previously. The announcement of Ahmadinejad's success and his endorsement by the Supreme Leader came much earlier than in previous contests.

But the most compelling pointer is that the security forces were heading for the streets even as the results were being announced. They surrounded the Interior Ministry and Mousavi's campaign headquarters in a way that suggests this was thoroughly organised and planned in advance. With hindsight, it looks as if the regime worked to prevent a repeat of the surprise outcomes that marked the 1997 and 2005 presidential elections.

Ever since the 1979 revolution, there have been two strands in Iran, the Islamic and the democratic. Increasingly, the Islamic strand has been less about religion than about legitimising the ruling clique. But until now, it was also possible for people to cling to the belief that the Islamic revolution was about ridding Iran of the autocracy of the Shah's time. They could believe that the government was a genuine, albeit imperfect, expression of the people's will.

That has gone, and instead, a crisis has arisen over a series of deep-seated beliefs and structures inherited from the revolution and before. These include the cherished belief that the revolution removed oppressive government and established a system of social justice consistent with the earliest forms of Shi'ism and the writings of influential thinkers such as Ali Shariati.

The regime's conduct in these elections is a reflection of its weakness. Iran's rulers could not rely on popular support so instead have had to turn to naked force, which may work in the short term but seriously undermines their legitimacy.

Those within the political establishment who clung to the ideal of an Iranian democracy, those like Mousavi, who believed that within itself, the system allowed scope for reform and renewal, have a real dilemma. For them to see young people being beaten up by the police to uphold a rigged election and to ensure the political survival of the ruling cabal is shocking.

For the opposition, the difficulty is that all of the levers of power, the structures of government and the media are in the hands of the regime.

So the candidates who lost can either demand resistance, passive or otherwise, bearing in mind that many Iranians are deeply fearful of the uncertainty and violence that could flow from a mass uprising. Or they have to knuckle under and accept an illegitimate authoritarian government, and one that is heading more and more in the direction of totalitarianism. And that is a sad and dangerous prospect.

The writer is director of the centre for Persian and Iranian studies at Exeter University and author of 'Iran: Empire of the Mind'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
The London Symphony Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, performs a free open-air concert in Trafalgar Square  

Help! London has been conquered by Event Security and nobody is safe from its pointless screens

Howard Jacobson
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable