As the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, threatening to establish a new Islamic regime, many of our eyes are turned to a neighbouring regime in Iran. In place for over forty years now, it remains a threat on several levels to its neighbours, to shipping, and as a source of terrorism worldwide. Its recent activities in the Gulf, where it has attacked oil tankers using drones and commandos, combine with the election of a new president of a brutal and hard-line nature, a man likely to reinforce the harshness and determination of the regime a a whole. Ebrahim Raisi is a criminal, presiding previously over thousands of executions of political prisoners, regime opponents and members of religious minorities, and it is on the cards that he will succeed Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader of Iran and a worldwide source of authority and guidance for millions of Shi‘i Muslims.
Raisi’s position on several official bodies, including the rank of deputy chairman of the Majles-e Khebregan (Council of Experts), gives him more than one platform from which to exercise authority. He is a hardliner and an enforcer of shari‘a law, yet he possesses a flexibility necessary for government. According to The Observer newspaper, ‘Now, hardliners control all the Islamic republic’s main institutions, including the military, judiciary and parliament.’
Despite the heavy weight of sanctions that have been imposed on the Iranian economy, he regards them as opportunities for an independent Islamic economy.
Raisi himself, alongside Khamenei and dedicated followers of both, may be content with this revolutionary economy practice, but most Iranians suffer within it and a possible majority of the population long for a new regime. That is more eager said than done. For Israelis, the problem is not so much Iran or its people, but the question of how to remove such a deeply grounded regime. From the Israeli perspective, the greatest threat stems from the certainty that Iran may be only weeks away from developing a nuclear weapon. Given endless chants on Iranian streets of marg bar Esrail, death to Israel, the Jewish state and its people are far from unrealistic in fearing such a development.
As Raisi’s rule tightens, we can expect further anti-government protests on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere. But protests and protest movements have always been put down brutally under the Islamic regime, notably by Raisi himself in his earlier incarnations. Yet if there is to be any end to the regime, it can only come about through an uprising of the Iranian people and the installation of a genuine democracy. The US, UK, Israel, and the UN cannot go in blatantly to help achieve such an outcome. There is too much history of Western interference in Iranian affairs, notably the 1953 coup d’etat that toppled Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iran’s then premier.
Does that mean we are powerless to bring about change in Israel’s most unremitting adversary? Rather than risk outright war we must find ways of undermining the regime from within. The great weakness of the religious system of government is that it is a modern innovation built around new roles for the clerical elite. The maraji‘ al-taqlid, ayatollahs, above all the Supreme Leader and all the apparatuses of the velayat-e faqih system introduced so arbitrarily by Khomeini in his book of that title are not expressions of an eternal Islam, not even of Islam in its Shi‘i form but are human innovations. A recognition of that fact weakens and possibly eliminates the power of Iran’s rulers and opens the possibility of a more permanent change for the better.