PARIS — Will the real Ayatollah Ali Khamenei please stand up?
On June 19, a week after Iran’s disputed presidential election, the supreme leader shed the garb of the lofty arbiter to deliver a raging sermon in which he warned of “bloodshed and chaos” in Tehran if protests continued. They did, the next day, and I will never forget the blood that flowed at Khamenei’s behest.
Khamenei, abandoning the plausible deniability of the Prophet’s avatar, opting instead for perilous political partisanship, said then: “Please see the hungry wolves in ambush who are gradually removing their mask of diplomacy to show their true faces.” He identified the most evil of these foreign wolves as “the British government,” no less.
Now, 10 weeks later, with the Iranian revolutionary establishment still shaken by the brazenness of the June 12 electoral fraud and the rashness of the supreme leader’s gambit, Khamenei declares: “I don’t accuse the leaders of the recent incidents of being affiliated with foreign countries, including the United States and Britain, since the issue has not been proven to me.”
Well, sir, which is it?
To join the political fray is to become fallible, as Khamenei is discovering. It was precisely the infallibility of the religious jurist serving as the earthly deputy of the “hidden imam” that constituted the linchpin of the system of clerical power bequeathed by the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
On June 19, in that same sermon, Khamenei declared that, “The Islamic Republic is the flag-bearer of human rights.” Now he tells university students that “no crime or atrocity” committed by security forces after the election will go unpunished.
Nor does Khamenei demur when a semiofficial news agency says Mohsen Ruholamini, a 25-year-old graduate student arrested in June, died of “physical stress, numerous blows, and also a blow by a hard object.”
Well, sir, which is it, flag-bearer or flouter, torch or torturer, that best describes the Islamic Republic’s relationship to human rights?
Ruholamini, the son of an adviser to the defeated conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, has joined Neda Agha-Soltan, the young student killed the day after Khamenei’s sermon, as a galvanizing symbol of resistance to the regime’s brutal lurch. They represent dozens of nameless victims of the clampdown that the incendiary sermon legitimized.
On June 19, backing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose re-election by a preposterous margin he had just rammed through to the fury of millions of Iranians, Khamenei sided with the incumbent against the criticism of the powerful elder statesman of the revolution, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“The viewpoints of the president are closer to mine,” Khamenei declared.
Today, Khamenei scarcely loses an opportunity to distance himself from Ahmadinejad, criticizing his ministerial appointments and adopting a moderate tone at a far remove from the president’s ongoing fulminations.
Last week, Ahmadinejad again blamed all the post-electoral turmoil on “foreign plots” and made the absurd claim that “Our Basiji were beaten in the streets in order to protect people” against “enemy-affiliated infiltrators.” Those would be the same plainclothes militia I saw beating brave and defenseless women until they bled.
Well, sir, which is it, Ahmadinejad as revolutionary leader or liability, hero or hubris-consumed menace?
The supreme leader has become the supreme flip-flopper. That’s a fundamental shift at the 30-year mark of the revolution. Through no intellectual or moral contortion that I know of can this be perceived as a sign of strength.
On the contrary, Khamenei made an error on June 12 that he compounded on June 19 and his attempts to row back from them now appear erratic at best. The keystone of the revolution’s arch looks wobbly. Khamenei seems out of touch, trying to shore up through conciliation what he sacrificed in confrontation. But mystique is not a recoverable commodity.
Khamenei said on June 19 that the election had been “a breath of fresh air for the Islamic Republic.” He said the election was “a political earthquake” for Iran’s enemies. He said that, “Trust in the Islamic Republic became evident in these elections.”
He has not returned to these fanciful notions, perhaps because they so evidently betray what psychoanalysts would call transference, in this case emotions from the infancy of the revolution to the present.
Far from a breath of fresh air, the fraud spoke of decay. Far from bequeathing trust, it multiplied mistrust. Far from being a political earthquake for Iran’s enemies, it constituted just that for the Islamic Republic.
The reverberations continue. I cannot see them being controlled for many months. The Islamic Republic liked to think of itself as a beacon — “a third way different from dictatorships and tyrannical systems on the one hand and democracies removed from spirituality and religion on the other,” as Khamenei put it on June 19. Squalid violence and pitiful flip-flopping have made nonsense of such words.
Since June 12, the Islamic Republic has become a far more pressing threat to itself than to others. It is inwardly consumed. For the United States and its allies to threaten it — through sanctions or otherwise — would be worse than foolish. It would be pointless.
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