If the Mullahs fall, who will rule?
The Iranian regime is increasingly unstable and its collapse has become a real possibility. Economic and international pressure, fractures in the regime, and the increasing hostility of the majority of the population to the government are factors that could prove fatal to the theocracy. As the Iranian government’s pillars continue to shake, a new generation of leaders is poised to fill the gap and take the country in a more positive direction. Let us take a closer look at this new generation of leaders to gauge what may ensue if the tyrannical theocracy falls.
The most talked about leader is Mir Hossein Mousavi, the real winner of the rigged presidential vote of June 12 that the enraged Iranian people rallied around in defiance of the regime’s security forces. Millions of Iranians wore green, the color of his campaign and his new political party, the Green Path of Hope. His popularity is likely the one factor stopping Khamenei from arresting and prosecuting him, despite the pressure of Ahmadinejad and other hardline officials. By demanding new elections, an initiative opposed only by the most ardent supporters of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and not complete regime change, Mousavi is able to win support across-the-board.
While he’s certainly far more liberal than the current regime, he has not called for removing the post of Supreme Leader, the key feature of the theocracy. It is important for observers to remember that Mousavi is reported to have been one of the founders of Hezbollah, and he had to be approved by Khamenei to run in the first place. At the same time, however, he should be seen not as the one leading the opposition movement, but as the one led by the opposition movement. His political base will quickly turn against him should he fail to pursue the wide-sweeping change they desire, and based on his recent experience battling the regime, he may very well share the same ambition but isn’t quite ready to cross the red line of vocalizing it. His stance on bringing about complete womens’ rights and free elections, however, would inevitably lead to the total end of the theocracy and he has to know it.
Mehdi Karroubi, another presidential candidate, has been acting more confrontational with the regime and is seeing his stock quickly rise. Emails I receive from Iranians mention his name far more than that of Mousavi now, as they respect his boldness and the fact that he is more liberal than Mousavi, having boldly criticized the Revolutionary Guards’ role in the government and consistently calling for broad civil rights for everyone. He has publicly stated that he has proof that the security forces tortured and raped political prisoners, and continues to level the charge despite the regime’s closing of his offices, arresting of his advisors, and threats to arrest him. He’s a growing threat to the regime, which is why they have opened up an investigation of him for possible prosecution. While he’s calling for the civil rights the countries of the West enjoys, Karroubi has unfortunately said that he’d continue Iran’s support for Hamas if he was elected president, and like Mousavi, hasn’t explicitly called for regime change, although these actions may be attributable to political posturing.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president and current Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the branch of government that chooses the Supreme Leader, is also now a leading opposition figure. He is the most conservative of those mentioned, although he favors some levels of economic liberalization and civil rights. However, his role as a dissident didn’t begin until he campaigned against Ahmadinejad in the 2004 election and lost, causing a falling-out with Khamenei. He also was a late-comer to the Green Revolution this summer, is knee-deep in corruption, is vocally anti-Western, and has been repeatedly tied to terrorism by Iranian defectors. A court in Argentina even has a warrant for his arrest for authorizing a bombing of a Jewish cultural center in 1994. He’s also the one who made the famous statement on December 14, 2001 that “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”
Rafsanjani’s defection was important in fracturing the regime and bringing conservative elements of Iran to oppose the regime’s election rigging and human rights abuses. He’s reportedly trying to gain support for a plan to replace the post of Supreme Leader with a group of three or four clerics, although it’s unclear if their power would be more limited and how they’d be chosen. As a reform-minded conservative, Rafsanjani will have support from those that fear that Mousavi and Karroubi aren’t sufficiently anti-Western and are too liberal. The West should remember, as the Iranian people surely do, Rafsanjani’s past actions. His political maneuvering to position himself on the winning side inside Iran should never excuse them.
One of the most important leaders in Iran today is Ayatollah Montazeri, a senior cleric once in line to succeed Khomeini. He has boldly issued a fatwa declaring the regime illegitimate and declaring the Iranian people could remove Khamenei from power for his human rights abuses and perversion of Islam. Montazeri’s religious credentials and credibility among the opposition movement will make him a huge player in the years to come, with his name being talked about as a replacement of Khamenei as a temporary Supreme Leader until it is decided whether to eliminate the post or reform it.
In the U.S. and Europe, the two opposition leaders most frequently mentioned Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah, and Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of Resistance in Iran, a group that is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department but was removed from the European Union’s list by court order. Both are based outside of Iran and it is hard to gauge their level of support inside Iran, but it must be noted that neither have had crowds of protestors hold photos of their faces like Mousavi and Karroubi have. Many Iranians are still likely to hold Pahlavi’s status as the son of the Shah against him, even though his political platform is very democratic. His long stay in the U.S., calls for regime change and suggestion that Israel assist the Iranian people to achieve this objective rather than attack militarily, may cause some Iranians to view him as too closely tied to foreign powers and Iranians are more likely to support someone who was on-the-ground during the recent turmoil.
However, that doesn’t mean he can’t play a powerful role. His meeting with the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who overthrew his father, created a powerful image. Hussein Khomeini has also called for a U.S. role in overthrowing the “world’s worst dictatorship,” going so far as to even hint at support for outside military intervention. While Khomeini’s position is tougher than virtually any other opposition leader, he currently is living in Iran, cut off from the outside world by the regime, and that puts him in a good position to play a significant role.
The NCRI is an umbrella organization that has the Mujahideen-e-Khalq as its largest member, and is said by its competitors to be hated by Iranians for their alleged involvement in bringing the regime to power originally and alliance with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Of course, the NCRI has rebuttals to these allegations, and there are respectable experts on both sides of the argument about whether NCRI should be de-listed in the U.S. and seen as a suitable opposition force.
Based on emails and information I receive from Iranians inside and outside the country, I can confidently say the organization has a good, reliable network of supporters inside Iran that can provide timely, accurate information. However, while lots of the e-mail is supportive of the group, an equal amount espouses hatred of them. It is hard to gauge whether this indicates greater support nationwide for the group or whether the support is limited to a small but extremely active and loyal cadre. While the female leader of NCRI, Maryam Rajavi, has a base of support in Europe and the U.S., her case is similar to that of Pahlavi in that there are not large demonstrations inside Iran in support of her.
Needless to say, these are far from the only capable opposition leaders. There’s Akbar Ganji, whose hunger strike of over 80 days brought world attention to Iran’s political prisoners, and Amir Abbas Fakhravar and Roozbeh Farahanipour, two student leaders who fled the country after being imprisoned. A multitude of Iranians stand at the ready to reclaim their country and it would be impossible to name them all.
The diversity of these leaders shows the strength of the opposition movement, but also explains some of the troubles they face. They have bickered and failed to form a common front to pool their resources and multiply their strengths. Despite this weakness, they remain on the winning side. Ayatollah Khamenei is 70 years old, and is widely believed to be in poor health. Reports are surfacing that he has fallen into a coma and/or died. While reports of his demise are common, the post-Khamenei period is near. The only question is the fight the wounded animal will put up to save its life.