Is the Islamic Revolution in Iran running out of breath?

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Satoshi Ikeuchi is Professor of Religion and Global Security at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

As expected, the presidential election in Iran ended in a landslide victory for Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi, a conservative Islamic lawyer who headed the Iranian judicial system under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has been widely recognized as the candidate chosen by the powers that be deeply rooted in the revolutionary regime. As Khamenei’s protégé, this resembled a Shiite divine nomination rather than a democratic election.

Raisi is expected to take office in August with a very good chance of being re-elected after four years and is expected to serve as president for up to eight years. During this time, there is a high likelihood that he will preside over the selection of the next top Iranian leader. It could even be himself.

With Raisi in his position as elected president, Iran has entered the long succession policy season that coincides with the broader generation change of the guards that have ruled the country since the 1979 revolution.

According to Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab philosopher of history, the sustainability of any political regime or dynasty is determined by the strength of a concept known as assabiya. This can be translated as “group cohesion” or “solidarity”. According to Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah”, which means “An Introduction to History”, strong cohesion and solidarity between the dominant groups in a society is the key to establishing and maintaining political regimes.

Tribal blood ties are most effective at instilling solidarity, but religious beliefs or fervor will suffice.

Strongly cohesive groups tend to rise from the marginalized and disadvantaged sections of society to conquer the affluent centers of the capital. After a new regime has been established, group cohesion weakens as subsequent generations take their place in the ruling elite. From the third generation onwards, signs of deterioration usually appear, which in the fourth generation often lead to decay and collapse.

If Ibn Khaldun’s theory is correct for today’s Middle East, the Iranian regime is facing a very difficult phase. The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini revolution that overthrew the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Born in 1902, Khomeini was venerated and revered by revolutionary clerics in their thirties or forties such as later President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and his successor Ali Khamenei. Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, born in 1948, was one of the youngest of the 1979 leaders.

A mural of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, pictured in July 2019: Khomeini was worshiped and revered by revolutionary lieutenant clerics. © WANA / Reuters

Born in 1960, Raisi was one of the innumerable and nameless youth who were among the foot soldiers of the revolutionary mass movement. It was people like him who provided the muscles to bring down the repressive regime of the Shah.

After the revolution, these people fought against the other factions that were trying to take power. After this was accomplished, the same revolutionary youth were sent to the front lines in the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted almost the 1980s, and tasked with defending the revolution against the then US-backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

This means that Raisi, who was only 18 when he joined the revolution, spent his youth either fighting other revolutionary groups or as a soldier in the war against Iraq. Under the aegis of the revolutionary leaders, he climbed the political ladder and is now at the head of the administrative power.

For the generation of revolutionary youth, who were around 20 years old in 1979, now is their moment, especially in the military and security apparatus. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the main stronghold of this generation, and they have spent most of their lives in combat.

It is the IRGC that has the upper hand in the revolutionary regime on military and security issues and wields far more power than the discredited regular army. Now, in the 1960s, these men are increasingly responsible for the government themselves.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded by a revolution based partly on Khomeini’s Shiite ideology of just rulers and partly on republicanism.

The Supreme Leader’s de facto nomination of Raisi dealt a fatal blow to Republican ideals while public support for the concept of velayat-e-faqih, or rule of the clergy, has faded without Khomeini’s vital charisma. All that remains is a revolutionary coercive machine permeated with Iranian nationalism.

With a former revolutionary cleric at its head, many will hope that he can steer the revolution towards a higher religious purity. This can strengthen the cohesion of the core interest groups within the system, but it can also alienate the general public and shorten the life of the regime.

Revolution is a one-time event. When the Shah was overthrown, and with him the old elites, the political system of Iran was rejuvenated. It has now been four decades and the regime – ruled by a cadre of aging leaders – is one of the most mature in the Middle East.

In the Middle East today, the most fundamental element of politics is generational succession, either in tribal dynasties or in revolutionary regimes. How President-elect Raisi, a revolutionary youth turned old hardliner who prolonged and perpetuated the aging revolution, will be at the center of the next decade.



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