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Iranian revolution anniversary: Will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remain in power?

On the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, one loud question is what is the staying power of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

By Ramin Jahanbegloo / February 11, 2010


Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

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Thirty-one years ago, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran. No one predicted the downfall of the shah, who believed that he was highly popular with his own people. His greatest tragedy was that he became a victim of his own illusion.

The overriding issue today is whether the Islamic regime that replaced the shah has succumbed to the same illusion – and is thus willing to use force to maintain the status quo and stay in power.

There are several key questions today. Will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remain in power as the leader of the revolution? Will there be a takeover by the Revolutionary Guards? Will the frustration of Iranian civil society turn into disenchantment with the reformists and become more radicalized and violent? Finally, will the country suffocate from economic turmoil and even a banking collapse?

The staying power of the supreme leader – both that of the individual currently holding the position, Ayatollah Khamenei, and that of the office – will be a key driver of the immediate future of Iran.

It goes without saying that a loss of legitimacy and a disputed succession of the leader in the event of his death could bring on a power struggle among different factions of the Iranian regime, leading to a military coup d’état organized by the joint forces of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.

The behavior of Iranian civil society a year from now could range from a high wave of emigration among educated youth to a more radical stance and greater support for violence.

As for the Iranian economy, it will certainly be on its deathbed after a prolonged spell of low oil revenues, low foreign investment, high inflation, high unemployment, and corruption. This could be aggravated by political, cultural, and economic sanctions from the West that are now all but certain. And there could be a visible increase in unrest among ethnic minorities in Iran.

On the basis of these critical indicators, one can expect a harsher crackdown and tougher response to opposition groups by paramilitary and security forces in the coming period.

For one, high-ranking clerics in Iran will become even more critical toward a regime that has lost its grip over Iranian reality once and for all and embarks on shooting its opponents to survive. The fate of Iranian politics will be partly decided by grand ayatollahs in the holy Shiite city of Qom – who never supported the religious and political ideas of Khamenei – and the hard-liners within his inner circle.

Ultimately, we are witnessing a fundamental dispute over the ownership of the revolution and the means to safeguard Iranian Shiite Islam. The clerical establishment in Qom will continue to be aligned with those who seek to redefine the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will therefore find itself in open confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards.