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Friday, September 30, 2011
Iran And Syria: Different But The Same
By Amir Taheri
President Ahmadinejad, President Assad and Imam Khamenei
first glance, the regimes in Iran and Syria would not appear to have much in
“Walayat al-Faqih” as its founding principle, the Iranian regime has been
unashamedly theocratic from the start. In contrast, the Syrian regime, shaped
by a coterie of Alawite military disguised as Ba’athists, has boasted about its
“secular” character, presenting itself as the guarantor of non-sectarian
coexistence among the country’s different communities.
first glance, in recent months both regimes have been emphasizing their claimed
Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had his wings clipped, thus enabling
the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei to advertise himself as the 14th “Imam”.
Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has blamed “Islamist extremists” and even Al
Qaeda for the revolts that have shaken the country for months.
yet, a closer look might show that, in systemic terms, the two allies have been
moving closer to one another. In Iran, Khamenei may pretend to be the “Imam”.
But it is increasingly clear that the military provide the principle pillar of
other words, he holds power because guns are on his side, at least for the time
being, not because the rosary jingles in his hand.
Syria, on the other hand, the wedge between the military and the Assad clique
is getting wider by the day.
is why the clique has decided to revive the sectarian Ali al-Murtadha movement,
once led by Rifaat al-Assad the president’s estranged uncle, as the backbone of
to frighten the Alawite minority into supporting a doomed regime are unlikely
to work. Today, most Syrians, including Alawites, are mature enough to think
above and beyond narrow confines of sectarianism. Nor could Assad win the
sympathy of Western powers by advertising himself as the protector of the
the same time, because of his increasing dependence on Iranian support, Assad
has been forced to inject a dose of religious mumbo-jumbo into his discourse.
The presence of hundreds of Iranian mullahs and tens of thousands of pilgrims
from Iran has also altered the visual landscape of Damascus parts of which now
look more like Qom than the supposedly “secularist” paradise the Assads claim
to be defending.
the two regimes now share other important features.
among these is the systematic destruction of virtually all institutions created
over decades. In Iran, the first institution to go was the presidency which,
with a few brazen moves by Khamenei, was turned into an embarrassing
it was the turn of the judiciary to be reduced to a mockery with the
appointment of a junior mullah made into a Grand Ayatollah by the state-owned
so-called Expediency Council was also destroyed when Khamenei appointed a new
group of his cronies to do its job.
the legislative institution, the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis, has
also been divested of whatever relevance it might have had in a system based on
Walayat al-Faqih, or rule by the mullahs.
Larijani, a brother of the Majlis Speaker Ali Ardeshir, has simply announced
that anyone suspected of not wishing to obey the “Supreme Guide” on all matters
and at all times should not be allowed to stand as candidate in next year’s
there is no mechanism to establish in advance who might obey the “Supreme
Guide” in the future, the most efficient method to pre-empt such a calamity is
to empty the Majlis of what little content it might have had. And this is done
by Ali Ardeshir himself with the cute observation that the Majlis should act
only “according to guidance from the Supreme Guide.”
could observe a similar trend in Syria where the parliament, the judiciary, the
council of ministers and even the Ba’ath Party have been turned into empty
shells. The idea was to squeeze all those institutions of their power and
prestige in the hope that what they lost would be added to the prestige and
power of the presidency.
trouble is that, by pushing itself into the forefront of the crackdown, the
presidency has embarked on a process of self-destruction. Even Assad’s few
remaining well-wishers admit that, today, the Syrian presidency is weaker than
it was a year ago. Accused of crimes against humanity and boycotted by most of
the countries that matter to Syria, President Bashar can no longer function as
a normal head of state. His loss of stature is directly translated into a
weakening of the presidency as an institution.
this means that in Syria, as in Iran, the only institution left is that of the
a regime based on thinly disguised military force is inherently unstable. This
is why, even if tactically attractive, the policy of dismantling all
institutions and depending solely on the armed forces is strategically doomed
late Ayatollah Khomeini instinctively understood this. This is why he publicly
forbade the military from expressing any views on political topics, let alone
posturing as the Praetorian Guard of “Walayat al-Faqih”.
late Hafez al-Assad also understood this. This is why he shed his military uniform
and allowed the parliament, the council of ministers and even what was left of
the Ba’ath Party some space in which to breathe.
concentrating all power in their respective hands while increasingly dependent
on the military, Khamenei and Bashar have denied themselves the protection of
the interfaces built over decades. This is why in both countries the toppling
of the top man is now the central demand of all opposition, including those
still emotionally attached to the system.
the most despotic system of government requires some interface between the
ruler and the ruled. This is because while coercion is of primordial importance
in establishing power, persuasion is vital for its perennity. A ruler hiding
behind a gun almost always ends up with the gun turning to point at him.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 30/09/2011-Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in
Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan
in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times.
In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International
Press Institute (IPI