Soon after Iranian authorities declared that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election, Iran’s most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei summed up the result of the vote as a “divine assessment,” meaning God’s candidate had triumphed. Not all Iranians shared this view, as the drying blood on Tehran’s streets now attests.

That’s just one of the problems with theocracy. Who gets to decide what God wants?

To anyone contemplating the adoption of Iran-style government for their country, the system today looks much less appealing.

More than 200 years ago, the concept of separation of church and state gained a foothold in the Americas. A Muslim version of the idea will now find increasingly fertile ground in Middle Eastern soil.

In Iran’s now-challenged system of government, the ayatollahs have the last word. Ayatollahs, as their title explains, are “signs of God.” If anyone disagrees with their translation of the divine view, the clerics have ruthless militias to explain their theological ruling a bit more emphatically. The point, however, has now been incontestably made that much of the population does not support this regime.

Whatever happens with this simmering revolution, political Islam has suffered a debilitating wound. How can anyone defend a system of government whose backers shoot a 16-year-old girl through the heart?


The eyes of Muslims throughout the world now stare anxiously at Iran. Those who might have wished for a replica of Iranian theocracy in their countries are surely reconsidering.

For decades Muslims have sought an acceptable form of government. They have tested their versions of socialism, assorted autocracies, flawed democracies and, of course, a variety of Islam-guided systems.

The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was a tempting brand, a brand heavily advertised and promoted by the oil-rich Islamic Republic. Tehran opened branch offices in other countries and deployed sales representatives – agitators – for its revolution throughout the Middle East. It also funded deadly attacks against perceived enemies in faraway lands – as far away as Argentina – and trained militias seeking Islamic rule in places such as Lebanon and Gaza.

After all, spreading revolution came as a high commandment for the Islamic Republic. Iran’s constitution calls for “extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”

In a region where most have little say in who governs them, Iran boasted at least one powerful source of admiration. It stood out as a nation where the people overthrew a despot, the shah, and replaced him with a government of their choosing. Call it a regime of the people, by the people. No more.

The regime came to life with so much popular support that one frequently hears about prominent opposition members who played key roles in the 1979 revolution. That is certainly true of Mir Hussein Mousavi, the man whose followers believe was the true winner of the disputed vote.


Initially, the passionate demand from protesters was a clean replay of the stolen election. Mousavi had stood as an alternative to Ahmadinejad, but still a man of the revolution, who espoused largely similar views to the president’s. That has now changed. If, somehow, protestors succeed and Mousavi becomes president, Iran will become a different place. The massive crowds that took to the streets will not be satisfied with minor changes as Mousavi had advocated.

Precisely for that reason, the ruling authorities will not give up easily. If Mousavi had won, he would have brought a change in tone and atmosphere but not in substance. Now, he could become little more than a transitional figure to dramatic change.

The last time a reformer won, Mohammad Khatami in 1997, his government accomplished essentially no reforms. The people would not accept that this time. If the opposition achieves victory, it will very likely find a new leader, unless Mousavi himself becomes a much more radical reformer than the one who campaigned for this election.

It is impossible to know what will transpire in Iran in the coming days and weeks. What is certain is that Iranian-style theocracy has become much less appealing to Muslims seeking more representative government. Political Islam has suffered a serious wound. One man’s word on the “divine assessment” will not satisfy those who yearn for democracy.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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