It is a common, and understandable, mistake to see the Iranian regime as essentially religious. Despite the fanaticism of its devotions, it is, as an actual functioning political regime, essentially totalitarian. It has more in common with Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China than it does with other intensely religious societies such as medieval Europe, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Victorian England, Mormon Utah, or Tibet before Chinese colonization. Totalitarian regimes are of a type: they always end up facing the same set of problems, and they always end up resorting to a limited number of similar political devices to solve these problems. We can call these the 10 pillars of "totallahtarianism", and they have all been in effect in Iran.
The first pillar is the enthronement of power in an executive with ultimately mystical justifications for its rule. Whether the executive is singular, as with the Nazis, or plural, as in the USSR after Stalin and Iran after Khomeini, is irrelevant. The justification for its rule is some set of propositions, be they Marxist theory, Nazi mythology, or Islamic theology, that are by their nature not subject to empirical verification or falsification. In contrast, a democratic leader claims to rule because he enjoys the support of the people, and a monarch because he is the heir of the dynasty, both verifiable facts that can potentially be disproved.
The second pillar is the proclamation that the regime embodies the absolute good as such, and that its ideology is the only possible fundamental truth. The ideology is hermetic, and anyone who doesn't believe it, doesn't not simply because they are mistaken, but because they are a bad person: a non-Aryan, a bourgeois, an infidel. All totalitarian states claim their ideology is world-applicable and gives them the right to subdue others. Iran has tried to export its ideology to other Moslem countries, but with the exception of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, whose loyalty is bought with a gravy train of guns, it has failed. It has tried to weld together Moslem fundamentalists in other countries into a worldwide fundamentalist movement, but as Stalin found with Tito and Mao, totalitarian ideologies make weak glue. It does not even get along with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which should be its ideological soul mate.
The third pillar is war. War follows from the demand to export ideology. It provides the excuse to regiment society to the degree totalitarianism requires. It enables the regime to equate loyalty to the nation with obedience to the regime. It justifies the regime's inevitable failure to deliver on its promised domestic agenda. Iran did not start the Iran-Iraq war, but it, together with Saddam Hussein, endlessly prolonged it past several opportunities to disengage.
The fourth pillar is terror. In Iran, this has taken the form of what are called "chain assassinations" of dissident intellectuals and other opposition figures. Those who are not killed are jailed or exiled. Iran has a plethora of bodies exercising terror, including the Islamic Guard Corps, the Ministry of Information, and the Secret Police.
The fifth pillar is the attempt to milk democratic legitimacy without actually sharing any power. Naturally, this is impossible, but the totalitarian mind always believes that force can square the circle. Democracy is such a strong idea that even totalitarian states must somehow at least co-opt the democratic impulse. It is little known, but the Soviet Union had regular and meaningless elections. The entire Nazi state was legally based on the Enabling Law passed by the democratically-elected Reichstag in 1933. The mullahs have always allowed a certain amount of democracy, which they would like to be the sheep-like expression of agreement by a docile populace. Because they cannot actually abolish these elections, this is what got the relatively liberal (by their standards) Mohammad Khatami elected as Iran’s president in 1997, though he lacks sufficient power (and will) to make anything serious of his nominal position.
The sixth pillar is control of the economy. The Soviets were communist, the Nazis had private ownership with state control, and Iran has heavily interventionist crony capitalism, plus an odd grab-bag of specifically Islamic economic regulations, such as pertain to the employment of women and the charging of interest. Everyone who makes serious money there makes it because of a relationship with the state. Per-capita GNP is less than half what it was under the Shah, despite having had 20 years to grow. A truly independent economic sector that can oppose and defy government power, as in the US, has not been permitted. Control of the economy also includes the pseudo-mobilization of the poor. The mullahs took power with vast promises to the poor of their country, and in the first years of the revolution could use the mob as a battering ram against anything that stood in their way. They have, of course, never delivered on these promises. Hitler and Lenin did similar things, even if people forget the heavy proletarian emphasis of early Nazism.
The seventh pillar is the cultivation of imaginary enemies, which the public must be kept obsessed with. Hitler had the Jews. The Soviets had a demonology ranging from saboteurs to kulaks to American spies. Iran has America and Israel, both countries that were Iranian allies under the Shah and have never done Iran any harm.
The eighth pillar is the absence of the rule of law. In non-totalitarian societies, be they democratic or traditionalist monarchies, established law serves as a restraint on those in power. In totalitarian societies, there is in its place the rule of clique, power-play, corruption and brute force.
The ninth pillar is indoctrination. Everyone is constantly lectured, by every available means, on how great the regime is. The Nazis, with their sick brilliance and lumpen-populist instincts, were the best at it. The Soviets and the Mullahs have been very unsuccessful in selling to their own people. The mullahs exercise heavy control over Iranian media. They let a little steam out, but they also arrest and kill those who go too far. They can't entirely muzzle the press only because the public is attached to it. As with their use of democracy, their dream is the appearance of openness without the reality. Indoctrination also includes the corruption of education. The Nazis destroyed the finest university system in the world. The Soviet Union accomplished absolutely zero in 70 years of intellectual life outside the hard sciences. The Iranian regime has driven out scholars who wouldn't toe the line, debauched admissions standards to favor pious mediocrities, and gutted curriculums to stuff them with Islamic theology that is about as useful to its students as endless readings from Marx and Engels were at Moscow U.
The tenth pillar is a parallel state-party apparatus. In democracies, political parties are wispishly insubstantial organizations by the standards of government or corporations. This is because real power is vested in open institutions of government that really wield it and are subject to the restraints imposed by democratic legitimacy. In totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or fundamentalist Iran, they are massive organizations, because the party is the real power and the state its servant. In the Iranian case, the equivalent of the party apparatus includes a vast array of religious institutions and foundations.
Fundamentalist Iran has failed at the one fundamental task that any form of society must fulfill if it is to endure: it must produce a subsequent generation willing to continue it. Democracies usually do. The mullahs have not been able to secure the loyalty of Iranian youth to their ideals, and they constantly complain about this. This in a society where they have controlled everything about these children's upbringing for 22 years.
The Iranian public is not just unhappy about practical matters like having enough to eat and getting their children educated. They take every opportunity they are given to express their utter contempt for the regime as such. The rulers of Iran are stuck with the same dilemma that the Soviets faced: the system cannot survive without reform, but reform weakens the pillars of the system. This is so because every reform weakens the mechanisms that suppress popular demands, resulting in more unsatisfied demands after the reform than existed before it. Thus the reform position and the anti-reform position cannot be reconciled.
What is worse than the Soviet situation is that these irreconcilable points of view are now embodied in opposing factions in the Iranian ruling class. These factions contend without any institution` or principle to adjudicate between them that possesses accepted legitimacy. The Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the regime, served this function while he was alive, covering up this fundamental defect of the system. Both factions would like to say they believe in Islam, and surely do, but the Koran is silent about their dilemma and cannot tell them which road to take. Despite the most vigorous attempt in modern times to make Islam into a political philosophy, it cannot answer the key question facing a society that subscribes to it. This is what it means for a political philosophy to be intellectually bankrupt.
It is entirely possible that the death-spasms of this regime may be bloody. They may include domestic upheaval or a Götterdammerung of nuclear attacks, possibly even aimed at us. The one thing we know from our previous experience of collapsing totalitarian societies is that they are brittle. Because force is ultimately the only glue holding them together, they can collapse overnight. Picking up the pieces is of course another story.
It would be false to assume that the intellectual consequences of the failure of Islamic fundamentalism as a political philosophy in Iran will exactly parallel the fall of the Berlin Wall. But if one credits, as is obviously fair, the Moslem world with enough sense to see what's in front of them, certain similarities are inevitable. The key is to note that Islam as a religion is not at issue, and Moslems will continue to believe in it. What is at issue is fundamentalist Islam as a political philosophy, which is a very different thing. It would also be a mistake to assume that the natural outcome is a turn towards democracy, as democracy does not consist merely in the absence of totalitarianism, and requires that the nation attempting to practice it know how to do so, a form of knowledge that took hundreds of years to accumulate in the West and which Iranians, like Russians ten years ago, have little experience of.
But prognosticating Iran itself is not the important part. What is important is the likelihood that the ideological dynamism of political Islamic fundamentalism is, perhaps after an angry last attempt or two, inevitably going to decline. To assume otherwise is to assume that Moslems are idiots. People cannot base their lives, individually or collectively, on something they know to be false, that they know will not attain the object it sets for itself. Naturally, because the Moslem world has not had as neatly defined a cold war as we had, (though the competition between secular and religious philosophies of governance has been a staple of its international intellectual life for years) the outcome will not be as clear. The sheer anger motivating some fundamentalists in Israel, Algeria and elsewhere, and their non-religious political motives, may keep them going for a few more years. What may go in the primitive mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, cut off from the outside world, is basically irrelevant. But as a forward-looking philosophy of government, aspired to by people who have any choice, Islamic fundamentalism will be done for, and the dustbin of history will be a little more crowded.
Thank God that's over.