How the Trump administration saved the Islamic Republic

The Iranian leadership was struggling with a major legitimacy crisis when Trump came to its rescue.

Soleimani funeral
Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, in the city of Kerman, Iran on January 7, 2020 [Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP]

In the days after the events of 9/11 people would often say: “The world has changed.”

Well, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani has changed the world in much the same way.

The thin patina of international order has, once again, been scratched to expose a Hobbesian jungle where terrorists and rogue states claim the “natural right” of self-defence to operate as judge, jury and executioner in their own case.

The second decade of the 21st century was ending badly for the theocrats of Iran. Reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s greatest achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the “nuclear deal” with the US and members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – had generated hopes of normalisation and economic prosperity in Iran.

In May 2018, it was torn to shreds by the Trump administration. Other signatories to the deal were neither able nor willing to honour their obligations under that international agreement solemnised by the Security Council.

After 40 years of extremism, the reformers within the system had forced the regime to take a step towards moderation. Now they stood by stunned, with an enormous amount of egg on their collective face.

By November 2019, public discontent was palpable in Iran. Then it all blew up in another spontaneous combustion of popular rage. Two years earlier the price riot was about eggs. Now, gasoline had doubled overnight.

Such events signify not merely the economic desperation of people. They point to a radical loss of faith in the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. These latest riots were more prominent in their vehemence and pervasiveness.

The regime rapidly responded to the new uprising by shutting down the internet and unleashing phalanxes of black-clad riot police backed up by swarms of paramilitaries and hired goons. One of the few areas of efficiency of this regime is its skill in snuffing out local dissent. Hundreds died and up to 7,000 were arrested.

But the regime’s attitude towards this disturbance was uniquely bemusing. It started with the regular expressions of triumphalism and even glee – familiar since the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement. “Quashing the counterrevolution” had become an arena for the security chiefs and the political cadre elite to brandish their loyalty, secure promotions and establish political careers.

But in December 2019, the government’s victory over desperate demonstrators sounded strangely hollow. The supreme leader, who had encouraged the violent clampdown, appeared to falter in his pugnacity and ended up calling the victims of the riots “martyrs”. The regime seemed to have survived yet another challenge. But its legitimacy had worn dangerously thin and public revulsion with corruption, inefficiency, economic depression and political isolation was at an all-time high.

And then came a strong, bracing wind to fill the sails of the Iranian theocrats and lift them from their doldrums. A drone appeared from the clear blue sky above Baghdad International Airport and pulverised the convoy carrying the most popular military leader in the history of the Islamic Republic. It was even better than that. The victim happened to be on a diplomatic mission to effect a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

To have such a paragon of peace and heroism assassinated by some joystick assassin working for the “Great Satan” was the stuff of cheap right-wing movies. Qassem Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, the elite overseas arm of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps who had gained his accolades during the Iran-Iraq war and had then reinvented himself as the man who had kept ISIL (ISIS) out of Iran. He was called a “living martyr” by the Supreme Leader and the people knew him for his spartan lifestyle, incorruptibility and humility.

Despite the common misgivings of Iranians about their government’s regional adventurism and needless meddling in Arab politics, Soleimani was not reviled. Rather, he was seen as a soldier doing his job.

The assassination of Soleimani galvanised the population into a state of collective effervescence. The crowds that attended his funeral processions over the last few days have been compared with those that gathered to bid farewell to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini three decades ago.

And then, President Trump delivered the icing on the cake by threatening to bomb Iranian cities and destroy Persian cultural heritage. Thanks to Trump’s bumbling cluelessness, the extremely unpopular supreme leader and his unsavoury lieutenants are now tearfully leading huge crowds of mourners. People once again are chanting “Death to America” like they mean it.

But how politically important are exuberant crowds in politics? The answer depends on the context. In the case of Iran, they are very important. We should remember that the theocratic backbone of the Islamic Republic is made of jelly. It is based on the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s oddball interpretation of Shia political theology.

His treatise boldly ignored the millennial quietism of Shia Islam, based as it was on eschewing politics and awaiting the Coming of its Saviour. Khomeini agitated (with the aid of hypothetical syllogisms) for a political Islam in absence of the Saviour. Consequently, his strange thesis of the “Mandate of the Jurist” was largely ignored by the Shia grand jurists even after it was enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The Islamic Republic’s theocracy was stillborn. Hence, the actual legitimation of the Iranian regime had to rest on something other than religious doctrine. And that substitute was 20th-century revolutionary populism. That is why crowds are the essence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Popular elections and packed demonstrations are stand-ins for a functioning political theology.

The crowds that had been the ambrosia of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic in its first decade, however, have been increasingly acting as its poison. Gradual disenchantment, not only with the theocratic infrastructure (headed by the supreme leader) but also with the democratic elements (parliament and presidency) of the Iranian polity, has become palpable in the last two years. Even the reformers have suffered a legitimation crisis.

There was only one thing that could revive the system: A robust external enemy. And what enemy could be better than the good old ogre, America, the “Great Satan”? The problem was that after four decades of blaming everything on that fictitious entity the trope had lost credibility.

With the assassination of Soleimani backed by Trump’s renewed sanctions and his bullying tweets, Iran is channelling the halcyon days of Khomeinist Revolution. The caricature of ugly American politicians falsely promoted for 40 years is now proudly embodied by the current occupier of the White House.

Which reminds me of a story: Once upon a time, there was a man with a deadly phobia of an alligator hiding under his bed. He took drugs and saw every psychiatrist in town. Nothing helped and he finally died. The coroner recorded the cause of death as having been eaten by an alligator hiding under his bed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.