At first glance, the regimes in Iran and Syria would not appear to have much in common. With “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.
At first glance, in recent months both regimes have been emphasizing their claimed founding principles.
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had his wings clipped, thus enabling the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei to advertise himself as the 14th “Imam”.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has blamed “Islamist extremists” and even Al Qaeda for the revolts that have shaken the country for months.
And, 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 his rule.
In 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.
In Syria, on the other hand, the wedge between the military and the Assad clique is getting wider by the day.
This 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 Alawite unity.
Efforts 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 Christian minority.
At 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.
However, the two regimes now share other important features.
Chief 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 irrelevancy.
Next, 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 media.
The so-called Expediency Council was also destroyed when Khamenei appointed a new group of his cronies to do its job.
Now, 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.
Muhammad-Jawad 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 elections.
Since 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.”
One 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.
The 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.
All this means that in Syria, as in Iran, the only institution left is that of the armed forces.
However, 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 to failure.
The 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”.
The 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.
By 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.
Even 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.