These are tough days for the "Supreme Guide" of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For the first time in more than three decades, he seems unable to do a Houdini number by getting out of a tight spot that events and his own mistakes have placed him in.
For more than three decades, whenever his rule was seriously challenged, his tactic was to go into purdah for a while letting things sort themselves out or, if action were needed, let others to do the dirty work. And when it became clear that things weren't going to sort themselves out, he adopted the tactic he called "heroic flexibility," a political version of the Parson's position in reverse.
Over the years, he did his Houdini number during a long power struggle with his foe-cum-friend Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani, and ended up winning. During the contested presidential election that produced the so-called "Green Movement" he let his security men kill protesters, impose house-arrest on some protest leaders and crush the student uprising.
In foreign affairs, he let the so-called "reformist" faction, first under Hojat al-Islam Muhammad Khatami and then led by Hojat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani, accept every humiliation to get a deal with the US and deceive the Europeans into regarding the Islamic Republic as a normal state while he whispered his opposition to the deal made. If things turned out well, he would take the credit; if not he would blame others.
All along, he played both the ultimate decision-maker and the top critic of the regime he headed. Frequently, he mused about "the problems from which our heroic Islamic nation suffers", blaming unnamed officials for mounting failures across the board.
All along, his model was North Korean leader Kim Il-sung whom he had met and become an admirer of during a state visit that seems to have reshaped his world view.
In his memoirs, Ayatollah Nateq-Nuri, who had accompanied Khamenei during the state visit to Pyongyang, relates how the future Supreme Guide "fell head and heels for the North Korean 'Great Helmsman'".
The visit to Pyongyang was Khamenei's the Road to Damascus moment. The lesson he learned was simple: Let others idolize you and, if things turn badly, blame those who idolize you. And, if you are in a position of weakness, just appear as a nobody or play village idiot until the tide turns in your favor.
Over the decades, every prominent religious and/or political figure in the Islamic Republic was thrown into a mud-pool, subjected to vilification, put under house arrest or sent to prison, silenced or forced into exile.
During the uprising against the Shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointed a 14-man "Islamic Revolution Council" as a provisional government and legislative authority.
Four of those were assassinated and one was executed on Khomeini's orders. Two fled into exile while another two spent time in prison. One died in "suspicious circumstances". Three others served briefly in office but quickly faded into oblivion. Only one, guess which one, survived and is still around: Khamenei.
Today, however, as the popular uprising for freedom continues, albeit with less intensity than when it first began four months ago, the "Supreme Guide" finds it hard to repeat his favorite number.
While he remained in purdah for weeks, his entourage tried every trick in the book, from printing money to bribing security men, the military and the civil service to transferring ownership of public companies and banks to oligarchs, passing by a quiet purge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the changing of some provincial governors. Killing over 500 protesters in the streets and executing several more sentenced by kangaroo courts were also tried as part of a nationwide repression that led to 18,000 arrests.
However, when Khamenei was forced to take center stage last week, it was clear that his usual tactics hadn't worked.
The breach created between the regime and a large section of the Iranian people seemed to have become unbridgeable.
Worse still, most of the key figures in the regime's support-base within the clergy, the military-security apparatus, and the Islamic academic and cultural elite seemed to be either hedging their bets or expressing some sympathy for the protesters.
At the same time, a vocal minority within the regime is calling for an end to what they call "strategic patience" by "slaughtering the enemy" in the streets, many more arrests, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, attacks on neighboring Arab countries, hitting American bases in the region and cutting off access to cyberspace. There are even threats of "action" against exiled opposition figures and unfriendly Western politicians.
For Khamenei today "to kill or not to kill?", that is the question. At the time of this writing, he seemed to be still trying to wiggle his way out by blowing hot and cold. He described women who have rejected the mandatory "hijab" as "our daughters" who ought not to be anathemized. At the same time, however, he ordered more arrests and possibly more official murders, disguised as "executions".
The tragedy is that there is no guarantee that whichever option he chooses would bring the nation back from the brink. The regime has destroyed all actual or potential figures and/or organs that could interface with Iranian society at large.
The regime's support-base may not wish to go for the bloodbath option under the banner of Khamenei who may not be there to distribute the spoils.
At the same time, his rivals within the regime may wish to make him the scapegoat for all the failures, not to mention crimes, of the Khomeinist system and reclaim political virginity in the hope of getting a piece of the cake if and when it is baked and served.
Like his model Kim Il-sung, Khamenei has always tried to end up on the winning side and, up to now, has succeeded. In a speech several years ago, Khamenei implicitly compared himself to the mouse in the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons in which the big and powerful pussycat is always outplayed by the small but agile mouse he tries to catch.
So, what is going to happen?
Rather than being a tapestry of possibilities, the political world is probabilistic, rendering the quest for certainties difficult. However, the strongest probability today is that the Khomeinist system could be heading for the cabinet of curiosities.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.