It struck me, in reading this AP dispatch from Tehran by Nasser Karimi and William J. Kole, that the political and media establishment has, in the two decades since the death of the very visible Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, allowed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, his successor as the Supreme Leader of Iran, to fade comfortably into the background, while still pulling all the meaningful levers of power in that country.
Only now, with Tehran in turmoil, and of all things during an attempted media blackout, do we directly learn from Karimi and Kole that election winners are in most meaningful ways mere puppets who serve at Khamenei's pleasure, and that the elections themselves are mere spectacles designed to convince the populace, and perhaps more importantly the West, that Iran, though Islamic fundamentalist to the core, is still somehow a sort-of democratic country.
It is, of course, anything but that. I daresay that most in the West, up to and including many politicians and establishment media elites, and even presidential candidates, haven't even the faintest appreciation of this fact.
In their report, Karimi and Kole communicated the essence of Iran's reality in one concise phrase, referring to "the virtually limitless authority of the country's most powerful figure." Now they tell us.
Here are some key paragraphs from the read-it-all AP report, time-stamped at just after 10 a.m. Eastern Time on June 21 (bold is mine):
In Tehran, an eerie calm as death toll jumps to 17
An eerie calm settled over the streets of Tehran Sunday as state media reported at least 10 more deaths in post-election unrest and said authorities arrested the daughter and four other relatives of ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's most powerful men.
The reports brought the official death toll for a week of boisterous confrontations to at least 17. State television inside Iran said 10 were killed and 100 injured in clashes Saturday between demonstrators contesting the result of the June 12 election and black-clad police wielding truncheons, tear gas and water cannons.
Police and members of Iran's Basij militia took up positions Sunday afternoon on major streets and squares, including the site of Saturday's clashes, but there was no immediate word on whether protesters were gathering.
Iran's regime continued to impose a blackout on the country's most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
..... But fresh images and allegations of brutality emerged as Iranians at home and abroad sought to shed light on a week of astonishing resistance to hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The New-York based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said scores of injured demonstrators who had sought medical treatment after Saturday's clashes were arrested by security forces at hospitals in the capital.
It said doctors had been ordered to report protest-related injuries to the authorities, and that some seriously injured protesters had sought refuge at foreign embassies in a bid to evade arrest.
..... Thousands of supporters of Mousavi, who claims he won the election, squared off Saturday against security forces in a dramatic show of defiance of Khamenei.
Underscoring how the protesters have become emboldened despite the regime's repeated and ominous warnings, witnesses said some shouted "Death to Khamenei!" at Saturday's demonstrations - another sign of once unthinkable challenges to the virtually limitless authority of the country's most powerful figure.
Khamenei's out of sight, out of mind "strategy," which could in fact be a personal preference for reclusiveness, has clearly worked to shape the perception of his country's political situation and the nature of its "government." Until this weekend, few even knew who he is.
Intentionally or not, news reports over the years have facilitated this ignorance. A Google News Archive search on "Ali Khamenei" (in quotes) from 1/1/1989 through 12/31/2008 returns about 33,000 items. That might seem like a lot, but it's less than 1,700 per year. A Google News Archive search on "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" (also in quotes) from 7/1/2005 (about a month before he became "President") through 12/31/2008 returns almost 99,000 items -- over 27,000 per year during 3-plus years.
At a minimum, Karimi and Kole's "revelation" unmasks the reality that the very idea of "meeting with Ahmadinejad" accomplishes nothing. It demonstrates that as long as a Supreme Leader is in control in the "Islamic Republic," an Iranian "President," whoever he might be, it best seen as the equivalent of a diplomat with no real authority.
Perhaps inadvertently under the stress of current events, the AP writers performed a useful service in reminding us of that. More frequent reminders of that from establishment media reporters would be very useful. If Khamenei and Ahmadinejad politically survive the current turmoil (and I fervently hope they don't), I recommend that phraseology on the order of "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is subservient to the virtually limitless power of Ali Khamenei" become standard fare.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.