Sunflowers aren’t the only reason for believing the ‘Tehran Spring’ is far from over, even if it’s battles will now be fought largely within the corridors of power
The political turmoil in Iran over the past two weeks was no “Color” Revolution in the sense that much of the Western media imagined it, superimposing the narratives of the fall of Eastern European regimes (in the way that a 24-hour cable news culture is prone to do) on a situation whose dynamics and character was profoundly different. Iran’s electoral contest was always, first and foremost, a battle between rival factions of the regime. And what brought the protesters out into the streets was that the ruling faction so blatantly broke the system’s own rules during the election. The opposition leadership has claimed, all along, to be out to rescue the Islamic Revolution from what they say is its betrayal by the Ahmadinejad faction, and the slogans of the protesters bear this out: “Ya Hussein” and “Allah U’Akbar” are hardly deemed counterrevolutionary chants in Iran, and nor is this necessarily simply camouflage: The 1979 revolution established two sources of legitimacy for the rulers of the Islamic Republic — the guidance or “guardianship” of unelected clerics interpreting Islamic law and philosophy, and the will of the people as expressed through democratic elections (albeit with a range of candidates sharply restricted by the clerics) to the legislature and presidency. And the actions of Ahmadinejad and his backers, who include Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, have violated both principles.
The improbable haste with which the election result was announced (I share the view that that many paper ballots could simply not have been counted that quickly), created an extraordinary situation. As I wrote on the first weekend of the crisis,
Khamenei has now done something extraordinary to the regime’s democratic apparatus. Even though Iran’s Electoral Commission allows three days to hear challenges before presenting results to Khamenei for approval, the Supreme Leader rushed to put his seal of approval on the outcome, and warned all political factions to refrain from challenging it. His imposition of the result, just hours after the polls closed, stunned the country as doubts about the legitimacy of vote were voiced widely both inside and outside Iran.
The very way Iran is ruled is now in convulsion. Since the revolution of 1979 brought on the Islamic Republic, Iran has been governed by a power structure that combines unelected clerics with an elected legislature and presidency. Under the revolution’s principle of velayat e-faqi or “guardianship of the jurisprudent,” ultimate political authority rests in the hands of the Shi’ite clergy, first among them the Supreme Leader, chosen by an unelected Assembly of Experts. Still, the regime always sought to affirm its legitimacy through holding elections for parliament and the president.
Despite clerical restrictions, the country’s democratic institutions have been capable of surprising and rebuking the conservative mullahs — as occurred in 1997, when reformist Mohammed Khatami won the presidency by a landslide. But if Khatami’s failed reformist tenure highlighted the limits of the power of Iran’s presidency, the Supreme Leader has also traditionally sought consensus within the regime. While Khamenei has clearly favored those, like Ahmadinejad, who most closely reflect his own views, he has tried to protect the cohesion of the Islamic Republic’s system by seeking to balance the influence of competing factions within its political establishment.
The democratic element of Iran’s system has functioned as an important safety valve for clerical rule by creating a managed channel for the release of popular frustrations. But now the Supreme Leader appears to have thrown his weight solidly behind what many are charging is a carefully staged putsch by Ahmadinejad…
… Ahmadinejad branded the entire revolutionary establishment as feckless and corrupt, prompting appeals to Khamenei from former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Assembly of Experts, who was one of Ahmadinejad’s chief targets. But he and others got little sympathy for their complaints that the president’s attacks undermined the legitimacy of the revolution itself. Some tartly pointed out that since Khamenei himself was president from 1981 to 1989, Ahmadinejad’s claim that his is the first Iranian administration that was not corrupt was a slap at the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei’s backing of the disputed election results has surprised many in Iran, precisely because it is directed against a substantial segment of the revolution’s political establishment. Just as Mao Zedong, in China’s Cultural Revolution, unleashed a campaign of terror carried out by poorer young people against what he decried as the more liberal, “bourgeois” elements of the communist party, so does Ahmadinejad claim to be waging a class war, with the backing of the poor and the security forces, against a corrupt political elite brought to power by the revolution. And he clearly has Khamenei’s backing.
Mir Hossein Mousavi doesn’t even represent the old reformist faction of former President Mohammed Khatami; he represents the old-guard pragmatic conservatives who defeated Khatami but were then themselves eclipsed by Ahmadinejad’s faction — Revolutionary Guard veterans of the Iran-Iraq war backed by an millenarian section of the clergy, led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (who doesn’t even accept the founding principles of the Islamic Republic, i.e. clerical “guidance” and the popular vote as twin sources of legitimacy, but instead favors a clerical dictatorship that eschews even the controlled democracy of Iran’s parliamentary and presidential system of government).
As I wrote at the outset of the protest movement,
As the sun set on the fourth day of turmoil over Iran’s disputed election result, the political conflict looked less like a “Tehran spring” challenge to the Islamic regime than a high-stakes game of chicken among its rival factions.
Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei confronts one hard reality: if you summarily ignore the votes that millions of citizens have cast in good faith, even if those votes are against your favorite, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you could fatally undermine the popular acceptance of Iran’s system of government. But opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi faces an equally acute dilemma. As he urges his supporters onto the streets to clash with authorities increasingly prone to use violence, he risks bringing down the very system in which he holds a great stake; on the other hand, holding them back risks simply conceding defeat to Ahmadinejad, even if the verdict of the electorate said otherwise.
Mousavi represents a faction of the regime determined to rally the electorate against the disastrous diplomatic and economic policies of Ahmadinejad, but that hardly makes him a natural to lead a “people’s power” movement against the regime. While insisting on the right to peaceful protest, he has been disinclined to seek confrontation, a fact that clearly piqued some armchair Trotskyist commentators in the West. Typical was the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, who wrote: “Right now the perception grows that Iran’s transformatory moment finally arrived at the weekend, only to slip from the protesters’ grasp in a cloud of teargas, terror and vacillating political trepidation. Perhaps, for them, all is not yet lost. But as matters stand, Mousavi, the reluctant radical, will be remembered as the nearly man.” Of course in the fevered imagination of the eternal insurrectionist, revolution was but a stone’s throw (or was it a T-shirt?) away, but ever betrayed by “vacillating” political leaders.
The reality, as I wrote at the time, was that the prospects for revolution were always remote, even when there were a million protesters on the streets:
Despite the Twitter-enabled street scenes and revived slogans of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, a repeat of that successful insurrection remains highly improbable. For one thing, the protest movement is being led by a faction of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, whose members stand to lose a great deal if the regime is brought down and thus have to calibrate their dissent. More important, an unarmed popular movement can topple an authoritarian regime only if the security forces switch sides or stay neutral. But Iran’s key security forces — the élite Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia — are bastions of support for Ahmadinejad. And they have used hardly a fraction of their repressive power. Also, while the opposition draws far larger crowds, there are still millions of Iranians strongly backing Ahmadinejad. So even if the government is unable to destroy the opposition, it’s unlikely that the opposition will be in a position to destroy the government.
At the same time, the regime would have to calibrate its own use of violence so as to limit the damage to its own legitimacy. And while there were some savage murders of opposition demonstrators, for the most part, the regime appears to have used hand to hand violence and the machinery of state to disorganize the protesters and prevent them from achieving critical mass on the streets. After the first days in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a green wave of support for Mousavi, the deployment of the Basij militia to harass and beat people on the streets, combined with mass arrests of hundreds of individuals who could contribute to an opposition movement — as well as restrictions on Mousavi himself, and the arrest of his inner circle — pretty much nullified the challenge on the streets.
The fact that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad were unlikely ever to retreat entirely from a bogus election result the Supreme Leader had called the “divine assessment” left only one possible outcome, which I labeled “The Zimbabwe Option“:
The option that would probably hold the most appeal to Khamenei now would be brokering an agreement similar to the one that has kept Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, in power despite his essentially losing an election — by bludgeoning the opposition into settling for an important yet subordinate role in his government. Already, Khamenei has appealed to a sense of national unity and preserving the regime, hoping to cajole the opposition into accepting the results. And at his first press conference following the announcement of his victory, Ahmadinejad reportedly asked his opponents to submit lists of candidates for membership in his Cabinet. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may be hoping that standing firm and having the Guardian Council affirm his victory after a 10-day recount will produce opposition fatigue that, combined with the threat of violence, will see the protests peter out. By so doing, Khamenei would hope that the pragmatic conservatives — embodied by Mousavi — can be weaned away from the reformists (led by former President Mohammed Khatami) by giving them a stake in a national unity government and assurances of moderating Ahmadinejad’s style of governance. However, that scenario would come into play only if Mousavi believed he was losing the battle and risked disaster by keeping his supporters out in the streets. Right now, there are no signs that the opposition feels beaten. (Mugabe’s opponents settled for the deal only when they had been so pummeled that they could see no hope of unseating him.) Which is why all four options may remain in play while the various camps test one another’s strength in the coming days.
And also, here:
The Zimbabwe strategy would involve first escalating repression to get the opposition off the streets, drawing enough blood to make many Iranians think twice about putting themselves at great physical risk in pursuit of an objective that begins to look beyond reach. And once the opposition is intimidated and demoralised, Mr Ahmadinejad might be prodded to offer concessions in the form of some kind of national unity government, albeit on his own terms. Right now, there’s no sign that the opposition would accept such a deal, but Mr Khamenei may be betting that suppressing the protest movement can split the opposition, isolating the more reformist elements from pragmatic conservatives like Mr Mousavi who didn’t back the previous reform presidency of Mohammed Khatami, but who have been alarmed by Mr Ahmadinejad’s militancy.
It’s unlikely, in fact, that Mr Mousavi had evolved a strategy for the situation as it has unfolded. Like Mr Khamenei, he is improvising. The Supreme Leader has now forced him to choose between becoming an enemy of the state, or settling for a secondary role and perhaps, after the crisis has passed, a more moderate and inclusive Mr Ahmadinejad.
In the short term, there is no easy path to victory for the opposition. But Mr Khamenei’s behaviour over the past couple of weeks may have dealt a body blow to the regime’s key sources of legitimacy – the clergy, and the democratic process which offers genuine political competition, even if the range of candidates is tightly limited. In the eyes of millions of Iranians, Mr Khamenei has thrown his weight behind a lie, and their faith in the institutions of the Islamic Republic may have been fatally undermined. Much of the clergy, which has never been impressed by Mr Khamenei – a theological lightweight elevated into the position only after Mr Khomeini’s original designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri had begun to question the regime’s murder of its political prisoners – has begun to openly challenge his decisions over the elections.
The cost of getting Mr Ahmadinejad reelected may prove to squander the moral and political authority attached to Mr Khamenei’s office. The 1979 revolution created two sources of authority; the electorate and the clergy, and it sought to balance those to some extent. Ayatollah Khamenei may have begun to irretrievably alienate himself from both, making the office of Supreme Leader less about offering the regime moral and spiritual guidance than about being an extension of one faction.
Whatever the outcome in the test of wills, Iran’s next great political battle may, in fact, not be fought on the streets, but in the closed chambers where the various unelected clerical councils of the regime meet – sooner or later – to choose a successor to Mr Khamenei himself.
Indeed, ironically, perhaps, the opposition may have found itself in a situation of having greater prospects within the corridors of power than on the streets. As I noted in another piece,
Despite fantasies of insurrection in some of the more fevered Western media assessments of the confrontation, the balance of forces appears to militate against a knockout blow by either side. U.S.-based Iran scholar Farideh Farhi, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader may not have the majority of the people behind them, “but they do have support. They also have the resources of the state — both financial and military. So that makes them quite robust.”
At the same time, Farhi noted, the opposition coalition includes some very powerful figures from within the regime, who together command the support of a large section of the population. Thus, she warned, “To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence.” More likely, she argued, is the pursuit of some sort of compromise that allows the regime to back down to some extent, without necessarily surrendering.
Such a compromise may be shaped by the battles inside the corridors of power. The clergy, whose blessings are a key source of legitimacy for the regime, is clearly divided over the government’s handling of the election and its aftermath. Much has been made of the fact that the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member clerical body that picks the Supreme Leader, also has the right to remove him from office, and there has been speculation that former President and Mousavi ally Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who chairs the assembly, has been lobbying clerics to rebuke Khamenei’s handling of the debacle. Whatever the reality, there’s little doubt that many of Iran’s senior clerics view Khamenei as having degraded the principle of a clerical Supreme Leader acting as a guide and arbiter to the regime’s factional battles. Khamenei has clearly become a partisan participant.
Rafsanjani has also called on the opposition to create a single political bloc to challenge Ahmadinejad. That move could have significant consequences in the Majlis, Iran’s elected parliament. Its Speaker, Ali Larijani, is a Khamenei loyalist who has long been antagonistic to Ahmadinejad, and he appears to have hedged his bets in the present crisis. He has echoed Khamenei’s initial celebration of the election results, blaming foreign forces for some of the current turmoil; but he has also slammed Ahmadinejad’s government for attacks on students and backed an opposition call for an independent investigation of the election, on the grounds that the Guardian Council is biased toward Ahmadinejad.
Parliament will not be decisive, but it could be significant in any longer term strategy of an opposition movement that claims the mantle of the Islamic revolution. It must approve the President’s budget, and it has the power to impeach him. It must also approve and can dismiss Cabinet ministers — as Ahmadinejad discovered in 2005, when the legislature rejected his first three nominees for Oil Minister, and again late last year, when it fired his Interior Minister for faking a degree from Oxford University.
Currently, Ahmadinejad’s coalition controls 117 of the 290 seats in the Majlis, while the reformists control 46 and pragmatic conservatives aligned with Rafsanjani and Mousavi have 53. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities, and 69 are in the hands of independents, among whom the opposition will presumably be lobbying hard for support against the President.
Whatever happens in the streets in the coming days, the opposition to Ahmadinejad, which has one foot deep inside the regime and the other in civil society, may be girding for a long-term campaign against the President’s power grab. The end result is likely to be some form of compromise between what remain factions of the same regime — albeit factions with increasingly catastrophic differences. But the question that will be in play in the weeks and months ahead is which side will have to give up more.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may well find that the cost of stealing the election is actually diminished authority within the regime. The battle is far from over, even if it’s not being fought primarily on the streets. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would like to impose something akin to what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe, when he lost the election but stayed in power, with his opponent in a subordinate role. While Mousavi is very much part of the regime, he may have reason to believe he can do better than Tsvangirai, though…