Iran’s ‘Zimbabwe’ Option

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…

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15 Responses to Iran’s ‘Zimbabwe’ Option

  1. Gavin Evans says:

    There was a report today from the forensic statistician Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan who found that the results “were substantially augmented by artificial means”. More likely is that they were entirely augmented – the result of the election was worked out well before the election itself, and the actual vote had no bearing at all on that result – in other words, that none of the votes counted. This would have involved a substantial consipiracy, which would certainly have included Khamenei. Unlike Zimbabwe, where they augmented the result of the first election to ensure that while Tsangirai won, he did not secure a 50 percent vote to prevent a run-off, the Iranians went for a more brazen approach, obviously calculating that a landslide would less open to niggling about irregularities. Their problem was that this result, and the speed of its delivery, was simply not credible.

    One reading of the implications of this for US foreign policy are dire: it gives the Israelis breathing space, takes the heat off the West Bank settlement growth issue, confirms Nethenayu’s view of the Iranian regime, and so on. But I am not so sure.

    For one thing, as Jonathan Freedland argues in today’s Guardian, it makes a military attack on Iran, or at least one that would entail any collateral damage (as all such attacks do) unthinkable. What the election and its aftermath have shown to Americans is the humanity of the Iranian people. Bombing them would not be a bright idea.

    And once Iran has moved off the front pages, the issue of the settlements will return, perhaps more forcefully than before. If Obama wants to pull together a coalition to squeeze the Iranian regime, one way or another, he will be hugely helped by progress on the West Bank, so it would make no sense for him to ease off on the Isrealis.

  2. Tony says:

    Gavin, your position is logical apropos Iran diplomacy, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be adopted. If, as is being reported (although I have my doubts) Dennis Ross is now being elevated to the role of guiding Obama’s overall strategy, then it’s entirely possible that there’ll be a war — and also that his push on settlements will prove to be a temporary device precisely to build support against Iran…

    Ross has made clear (in his book) that he believes Iran will back down only if it faces an economic blockade and the threat of military action. Negotiations are simply meant to build a consensus in the West for such harsher punitive measures, because nobody expects that Iran will agree to forego the NPT right to enrich uranium (the pragmatists in Washington are urging Obama to abandon that demand and instead focus on the issue of preventing weaponization).

    Moreover, Ross has always insisted on tight deadline for talks, and he’s saying if there’s no progress by September/October, then the U.S. will push hard for escalating sanctions. But it’s pretty unlikely that the Iranian regime will be in no shape to be engaging in talks aimed at finding an acceptable compromise on such a sensitive issue for at least a year. So if the U.S. then moves to escalate sanctions, particularly if it presses for a gasoline blockade, the Iranians are likely to respond with provocations elsewhere to make life difficult for the US…

    The Israelis were never going to just bomb Iran out of the blue, a la 1981 in Iraq. Their strategy is to provoke Iran into hitting out — I’ve noted here before that Israeli media reports suggest they may assassinate Hizballah leader Sheikh Nasrallah to taunt the Iranians into attacking them in some way, and use that as the pretext for bombing. Similarly, the likes of Ross are more likely to craft a strategy in which Iran is perceived to have fired the first shots…

  3. blowback says:

    While the time taken to complete the count was suspect, it is not impossible that the votes were properly counted. Given the number of polling stations (over 40,000) and the size of the electorate (30 odd million), that means there were an average of 800 ballots per station, which could be counted in less than an hour. Could the results be securely totalled in an hour? With modern communications, it could be done.

    With that number of polling stations (over 40,000) and the number of people manning those stations (about 5, i’ve heard), there are at least 200,000 people who have a good idea of what happened. Why have none of them spoken out?

    As for the various statistical analyses done of the results, all of them only suggest what might have happened and cannot prove what did happen.

    I have seen reports in various places that Khamenei was worried about the possibility of a “colour revolution” and had studied the documentation and what happened in each country. A common theme to all colour revolutions seems to be a claim that the colour revolutionaries were denied victory by a rigged ballot and demand a repeat election even though the evidence for fraud might not be available. So how could Mousavi know that the “election” had been stolen before the polling stations had shut and the votes had even been counted? I suspect that Khamenei realized that Mousavi was making a play using “colour revolution” techniques but probably without outside assistance from the Great Satan (although I have seen reports that Rafsanjani made a deal with the Saudis); so at that point Khamemei pre-empted him by backing Ahmadinejad and then the fix went in. For all that has been claimed Ahmadinejad might have actually won but probably not by the margin that Khamenei claimed. Will we ever know what ever really happened? I doubt it, the Iranians know when to keep their mouths shut.

    If the ballot-rigging was planned from the start, all the figures would have fitted the “legend” that the vote riggers wanted to use. There would have been no abnormal results for external statiticians to identify. That there are some discrepancies suggests that the fix was done quickly. I am not a statitician but even I know that if you want to fabricate results you decide on the scale of the results and then randomize the actual digits used in the tail of the number to counter the type of analysis that Walter Mebane does.

    My overall feeling is that this was really a fight for control of the Islamic Revolution between Khamemei and Rafsanjani and I think that Rafsanjani has lost. The rioting was probably down to true reformers although the MEK can’t be ruled out as the hardcore violent demonstrators probably only numbered a few hundred, well within the MEKs capabilities.

  4. Charles Shannon says:

    Tony: Excellent analysis, as always.
    One factual correction: You call the Assembly of Experts “unelected.” It is in fact directly elected, in balloting that in future will coincide with elections to the Majlis or parliament (giving the current Assembly an extended eight-year term.)
    Of course, candidates for the 86-member Assembly have to pass rigorous vetting by the unelected Council of Guardians, so the popular vote is not entirely free.
    Still, the Experts chose Rafsanjani to chair them, suggesting the real hard-liners are in the minority on it.
    By the way, I agree with Blowback that it is at least possible that Ahmadinejad actually won — which should not be all that surprising, given the advantages of office and control of the media.
    Mousavi no doubt has a large, vocal base of support, but he — like the Western media — may have bought into his own PR.
    I understand why people are suspicious of the result, but Blowback’s point that no one among the tens of thousands of election workers has come forward to provide detailed evidence of fraud is very telling.
    As is Mousavi’s refusal to defend his allegations in person before the Guardian Council or to provide observers for the partial recount.
    Ahmadinejad may be an obstacle to detente, but for now he’s the legal president of Iran.

  5. zimbabwe option,i call it no option.

  6. As for the various statistical analyses done of the results, all of them only suggest what might have happened and cannot prove what did happen.

  7. With that number of polling stations (over 40,000) and the number of people manning those stations (about 5, i’ve heard), there are at least 200,000 people who have a good idea of what happened. Why have none of them spoken out?

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  9. Giovanny says:

    The Iranian opposition climas according to their reliable sources within the interior ministry Mousavi got 19 m votes, Ahmadinejad less than 6 m.Given that comes close to the truth it’s doubtable that the official result could be prepared without Khamenei’s placet.We’re living in interesting times.Interesting, too, is that one can hear from so-call US-strategy thinktanks that they’d prefer Ahmahdinejad remaining in power, as (whatever) sanctions would be easier to launch.Same goes obviously with the falcons in Israel.As for electoral fraud in the Western world: Bush had become President without, hm?

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