Iran: Islamic Republic at Risk?
Iran's presidential election is degenerating into a battle of nerves. Protesters remain unwilling to accept blatantly rigged results that appear designed to usher in a neo-conservative dictatorship. The pressure is now mounting on the country's Supreme Leader, who seems to have maneuvered himself into a corner from which there are seemingly only two equally unpalatable escape routes -- either surrender, or order security forces to open fire. Either way, the Islamic Revolution will come under severe strain in the coming days, and there is no guarantee that it will survive this crisis.
The day before the June 12 vote, one of Iran's savviest politicians, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, cautioned Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that a fraudulent election could spark a volcanic eruption. Rafsanjani's words now seem prophetic, as street protests in Tehran and elsewhere have shaken the Islamic Republic's foundation.
The rapid escalation of events during the immediate post-election period seems to have taken Ayatollah Khamenei, along with the presumptive president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by surprise. The duo seems to have assumed that opposition to the election results would melt in the face of a strong show of force. But that has not been the case. If anything, resistance has steadily intensified. According to unofficial reports, up to 3 million protesters took to the streets of Tehran and other cities on June 15. In Tehran itself the rally drew roughly 1 million attendees. On the low end, some estimates had the crowd in the tens of thousands.
Regardless of the numbers, the protesters have shown signs of shedding their fear of authorities, chanting slogans that have condemned Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and looming tyranny. The June 15 rally occurred in defiance of an Interior Ministry ban. The protesters turned out even though rumors swept the city that security forces in Tehran had been issued live ammunition.
During the rally, a thunderous roar of sloganeering echoed in the streets of Tehran. The crowd shouted "God is Great," "We will not accept fraud," and "Give us back our votes." Still others sought to turn members of the security forces, chanting "Law enforcers support us." The vast crowd also agitated for a general strike to start on June 16, with many marchers vowing to keep taking to the streets until a free-and-fair vote is held.
Adding momentum to the protest movement, Mousavi made his first public appearance since the June 12 election. He told the crowd that the political system should not be subject to individual whim, and that the people should have the final say in the outcome of elections. "The vote of the people is more important than myself or any other individual," he said.
Also on June 15, former president and the leader of Iran's reformist movement, Mohammad Khatami, expressed strong support for protesters. "What took place in the course of the recent presidential election produced a blemish in the public trust, and led to . . . natural and emotional reactions," Khatami said in a written statement distributed by fax.
"Your cheerful and joyous presence through peaceful means, which you have observed, is your right," Khatami told rally-goers.
The opposition movement seems to be feeding off of Mousavi's personal courage. On June 13, according a reliable source, a special envoy from the Supreme Leader's Office, either personally met with or talked over the phone to Mousavi. Ayatollah Khamenei's representative exerted tremendous pressure on Mousavi to accept defeat. Had Mousavi done so, the opposition movement likely would have fizzled. But Mousavi refused to comply, thus placing his personal freedom at risk.
The June 15 rally did not involve wide-scale violence, suggesting that if security forces assigned to crowd control did indeed possess live rounds, they chose not to shoot or make any other effort to break up the massive crowd. At one point, however, pro-government Basij Militia members reportedly fired shots that left at least one protester dead and several seriously wounded. The shooting, which occurred not far from Freedom Square, was said to have come from a Basij compound.
Protester passion now seems to be turning the tide: It is the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad who are starting to show fear, as intimidation and other tricks, including a media blackout and the blockage of text messaging service, have proven ineffective in slowing the opposition's momentum.
In the days immediately following the vote, Khamenei issued statements describing the voting results as final and insisting that those dissatisfied with the outcome must accept defeat. But on June 15, he made a stunning reversal. Following a meeting with Mousavi, he announced that the Guardian Council, an unelected body with election-oversight authority, would review the results. "The Guardian Council has seven to 10 days to see if it was a healthy election or not," Abbasali Kadkhodai, a council spokesman, was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency. The Supreme Leader's decision creates the possibility that a re-run election could take place.
In comments broadcast on state television, the Supreme Leader appealed to Mousavi to try to prevent violence. "Actions must be taken with dignity," Ayatollah Khamenei said. Not just Mousavi, but the election's two other supposedly unsuccessful candidates -- Mohsen Rezai and Mehdi Karoubi -- earlier lodged complaints and demanded a do-over vote.
Some experts in Tehran suggested that the Supreme Leader, by referring the results to the Guardian Council, hoped to take the wind out of the protesters' sails. But an immutable law of authoritarian regimes follows that any gesture of conciliation is interpreted as a sign of weakness, and therefore begets intensified opposition.
The backtracking of the Supreme Leader left Ahmadinejad in an awkward position. On June 15, he clearly appeared to grow nervous about his hold on power, as he postponed a trip to Yekaterinburg, Russia, to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The presumptive president indicated that he would attend the summit's second-day events on June 16. Whether or not he makes that trip will be a key bellwether of which way the wind is blowing in Tehran.
Just a day earlier, Ahmadinejad was acting as though he was in firm command. At a victory rally in Tehran on June 14, attended by about 200,000 supporters, he described protesters as "dirt" and held up the June 12 vote as a model of democracy in action. He also threatened Mousavi with retribution if he persisted in challenging the outcome.
That Mousavi would appear in public the very next day sent a message that was not lost on anyone. The appearance, backed by massive popular turnout, tacitly unmasked Ahmadinejad as someone who may not be able to back up his bluster.
It would seem Ahmadinejad's hubris is a major factor driving this brewing "Green" revolution. Many Iranians were appalled by the level of fraud associated with the election. Representatives of the Mousavi, Rezai and Karoubi campaigns were illegally barred from observing the ballot-counting process. Throughout that process, the returns for Ahmadinejad remained suspiciously steady, hovering in the 66 percent to 62 percent range. A precinct-by-precinct tabulation of the voting was never released, and the Fars News Agency, an outlet closely aligned with the Revolutionary Guards, proclaimed Ahmadinejad the winner even before the results had been officially "compiled." Finally, Karoubi was reported to have received only just over 300,000 votes, an absurdly low number when considering that his campaign organization alone numbered about that many.
The blatant disregard shown by pro-Ahmadinejad forces for the electorate has left millions of Iranians -- especially women and young people -- feeling that they have no other choice but to make a stand. Many are convinced that, if left unchecked, Ahmadinejad will establish a tyranny that would choke off aspirations for a greater level of individual liberty and a better economic existence.
A considerable portion of the political and religious elite are joining the resistance to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader. These opposition elements within the hierarchy -- most notably Rafsanjani and his family -- now believe that they will be in danger of arrest, and their property vulnerable to confiscation, if the election results are allowed to stand. This mood naturally has injected a destabilizing element of desperation into the unfolding political events.
Ahmadinejad has left no doubt that if he survives this crisis, he will attempt to carry out a purge. Such a purge, if it commences, would clearly start with Rafsanjani, a nemesis of both the president and the Supreme Leader. Already, a pro-government newspaper, Iran, has published "evidence of corruption" concerning one of Rafsanjani's sons, following up on the charges that Ahmadinejad leveled against Rafsanjani during a televised debate June 3. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, another hardliner-controlled newspaper, Kayhan, ran a commentary calling for "Iran's Third Revolution" -- in the tradition of the 1979 ouster of the shah, and the stand taken against the United States during the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
Hardliners reportedly had post-election plans to unleash the Basij Militia in an effort to stoke revolutionary fervor and repress regime opponents, a la the Red Guards during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But the plan never got off the ground because pro-Ahmadinejad forces were caught off-guard by the size and enthusiasm demonstrated by pro-Mousavi crowds.
It would seem at this stage that Ahmadinejad, and by extension the Supreme Leader, have overreached. They may still be able to pull off their coup, but to do so it seems increasingly likely that they will have to resort to violence. As the resistance grows, the room for a compromise solution seems to shrink.
Ultimately, in attempting to resuscitate the spirit of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei may have sown the seeds of its destruction. People power seems poised to unclench the fist of Iranian hardliners.