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The Supreme Iranian Counter-Coup

By Moji Agha, Arizona (July 18, 2009)


     Much has been said and written about Iran's June 12, 2009 presidential elections, and the still unfolding aftermath of this historic event. What is critically significant, however, is to understand, as thoroughly as possible, the reasons, the CONTEXT, for the events that happened, and in particular immediately before and after the polling stations closed the night of the vote , about five six  weeks ago.


     In this essay I will try to answer and CONTEXTUALIZE this seminally important set of questions as accurately as I can. Thus, I have no choice but to give a relatively lengthy (but nonetheless highly selective and cruelly summarized) historical, spiritual, and socio-economic context, as to what is likely to have happened-and WHY?


     Before we start, please note that:


     a) While I voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and hence cannot claim total impartiality, I will nonetheless be as unbiased in this essay as I can possibly be; and,


     b) In order to properly understand the information and analysis herein, one needs to have at least some familiarity with Iran's history in the past 200 years.     


Four Reactions to Modernity


     To start, let us go back to the Iran of mid-1800s, to the assassination of the Qajar dynasty Premier, Amir Kabir, mainly due to his resistance to colonialist interference, especially the British. This is the era in which the Iranian society was being increasingly exposed to European modernity, which of course was not "indigenous" to the country, with its various traditional cultural and religious identities and practices, pre- and post-Islamic.


     This alien "modernity" was not a benign phenomenon, however. Instead, it was deeply "poisoned" by the mostly hidden divide-and-rule racist and hegemonic agendas of colonialism, which encountered the inevitable reactions of the Shi'a Islamic religious leaders, who had been, in a sense, the ONLY "check and balance" to the absolute power of the Iranian kings for about 1,300 years -- and prior to Islam this "protector" role was more or less played, also by the Zoroastrian religious leaders, going back at least to 2,500 years ago.


     Not being a historian or an expert in religious studies (and having to summarize lots of information herein, rather mercilessly, in the interest of brevity), I can see at least four basic reactions to this "invasion" by the colonially-poisoned modernity (evolving from mid-1800s to the present) among the Shi'a religious leaders--at least in Iran:


     1- Those who surrendered fully and were absorbed and transformed by modernism, and hence colonialism. 


     2- Those who tried to limit modernity's "secularizing" (thus colonial) harm to the spiritual essence of the Shi'a Islamic teachings and traditions, by protecting it from politics -- thus joining the first group in causing the society to lose its only "check and balance" protection against the abusive injustices of absolute and arbitrary monarchical (hence colonially-manipulated or dictated "modern") power.


     3- Those who tried, in essence, to retain and bring back the above-referenced check and balance, thus attempting, as I would like to put it, to take the colonial poison out of this imposed alien modernity, by trying  (consciously or not) to make it "indigenous" -- leading eventually to the abolition of the colonially-servile pre-modern institution of monarchy, and hence the founding of the "Islamic REPUBLIC" by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--whom I personally respect very deeply for having done so; thus calling him "Imam Khomeini," as do millions of others. Let us call this history-making transformational group as those who are in the "Path of the Imam" (as they are generally known inside Iran). And finally,


     4- Those who experienced the "thoroughly corrupting" anti-God invasive influences of modernity as signs of the approaching "end of times," but tried to help this colonially-poisoned modernity's injustices spread even faster, instead of resisting it. Why? By purposefully exacerbating its "corruption on Earth," they tried (and continue) to "HASTEN" the "rescuing re-appearance" of the Hidden (12th Shi'a Imam) Mahdi, and hence the Day of Judgment -- as if the ALMIGHTY needs puny human help!


Active and Passive Awaiters


     I call this group the "active awaiters" of the Hidden Imam, in contrast to the 2nd and especially the 3rd group above, who (in line with the overwhelming majority of the Shi'a Islamic religious leaders in the past 1300 years or so) could be considered as "passive awaiters" - who believe that Imam Mahdi would re-appear when humanity is sufficiently "perfected" to be ready for his transformational arrival. The Sufi parallel to this (per Rumi, Hafiz, etc.) is that the "Beloved" will show "her" face, when the "lover/seeker" is sufficiently grown spiritually, to be able to handle and join such a "union."  


     As we come one step closer to the present events, indications are that this 4th group seems to provide President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his religious (and thus political/ideological) orientation; Namely, the radical teachings of the present master of what used to be called the "Haqqani Seminary" (and prior to that, he is said to have been a member of the "Hojjatieh Circle"), the Qom-based Ayatollah Mohamad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who apparently does not believe, fundamentally, in the "republican" pillar of the Islamic REPUBLIC of Iran, the historic contribution of the 3rd group above (namely the Imam Khomeini's path), and its present "reformist" political leaders, including the former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and presidential candidates Mehdi Karrubi (A former Head of Iran's legislative branch/parliament), and of course, the former Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi--who has expressed openly, that his MAIN reason for re-entering Iranian politics is because he has found the Islamic REPUBLIC to be in real "danger" under Ahmadinejad's presidency.  


     Quite critically, as to which of the 3rd or the 4th group the "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may lean toward (and I will try to further contextualize the significance of this later on), his real affiliation/orientation is not fully clear as of yet--at least to me. In other words, and despite all the mostly contradictory indications and signals, the question remains, as to whether the Supreme Leader is ultimately a "centrist" figure, historically-speaking (like Rafsanjani, Khatami, and certainly Imam Khomeini himself), or if he is a religio-political extremist, more like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi--apparently the "source of emulation" for Ahmadinejad?                


Khomeini's Victory vs. Mossadegh's Defeat 


     The other significant context that this analysis needs is at least some information (relevant to our subject herein) about the 1953 CIA coup, in which Iran's democratically-elected Prime Minister, Mohamad Mossadegh was overthrown, restoring the despotic colonial puppet, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.  


     While this may add to the length of the essay somewhat, let me preface this section by stating my belief that when any human society is seriously threatened or  invaded (or conquered/occupied, as in today's Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, for example), there are ultimately two "defense mechanisms" that it can turn to, in order to resist the "existential threat" or to repel the actual invader:


     1- Patriotism, or the love, preservation, and defense of the "homeland," the ways of the ancestors, the national/tribal identity, heritage, etc.  And/or,


     2- Religion/Spirituality, or the love, preservation, and defense of that which the society holds to be sacred.


     Again cruelly summarizing (and indeed simplifying) this incredibly complex matter, it is accurate to say that in order to liberate Iran from the colonial yoke, Mossadegh tried in early 1950s to use/mobilize the far-from-fully "modernized" Iranian patriotism--which some call "nationalism." While by contrast, in 1978-79 Imam Khomeini successfully appealed to and mobilized  the somewhat modernized, but still very deeply (indigenously Iranian) familiar Shi'a Islamic religion/spirituality, which was far more acceptable to the Iranian society, especially in that revolutionary context.


     The other historic lesson that the Founder of the Islamic Republic learned from Mossadegh's 1953 defeat, was that he recognized that in order to be successful, the anti-colonial (and transformational) leader needs to have a loyal "Revolutionary GUARD," so that the rebellion is not crushed so easily by colonialism--not withstanding the fact that since the fall of their puppet in 1979, the colonial/zionist foes have done their utmost to punish Iran for going "rogue," by imposing and fomenting separatist agitations and terrorism, an 8-year-long war, the manufactured "existential fear" of Iran's non-existent nuclear weapons program, crippling sanctions and econo-political isolation, deceptive colonialized human/women/minority rights (and of course "democracy" and "freedom") pretexts and pressure tactics--thus further "poisoning modernity" -- either to restore colonial slavery, or to make an example of Iran for the people in the region (and beyond), just as in 1953.


Looking to the East?         


     A relevant question to ponder at this point is: What has happened to the Revolutionary Guards since 1979?


     It is quite important to note that, mostly as a result of the above-mentioned financial, technological, and military-industrial pressures, sanctions, and isolation (especially during the colonially-imposed Iran-Iraq war), the Revolutionary Guards, and to some extent their underling force, the Basij volunteer militia, had to resort to economic and financial activities, in part to become financially self-sufficient; And this has had a very significant consequence, which is quite relevant to the subject under consideration herein.      


     As we move closer to focus on what has been happening in Iran in the past two months or so, we need to look more carefully at what has happened to the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij forces, and their relationship to the apparently unfolding current show-down between the "republican" and the "Islamic" pillars of the Islamic Republic.


     Before we enter this realm any further, let me state that a part of the information I will share herein is the result of my consultations (and arguments) with Dariush Sajjadi, a U.S.-based Iranian




     Now, going back to how the Revolutionary Guards have evolved since the founding of the Islamic Republic, it seems that their extensive entry into profit-making economic, military-industrial, and financial activities may have caused at least a significant faction among the Guard's high- and mid-level commanders (and the entities they have come to own or control) to become "corrupted," and quite significantly, apparently "addicted" to the status quo "politico-economic anti-Westernism" of the Islamic Republic's post-revolutionary system--profiting, ironically, from the West's sanctions regime-and thus, perhaps consciously preventing Iran's relations with the U.S. (in particular) from moving toward normalization; and also therefore, trying to find, effect, and institutionalize a "Look to the East" doctrine (relying heavily on Russia and China, primarily) in Iran's strategic politico-economic global orientation.            


     In trying to do so, this economically active "faction" of the Revolutionary Guards (and the Basij militia) may have found common ground and/or ideological partners (genuine or opportunistic) among the "active-awaiters" of the Hidden Imam Mahdi (4th group mentioned above), including of course, their radical behind-the-scene master, the Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, and his apparently ardent follower, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


     Therefore, and very significantly, they have become economic rivals to the religiously conservative and traditional Iranian "bazaar" (which funded the "Path of the Imam" Islamic Revolution) and thus was/is anti-colonial, but also highly pragmatic--and not necessarily "genetically" anti-Western, per the revolution's "neither East nor West" (i.e., middle-of-the-path) foundations, safeguarding the Islamic Iran's "non-aligned" sovereignty.


     This original "Path of the Imam" ("passive awaiters") coalition -- which includes Mousavi, Khatami, Karrubi, Rafsanjani, etc. -- is supported by a still very significant, but "quieter," faction of the Revolutionary Guards--and even the Basij--partially symbolized by the presidential candidacy of a former Commander of the Guards, Mohsen Rezai, opposing Ahmadinejad.


     Due to its fidelity to the revolution's "neither East nor West" foundations, this still strong coalition is profoundly disturbed by the above-mentioned strategic "Look to the East" doctrine, as a radical "diversion" from both of the Islamic Republic's "fundamental pillars" (Islamic-ness and republicanism), which seems to be aggressively pursued by the "active awaiter" (4th group) coalition, which apparently wants to transform the Islamic REPUBLIC to what I would call an "Islamic [Shi'a] Imamate" (akin to a Sunni "Caliphate") enshrining the "ABSOLUTE RULE" of the "representative" of the 12th Imam, i.e., the Imam Mahdi, while he is still in the Hidden state. It is reasonable to assume that the Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi may wish to see himself as this "Ultra-Supreme Leader."              


Supremely Uncharacteristic


     This being the apparent sketch of the Islamic Republic's still brewing "ultimate show-down," we are finally ready to look at what may have actually happened in the presidential elections, especially after the votes had been cast, on the fateful night of June 12, 2009.   


     As mentioned above, given conflicting indications and signals (especially recently), it is not clear toward which of these two camps does the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the present Supreme Leader gravitate? Since his securing the position 20 years ago, he has tried to imitate Imam Khomeini's leadership style, by remaining calm, deliberative, at least overtly even-handed, and generally above the fray-which seems to be consistent with his apparent overall temperament.  


     This makes what happened immediately after the election night, whereby the Supreme Leader jumped in uncharacteristically hastily, favoring one-side, especially unprecedented for him, despite all the emerging controversies and possible electoral fraud. His defense of Ahmadinejad's alleged re-election so vociferously (even before the counting of the votes were finalized--let alone the elections outcome being formally certified by the Guardian Council) is VERY PUZZLING, and certainly worthy of in-depth consideration as to WHY?   


     Before stating what I believe (may have) happened, I think we still need a bit more context:


     In the 4 years since Ahmadinejad has become Iran's President, we can see an apparent competition, if not disguised hostility, between him and the Supreme Leader (partially reflecting the above-referenced jockeying for power), especially in matters that have to do with which of the above camps would get the upper hand, in how Iran's strategic relationship with the U.S. (or lack there of) would evolve.


     In this connection, Ahmadinejad has so far been able to assert the power of the camp to which he seems to belong, especially through his successful attention-seeking behaviors in the nuclear energy and the "holocaust" controversies, both of which were  appreciated (for demonizing and dehumanizing purposes) by the Bush Administration, and of course by Israel, which were more than happy to exploit such needless savior-is-here grandstanding, to justify (in propagandistic mis-representation) why Iran is "unpredictable, dangerous," etc.


     Prior to the Iranian elections last month, with the still new American administration, there had been a shift away from overt "regime change" policies (being resisted, especially by the Likudnik Israel) as expressed in Obama's famous New Iranian Year (Nowruz) message.


     Strikingly uncharacteristic was Iran's response to this diplomatic "olive branch," in that it was delivered IMMEDIATELY, and by the Supreme Leader himself, as if trying to communicate who is the real boss in Tehran; which leaves the question as to WHY he felt so compelled to assert his authority, so blatantly and so immediately? The answer seems to be that the Leader might have felt the need to prevent Ahmadinejad's camps' will-to-power from further eclipsing his supreme authority, especially in such a definitionally strategic area, namely, the "Axis of Evil" Islamic Republic's relationship with the "Great Satan."


The Coup and the Counter-Coup


     It is this apparent "insecurity" that may be the ultimate clue, as to the Supreme Leader's HIGHLY UNUSUALL post-election posture, while even the ink on the ballots had not yet fully dried. Again, to cruelly summarize (if not simplify) the events, the following is perhaps what happened:


     Despite all their apparent "election engineering," after seeing that Mir-Hossein Mousavi was actually winning outright (or at least he would most likely win in the second round run-off against Ahmadinejad), the above-described "active awaiters" (4th group) coalition, which apparently did not wish to lose power no matter what, seemed to have felt the panicked need to spectacularly alter the election results in the late night hours after the voting.


     In other words, the Ahmadinejad coalition may have committed a once-and-for-all power-realignment "palace coup" -- made possible with the crucial backing of the "Look to the East" economically active faction of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia. Thus, a "Russian Coup" (as some Cold War addicts have put it, ignoring China!) not just against Mousavi, "The Path of the Imam" apparent winner of the elections--who would likely normalize the U.S. - Iran relations in conjunction with Obama--but perhaps more significantly, an ultimate coup against the Supreme Leader himself, putting him in the position of either accepting the new order--thus being reduced to a figurehead "Supreme Leader" -- or else. 


     What these coup engineers had apparently not anticipated was the Supreme Leader's astute response, or in other words, his "counter-coup" (as I would like to put it) by "going to their right" -- and immediately and vociferously, but highly uncharacteristically - taking their side, and then some, no matter what the costs. WHY?


     Perhaps--and quite ironically-in part to defend the "republican" pillar of the Islamic Republic, while also highlighting who is still the real boss, AND also saying, in a sense, that Ahmadinejad's "re-election" powers were, after all, due to the people's (even though rigged) votes. And of course, how could the thus check-mated people behind the coup say or do anything to oppose him?


What About the Huge Protests?


     Here another obvious question arises: What role did those spectacular millions strong peaceful protests play?


     I believe that, in a sense, "allowing" those revolution-size rallies to go forward, i.e., letting highly visible public expressions of massive protest to proceed (events that were inevitable, given the likely fraudulent declared election results, and also given the highly inflammatory and insulting way the authorities behaved--including Ahmadinejad--and especially Khamenei's own "shocking" post-ballot conduct) without immediately starting a HARD and immediate crack-down, is likely to mean at least two things:       


     1- That the Supreme Leader may have purposefully intended to use the legitimacy-robbing spectacular powers of these huge public protests, to indirectly humiliate and punish--before the amazed eyes of the world-the "re-elected" President, and perhaps more significantly, the politico-military coup engineers behind him. And,


     2- That there is another quite strong (but quieter) faction within the Revolutionary Guards (and even the Basij), still loyal to the previously-mentioned "Imam's Path" foundations of the Islamic Republic, "checking and balancing" the intentions and power of the "Look-to-the-East" coalition, with its radical "active awaiter" (sincere or opportunistic) religious allies.


     Thus, the overall result of this apparent counter-coup seems to be that, rather than  Ahmadinejad and his "new order" allies having the Supreme Leader as their  virtual "hostage"  (to then replace him, in time, by their own "source of emulation," namely the Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi) now a humiliated and put-in-his-place "re-elected" President--who fully owes his second term to the strong and highly costly patronage of the Ayatollah Khamenei--seems to have no choice but to accept being reduced to the Leader's "SMASHED obedient servant," as was put, apparently quite accurately, by an Iranian observer the other day.           


     As to the crucial role of the still powerful Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in all this, I believe that his so far "middle-of-the-path" posture is quite likely to continue to be informative (and as usual intriguing), but ultimately constructive-and he exhibited this, again, as the Prayer Leader (before a million plus people) in Tehran's historic Friday Prayers of July 17, 2009. 


     By essentially calling for re-opening indigenous dialogue, for an OPEN and PUBLIC debate (including on state radio and TV) to begin the process of resolving the country's election "CRISIS," he carefully preserved his own position as an elder statesman, a mediator and healer. This is while he neither challenged the Supreme Leader too bluntly, nor he backed down from his support for Mousavi (and the "green movement) namely, the principled position that the June   12th presidential ballot was widely "doubted" and highly problematic, i.e., lacking practical legitimacy.


     Clearly, Rafsanjani's survival at the expense (though not totally) of Ahmadinejad's camp, speaks to the remaining strength of the pragmatist and reformist political forces in Iran, along with their allies among the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards (and even the Basij) who are loyal to the original "Path-of-the-Imam" -- including their traditional "bazaar" economic partners -- all of whom wish to remain faithful to the revolution's "neither East, nor West" ethos; thus preserving Iran's "sacred" sovereignty (politico-economic, cultural/spiritual, and scientific/technological) while not being necessarily opposed to the eventual normalization of the country's relations with the West, in general, and with the U.S., in particular.


     While it is far too premature to declare the June 12th coup's possible defeat (and the counter-coup's victory), it may seem not too unreasonable to assume that Rafsanjani may emerge, yet again, as a significant power-broker and mediator, in this mother-of-all conflicts within the Islamic Republic.    


A Face-Saving Solution?


     Finally, and for the record, I believe there STILL IS a "win-win" face-saving solution to this supremely Iranian crisis and impasse; however, I doubt it would be adopted:


     Whether there was actual or clearly widely-perceived fraud in this tumultuous presidential elections, it is clear that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second-term legitimacy is severely damaged, fairly or not. Perhaps ironically, nonetheless, the "triumphant" but wounded President himself may hold the healing key in his hands: He is in the unique and only constitutionally appropriate position to VOLUNTARILY withdraw his claim to "re-election" victory, thus allowing a fair and unbiased re-vote to occur. This grand volunteer "sacrifice" would be like a symbolic "out-of-court" settlement, so it would not create a potentially dangerous legally binding precedent for the future. 


     If the "humble servant of the Hidden Imam Mahdi" is "RE-re-elected" -- given his supposedly  unassailable 30% victory margin over his nearest rival (IF the June 12 ballot was legitimate), then President Ahmadinejad's claimed victory would be greatly vindicated, and he would gain an unrivaled historical legitimacy as well as an undying good name; and if he loses, he can always say that he did not want to commit the "gravest sin" of imposing himself upon the people, as an "unjust ruler." In either case, allowing such a re-vote would be an undeniable overall win-win solution for this profoundly painful conflict, and it is STILL POSSIBLE.


About the author: An Iranian-American bilingual poet, and a peace, civility, and Earth activist (trained as a cultural psychologist) Moji Agha, a.k.a. Mojtaba Aghamohammadi is the Founder/Director of the Project on Culture and Conflict at the University of Arizona, and also the International Institute to Study Climate Change in the Islamic World -- He can be reached at:



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