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Change For Iran Still A Long Way Off

By Geneive Abdo, RFE/RL

Iran's younger generation does not want a government that shuns Islamic principles or even a state that does not include clerics, as some in the West might think.

Supporters of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi held a rally in north Tehran, 16 June 2009 - photo by Syma Sayyah

Now that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered an investigation into the election results that gave President Mahmud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory in the country's June 12 presidential election, conventional wisdom is that the nation's governing system is showing signs of collapse.

Indeed, Khamenei has a great dilemma on his hands: If the Guardians Council, the body appointed by him, declares in the coming 10 days that the election was rigged, this could be the death knell of the Islamic republic. Therefore, this is an unlikely scenario. But even if the guardians determine the election results should stand, Khamenei still faces the largest challenge to his rule since he was appointed in 1989.

He must not only answer to the millions of disenchanted voters who believe their voices do not matter and the thousands of street demonstrators, but more importantly, he now must contend with a divided establishment of warring political elites. Revolutionary figures who helped established the Islamic republic, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are now pitted against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. And it is likely that much of the clerical mainstream in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom, who have publicly opposed Ahmadinejad, are also on Rafsanjani's side.

Most Likely Scenario

But despite this minor earthquake that has jolted theocratic rule, those hoping for a popular revolution are likely to be disappointed. Once the guardians announce that Ahmadinejad's victory is legitimate and the largest and most violent street demonstrations since the 1979 Revolution end, the likely scenario is that there will continue to be a fierce internal power struggle within the regime, but with no tangible benefits for the Iranian people.

Rafsanjani, in making public his grievances with Khamenei -- the man he helped get anointed as supreme leader - in letters he wrote before and after the election, has exposed the seething and long-running rift inside the political establishment. But Rafsanjani, Mir Hossein Musavi, and those other disgruntled figures are also pragmatic; they are part of the revolutionary generation that established the Islamic republic. In addition to their own survival, their other utmost concern is the preservation of the system they helped create. In the coming months and years, they will work to increase their power, which has diminished due to the rise of Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies within the regime.

While this internal power struggle ultimately could result in a more open political environment, in no way will the shifts in the system meet the demands of a young generation, which is calling out for profound reform. The young Iranian demonstrators on the streets, whose fresh faces are captured on Western television, want a far different Iran from the one envisioned by either Rafsanjani and Musavi or Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. 

Not Much To Ask

This young generation, which was not even born at the time of the revolution, does not want a government that shuns Islamic principles or even a state that does not include clerics, as some in the West might think. Instead, they want free and fair elections to choose their own leaders; social freedom, now denied them by strict interpretations of Islamic law; and they want Iran's militias to stay out of their private lives. They also want uninterrupted access to technology, which includes the Internet and social networks. These demands are not much to ask in the 21st century, but they pose a threat to Iran's leaders on both sides of the Rafsanjani-Ahmadinejad divide.

Iran's future one day will belong to the younger generation. But this day is a long way off -- no matter how many Western governments denounce Ahmadinejad's declared victory or how many television pundits in the United States predict a velvet revolution is on the horizon.

The status quo will be preserved in domestic and foreign policy. Just as the Iranian people are unlikely to experience a dramatic change in their lives after next week, the international community can also expect little change in Iran's position on its nuclear program and its support for militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

The power shift likely to emerge from the instability now unfolding in Iran will pay lip service to the demands of young people, at least enough to pacify them for another decade or so. But until many of Iran's key revolutionary leaders leave political life, the system is likely to change only on the margins.

Geneive Abdo is an Iran analyst for the Washington-based Century Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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