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Making Sense of Recent Events in Iran

By Ghorashi, Reza

Millions of Iranian Protesters have demand annulment of the June 12 election results

Events in Iran are usually more complicated than they look at the first glance. Recent events are no exception. It seems they are protest by a people whose election is stolen. This is sure true. As many have pointed out, the land-slide victory of Mr. Ahmadinejad is a statistical improbability. There is no doubt that his re-election is a fraud.  Thus people are justifiably asking "where is my vote?"

I-                    Elections in Iran, however, are not free. The Guardian Council (in many ways a rough equivalent of the Supreme Court) is charged by the constitution to "observe" proper conduct of national elections in Iran. The Guardian Council has interpreted the "observation" to mean "wetting." Prior to election they "select" candidates that must have proven qualifications. Six of the twelve members of council are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and two by the sitting President. The Supreme Leader and hardline ""conservatives" have had control over the Guardian Council. In the past many members of parliament (Majlis), cabinet secretaries, war heroes, or other prominent members of the establishment have been disqualified, thus prevented from running for election or re-election simply because of their politics.

It seems participation in such elections is meaningless. Yet people of Iran, having no other means of expressing their views about the Islamic Republic and its policies, have taken these elections as a referendum. They have voted against perceived establishment's favorite and for the most qualified "outsider." In other words they have voted against the regime and its favorite. That is how four elections ago Mr. Khatami won overwhelmingly against Nategh-Nuri, then speaker of the Majlis and highest ranking member of the elite running for presidency. Four years ago they chose the lesser known Mayer of Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad, over Mr. Rafsanjani, the two times-ex-president and the second most prominent member of the elite. Observer of Iranian affairs suggest people will vote for a wooden doll over the establishment's candidate!   In this election, out of 400 plus candidates the Guardian Council approved only four, one of them, Mr. Mir Hosein Musavi . People perceived him as the "anti-establishment" candidate and overwhelmingly voted for him. This was a vote for more democratic rights, of which candidate Musavi became an advocate, be it a very modest one. So, at one level the demonstrations are about a stolen election. A closer look suggests they are about denied democratic rights. Yet there is more to them.


II-                  Mr. Musavi is dubbed as an "accidental" candidate. He is an ex-prime minister, when Islamic Republic would have that position in addition to the president and supreme leader.  Then the prime minister was the CEO and the president (ironically at the time Mr. Khamaneie, the current Supreme Leader) had a ceremonial role. They have changed the constitution and eliminated the prime minister position.

In their televised debate, that played a major role in mobilizing people to vote, Ahmadinejad accused Musavi as being a front for Rafsanjani. There is an element of truth in the claim. This election also indicates a power struggle at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic. Here again there is more than one layer.  It could be perceived as a power grab by Rafsanjani. He played a crucial role in elevating Khamaneie, a lower ranked cleric, to position of Supreme Leader after death of Mr.Khomeini, the founder of Islamic Republic.  Even then many wondered why Khamaneie, not Rafsanjani himself? Rumor has it that Khamaneie is very sick. His replacement would be a major challenge. The Assembly of Experts monitors performance of the Supreme Leader. In theory it can replace him if he is deemed underperforming. It also will select his replacement. The Assembly is an "elected' body of 86. The Guardian Council is even more vigilant in wetting candidates for the Assembly.  The Assembly consists mostly of pro regime clerics. Its residing president is no one but Mr. Rafsanjani!  Some observers of Iranian affairs consider this the ace in sleeves of opposition (to Khameneie -Ahmadinejad) forces. Mr. Khamaneie has repeatedly told the Musavi camp that they should use "lawful" means and channels to register their protests. By that he means the Guardian Council and Interior Ministry, who are the suspects in the fraudulent elections. It would be interesting to see how he himself will abide by the law if the Assembly meets and votes to remove him. Very little has been heard from Rafsanjani lately. It seems he is in Qomm, where most high ranking clergy and members of the Assembly reside. But again a closer look reveals there is more than a power struggle between two top families of the Islamic Republic.


III-                In many autocratic countries without a tradition of democracy and proper institutions of civil society a chance for change (a revolution) invariably results in another autocratic regime. The culprit usually is the armed forces. They are the only organized institution with some type of "national" (as opposed to ethnic or tribal) agenda and presence.  This was the story of Latin America up to 70's and 80's. It is still the case in many African countries. Closer to home for Iran, it is Pakistan up to recently, and Egypt and Syria at the moment. It is beyond the scope and purpose of this article to discuss causes and consequences of this phenomenon. Suffice to say that there is even less democratic rights and institutions in countries that are suffering from this problem. This did not happen in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The armed forces supported the Shah and were not trusted by the Mullahs. The new regime created its own, the Revolutionary Guards. But before dismantling the standing army, Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein in Sept. 1980. The Guards were no match for Saddam's army. The Islamic Republic had to relay on the regular army. A number of other factors have contributed to this phenomenon. It is an understatement to say there are more than one center of power in Iran. It is more appropriate to argue there are a number of governments in the social space of Tehran. The "house" of the Supreme Leader, the official government, the revolutionary Guards, and Rafsanjani's are but some of these pseudo governments. There are a number of armed forces and militia. Each of these pseudo governments has some support among these armed forces. Mr. Musavi who was prime minister during Iran-Iraq war has support of some of the military brass as well. This lack of unity at the top echelons of these forces could be the reason for the relative hesitation that regular armed forces and police have shown in more brutally suppressing demonstration. So far it is the Basiji militia that is doing the dirty work.

Ahmadinejad's election which relied on organizational support of the Revolutionary Guards and their paramilitary (Basij) was closest to military gaining power in Iran. Some, including Mr. Karrubi, himself a clergy and previous speaker of the Majlis and a presidential candidate last and this time, have cried foul.  He has warned against this trend. The recent election could be viewed as an attempt by the "young Turks" of armed forces and their conservative clergy allies to consolidate their power and eliminating the "reformists" and some older clergy, including Mr. Rafsanjani. It seems they have support of the Supreme Leader, Rafsanjani's old ally. That is why Khamaneie's camp lobbied hard against popular ex-president Khatami's attempt to run and challenge Mr. Ahmadinejad. They even dangled possibility of disqualifying the ex-president, a major embarrassment for him. Mr. Musavi was a "compromise" candidate in his place. Khamaneie camp did not feel threatened by a man who was absent for 20 years from the political scene and many of twenty something current supporters did not even know him a few months ago!  The election and his popularity was a surprise, fuelled by smart campaign, attractive promises of change in social, economic, and foreign relation arenas.  The consolidation project, however, must continue. Despite evidence to the contrary, Mr. Ahmadinejad "gained" many million votes, rather than losing them! If successful, Khamaneie-Ahmadinejad camp mange to reduce this hybrid of selection/election into a farce ala Egyptian, Syrian, ..and other single party single candidate "elections." As undemocratic as Islamic regime is now it becomes even worse.


IV-               Rafsanjani's organizing a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad; with help from popular reformist such as ex-president Khatami has yet another dimension to it: Iran's foreign policy and its consequences for her national interests. Iranian public and political elite are sharply divided on Iran's foreign policies of the last few years, particularly its relation with the US. A minority, among them the Supreme Leader, enjoy the confrontational approach of Mr.  Ahmadinejad and consider it sign of Iran's independence. They point out to the support for this policy in Arab, African, and Latin American streets as proof of its efficacy. The majority, however, consider these policies nothing short of a disaster. They point out to the many advantages that an improved relations with the US will bring and the heavy costs of the isolation imposed on Iran by the current policies. Iran occupies the entire northern coasts of Persian Gulf, where 40%of world's oil exports go through everyday. It is the outlet for oil exports of OPEC members  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, UAE, and of course Iran herself. Persian Gulf is a shallow body of water full of marine life. One major oil spell from many super tankers travelling, by accident or due to terrorism it is a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.  The Gulf could easily be block at its mouth at Straight of Hurmoz, where all these super tankers squeeze through a 2 miles wide channel. Both Iran and US, for that matter the whole world, have interest to keep the channel open and the Gulf free of accidents. Iran's neighbors to the west are Iraq and Turkey. The Kurds, the largest ethnic group without a country, are spread in northern Iraq, western Iran, and eastern Turkey.  Alls three countries have a history of unrest and rebellion by their Kurdish population. To northwest of Iran lays Azerbaijan and Armenia, two republics of ex-Soviet Union who are formally at state of war with each other.  Armenia, a land-locked country with a history of animosity with Turkey (its other neighbor) relies heavily on Iran. Due to a rather powerful and vocal Armenian lobby, the US, too, is very keen to make sure all is well with Armenia. To the north is the Caspian Sea, world's largest lake and second only to the Persian Gulf in terms of its oil and gas resources. Iran and other countries of the basin are in need of US presence there to counter the presence, and bullying, of Russia. The US and the rest of the world need a calm and peaceful environment to assure flow of oil and gas from this region.  Turkmenistan and the rest of "Asian" Republics of the ex-Soviet Union lay in the northeast of Iran. These vast bodies of land-lock countries are rich with oil, gas, and other natural resources and desperately in need of connection to the rest of the world. They have no better access to the rest of the world than Iran. Iran's above average (of the region) rail and road transportation is the shortest route. With its relatively educated and skilled labor, Iran is a perfect hub for the American manufacturers (car for example) for the entire region. These potential economic benefits alone justify normalization of relations between the two countries. Finally, to the east of Iran are Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Obama's declared top hot spots. It is much easier and safer to reach western Afghanistan from Iran, rather than risk going through the Khaibar pass and be attacked by Taliban.

The potentials of an improved US-Iran relations are so enormous and game-changing that makes a number of the countries in the region nervous. Such improvement makes these countries obsolete as far as US's need for a regional ally is concerned. Even countries such as Russia and China who benefit in many ways from the animosity between Iran and US are not keen to see a friendly US-Iranian relations. During the Bush administration it was the US who dragged its feet, particularly under Khatami administration. Since election of Mr. Obama potentials for improved relations have caught the attention of Iranian leaders. It is not hard to see, from their point of view, that a second Ahmadinejad term is detrimental to this prospect.


V-                 This presidential election has already changed a number of things. As it is, the Supreme Leader has lost his claim to legitimacy. Chants of "death [down] to dictator" and even more direct "death to Khamaneie" were unheard of few weeks ago. There is little doubt that the main demand of demonstrators is more freedom and democracy. That is what they expect election of Musavi will bring.  One is justified to doubt this based on Musavi's past records. But in Iran's recent past it has been more the cause that shape leader, not the other way around. A defiant Musavi that challenges the Leader and regime today, was unthinkable two months ago. His demanded changes may be miniscule, but those demonstrators hope this is the beginning, not the end. Mr. Khamaneie and his supporters know this well and have dug deep. There may be much more hardship ahead. 

A "re-elected" Ahmadinejad may continue his arrogance and defiance but he will be taken much less seriously. It is obvious now that many of his statements that had local and domestic consumption are pointless. He will try to use the "West" and UK in particular as a unifying factor. Obama is too popular to, plus despite the harsh rhetoric he is hopeful to improve relations with the US and does not want to shut the door. His bargaining powers, however, have diminished tremendously. This dose not bode well for him and the Leader. All of the above have made the Islamic republic elite, particularly those so far sitting on the fence, to seriously consider the high cost of keeping Ahmadinejad. The story of election in Iran is not over yet.


... Payvand News - 06/29/09 ... --

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