Prospect of regime change in Iran

The upcoming presidential elections in Iran may bring about formidable change that will take aback even the alleged leaders of public opposition movements.

In recent weeks the infighting among various factions within the Iranian establishment has sharply increased. Ahmadinejad, once Khamenei’s undisputed favourite, no longer enjoys that position. One of his close advisers was imprisoned while he was in New York. His recent attempt to visit him in Evin prison was rejected by the head of the judiciary. Ahmadinejad brought the issue to public attention by responding to a private letter by the head of the judiciary. Finally, Khamenei intervened and warned that making such internal differences public is tantamount to “treason”.

The current internal dispute coupled by more economic hardship, growing public discontent and increasing international sanctions has made the Iranian regime more vulnerable than before. The prospect of the fall of the Assad regime in Syria and its consequences, including among others, cutting the direct physical link with Hezbollah, is a nightmare for the Iranian rulers.

In just over six months the presidential election will be held in Iran. The bickering for power has already begun. Given the events of the past four years, Khamenei’s room for manoeuvre is much smaller than four years ago.

Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, presidential elections have been more of a barometer to show the strength of various internal factions within the regime. At no time have they been a genuine election, in which the real opposition could participate. Even at the first presidential election in 1980, Ayatollah Khomemini issued a religious fatwa banning the Mujahdin-e-Khalq (MEK) candidate from running, for not having endorsed the supremacy of the clergy in the constitution.

In 2009, feeling more secure, Khamenei entered upon a huge gamble. In the course of the election campaign he allowed public debate between the presidential candidates. The anticipated objective was to completely root out the opposing faction. The tactic backfired. The revelation of only a fraction of the embezzlements that had taken place throughout the years by officials and the highlighted fissure at the very top, subsequently led to a public explosion of discontent known as the Twitter Revolution. 

The surfacing of the internal disputes provided a unique opportunity for the people, being suppressed for years, to come out and express their desire for change. The outpouring of public dissent started with chants against the systematic rigging of ballot boxes - which was nothing new in Iran. But soon after, the demands went much further than what the mullahs were prepared for.  The chants of “where is my vote” soon turned into “down with the dictator”, “down with the rule of clergy” and even “down with Khamenei”. There is little doubt that the people’s desire in the streets at that time was regime change.

But for the defeated candidates and other self-declared leaders of the “Green movement” radicalization of the movement was a step far too far. There was clearly a widening gap between the people who made the Green movement possible and those, who under the same banner, wanted to control the people’s movement for limited reforms within the clerical regime.    

Although the uprising was suppressed, however, the discontent among Iranian youth has never died and indeed, it has since grown due to the economic and social crisis that the country is currently facing.  In a very strange way, both the ruling faction and those self-proclaimed leaders of the Green movement, despite their differences, are united in opposition to those calling for regime change.

The fact is that from the outset, the challenging presidential candidates who later morphed into the leaders of the Green Movement never intended at all to dispute the basis of the Islamic Republic. In reality, they themselves had been, for years, part of the same establishment. Mir Hussein Mousavi, recognized as the leading figure for the Green Movement has never been a stranger to power. He was Iran’s Prime Minister during the 1980s when tens of thousands were summarily executed for political dissent. During his tenure the  infamous 1988 massacre of political prisoners in which, according to opposition sources, as many as 30,000 political prisoners were executed in a matter of few months, occurred. Geoffrey Robertson, the well respected lawyer and former UN judge in his documentary report The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran reveals that in December 1988, in response to a question asked by an Austrian television correspondent, then Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi said about the killings of the opposition, “they (referring to members of Mujahedin Organization) had plans to perpetrate killings and massacres.  We had to crush the conspiracy.” He then added, “In that respect we have no mercy.”

But, during his 2009 election campaign Mousavi tried to avoid addressing this issue. When compelled to respond he made contradictory statements; from claiming that he had no hands in the killing to tacitly supporting it as the right course of action at the time.

Mir Hussein Mousavi with the picture of Khomeini in the background.  All rights reserved

For him Khomeini’s era was a golden period that the country should return to. In a statement he released during the uprising on September 28, 2009, Mousavi emphasized that the Green Movement seeks the “implementation of the constitution and the return of the Islamic Republic to its original self.”  In another statement on June 14, 2009, he described the Green Movement as, “committed to the Islamic Republic and its Constitution,” adding that “We consider the principle of Velayat-e Faghih (Supreme Leadership of Clergy) one of the basis of the government and our movement will act within its legal framework.”

Mousavi and many other like-minded people are on the record as supporters of the country’s nuclear programme.  Talking to reporters in Isfahan during his presidential campaign, Mousavi stressed the need to rescue the nuclear programme for the country and said, “Nuclear technology strengthens our position in the region and the world.  We cannot abandon it.” Yet, as reported by news agencies, during the recent anti-government protests over the collapse of Iranian currency, people chanted, “we do not want a nuclear programme, do something about our situation.”

While elections in Iran have never been a genuine opportunity for the people to decide about their own destiny, however, in the current state of the regime, the next election could once again pave the way for another public outburst.  Tehran must fear that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and possible downfall of Assad, it would be much more difficult this time to suppress a movement for regime change. In addition, those seeking reforms within the system rather than a regime change, such as those claiming to represent the Green movement, are trapped in an identity dilemma. They can no longer carry the label of opposition and yet help preserve the current system with some minor reforms.

About the author

Nima Sharif is an Iranian-American human rights and political activist. He writes frequently for various publications in this regard and he is also the editor of Stop Fundamentalism website. His twitter @itantrack