Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his army commanders have, in their response to the street-protests that erupted across the country after the controversial presidential election of 12 June 2009, employed a routine accusation against the United States: that it had initiated a “velvet revolution” in the country.
The charge is unfounded. All the evidence suggests that the popular demonstrations were a spontaneous reaction to what was widely perceived to be a fraudulent result. Indeed, it is more plausible that the United States unwittingly helped to achieve the reverse of what Ayatollah Khamenei (and other hardline leaders) charged it with: namely, facilitating the regime’s effort to steal the elections and launch a “velvet coup d’état”
The primary responsibility for what has happened in Iran since the election lies with the hardline core of the Iranian regime. But the ability of the Islamic Republic’s rulers ability to consolidate their power has - it is clear in retrospect - been aided by the sense of safety it had acquired from possible attack by the US.
A key difference
The election of Barack Obama, after which the new president consistently indicated the United States’s willingness to negotiate, to a great degree relieved the regime of its fears of an assault (at least from America). In his Persian nowrooz (new-year) message he addressed the regime as “the Islamic Republic of Iran”, implicitly recognising its legitimacy and withdrawing the prospect of active regime-change promotion in the country. In addition, Obama sent two letters to Ayatollah Khamenei weeks before the presidential election.
Iran’s supreme leader was pleased by this response, stating that “now the threat of a military strike is over.” His appointee General Hassan Firouzabadi, armed forces chief-of-staff, affirmed that “the presidency of Obama has utterly diminished our sense of threat.
Iran’s new defence minister, at his appointment ceremony, praised Obama’s two letters to Khamenei as reflecting a realistic approach. For the first time he even declared on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC): “There is no problem in negotiating with the United States”. A number of other statements echoed this interpretation. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief commander of the IRGC, asserted that “military threats are no longer a priority for our enemies”; Heidar Moslehi, Iran’s new intelligence minister, voiced the same view in a speech to the majlis (parliament).
This highlights a key difference between Iran’s presidential election of 12 June 2009 and the one on 23 May 1997, which brought the reformist Mohammad Khatami to power, which are otherwise similar on two grounds (in each, there were widespread rumours of fraud in favour of the candidate supported by the supreme leader; and on both occasions, the eminent and powerful figure of Hashemi Rafsanjani [Iran’s president, 1989-97] voiced concern over such deception).
The difference is that in spring 1997, weeks before the election, many European countries had withdrawn their ambassadors from Tehran amid fears of a limited missile attack from the United States. In spring 2009, by contrast, the Islamic Republic was enjoying a period of respite from US threats, symbolised by Barack Obama’s conciliatory letters. This meant that a leadership under internal pressure could focus solely on that problem, which it managed to do with the use of severe repression to settle old debts and establish even more stringent control within the country.
A change of face
The timing of President Obama’s letters, as well as their contents, is important. The first was sent (the Washington Times says) between 4 May and 10 May 2009. Before this time, there were strong suggestions that Mir-Hossein Moussavi- the leading reformist candidate in the presidential campaign - might win the backing of the supreme leader against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even a prominent segment of conservatives favoured Moussavi. At the time, the Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi (later to be arrested, and still in prison) wrote in a widely quoted opinion column: “Moussavi has been selected as the candidate of the regime.”
The process of Moussavi’s conversion from the regime’s possible candidate of choice to enemy of the state - after his strong denunciation of the official election result and his refusal to bend to pressure - was astonishingly short. In the same short period, Iran’s regime has changed from within. Hoseinali Montazeri, a prominent dissident ayatollah, summarised the shift when he said: “This regime is neither Islamic nor a republic.”
The consequences of this unprecedented metamorphosis in the regime are hard to predict. Iran’s elite may hold a smaller fist towards the United States than before, as indicated by some progress in negotiations over its nuclear programme; but towards its people it shows a giant iron fist. Barack Obama’s outreach to Tehran before the Iranian presidential elections, and Washington’s abandonment of the language of regime change, appear to have achieved little. The US is unable to persuade the regime to respect human rights and the rules of democracy. It is still possible that the American president might end up shaking hands with an unclenched Iranian fist. But to get there, and to make it worthwhile for the Iranian people as well as his own, he may need a touch of iron of his own.