Iran's unfinished crisis

Nazenin Ansari
17 September 2009

The political crisis in Iran is far from over. The regime has used brutal power to curb the great popular demonstrations sparked by the stolen presidential election of 12 June 2009, but it faces a far greater task in restoring its lost legitimacy and propitiating the fury of a cheated people. Its strenuous efforts to regain balance and control are already hampered by persistent internal divisions; now it faces the danger of a new wave of mobilisation by the bravest of its opponents.

Nazenin Ansari is diplomatic correspondent of Kayhan (London)

Also by Nazenin Ansari in openDemocracy:

"Iranians on the freedom path" (14 February 2006)

"An ayatollah under siege - in Tehran" (4 October 2006)

"Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)

"The rights of Iran's women" (18 May 200The leadership's immediate concern is the state-sponsored "Qods [Jerusalem] day" demonstrations on 18 September 2009, an annual event held since 1981 when Ayatollah Khomeini designated the last Friday of the month of Ramadan as an occasion to express solidarity with the Palestinians. This time, members of the opposition "green movement" - named after the colour adopted by supporters of the reformist presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi - are planning to use the march as an opportunity to fill the streets and voice their protests. The regime is desperate to ensure that there is no repeat of the great mobilisations in Tehran in the tumultuous post-election weeks.

The regime's strategy

The regime is well aware of what is at stake. The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a cold warning on 11 September 2009 that "resisting the system and taking out the sword against it will meet a harsh response. If somebody stands against the basis of the [Islamic] system and violates people's security, the system is forced to stand against it."

Such intransigent rhetoric at the highest level is a justification of ferocious and consistent repression by the regime's militias, organised thugs, and judiciary. Khamenei's declaration came a day after security forces raided, pillaged and sealed the offices of Mir-Hossein Moussavi and his fellow opposition leader and presidential candidate Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi

The office of the Association for the Defence of Prisoners' Rights was also ransacked, and evidence of the torture, rape and killing of detainees confiscated. An Amnesty International statement points out that "the seized records contain information which would enable the judicial authorities to identify the former detainees who were prepared to speak out on a confidential basis due to their fear of reprisals and the shocking nature of their ordeal."

A number of top advisers to the opposition are among the thousands of people arrested in the post-election crackdown. The highest-profile of the later detainees is Alireza Beheshti, a senior adviser to Moussavi and the son of Iran's first head of the judiciary after the 1979 revolution - who was subsequently released on bail.

The circumstances of these raids and arrests offer a hint that divisions within Iran's elite continue. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the acclaimed filmmaker and Moussavi's official spokesman outside Iran, has suggested that "certain quarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps" are especially concerned on destroying the most damning evidence of abuse - in light of concerns "that Ayatollah Khamenei or even [Iran's president] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are willing to sacrifice them for the sake of drawing a line under this election fiasco."

A prominent London-based commentator, Alireza Nourizadeh, claims that a meeting of Iran's supreme national-security council (SNSC) discussed the possibility of arresting Moussavi and Karroubi themselves; but that it was decided to delay such action - perhaps until after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's scheduled address to the United Nations general assembly in New York on 23 September.

The members of the SNSC include Iran's president; the speaker of the majlis (parliament); the head of the judiciary; the heads of the most powerful ministries (interior, intelligence and security); and two representatives of the supreme leader. A notable absentee from the meeting (according to Alireza Nourizadeh) was Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator and the council's secretary as well as one of Ayatollah Khamenei's representatives there. 

Mahmoud Tehrani, a nephew of Khamenei, reads the elite tensions this way: the supreme leader "is either a toy in the hands of Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi [the president‘s spiritual adviser], and the Revolutionary Guards - or he shares their crimes. There is nothing he can do. If he backs off from his comments even one step, he will lose his leadership and the whole [conservative] camp will disintegrate. Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards are running the show in Iran, not Khamenei."

Mohsen Sazegara, a one-time regime loyalist (he co-founded the IRGC in 1979) turned leading dissident, used one of his daily YouTube postings to argue that the battle is now between the people and the leaders of the election coup d'état - the latter headed by Ayatollah Khamenei's son, Mojtaba. This group is said to include Mohammad Ali Jafari (commander of the Revolutionary Guards); Hojatoleslam Hossein Taeb (commander of the basiji militias); Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam (commander-in-chief of law-enforcement forces); and Haj Davood Ahmadinejad (the president's elder brother).

The opposition's plans

These ruthless machinations - even alongside evidence of internal tensions - lead some observers to doubt whether the green movement can succeed in altering Iran's political course. An Iranian analyst who wishes to remain anonymous suggests that three elements conspire against the opposition: the robustness of the security-intelligence apparatus; the lack of a single distinctive, attractive and courageous leader; and the constant nourishment given to a sick economy by an oil price of $70 a barrel.

Yet the main representatives of the opposition remain firm in their stance. A statement released on 8 September 2009 - signed by Alireza Nourizadeh, Mohsen Sazegara, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf - anticipated the raids of the following day. This "warning to the people of Iran" declared that the "regime of coup d'état" plans to arrest Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi; predicted that Iranians would in that event pour into the streets until all political prisoners were released; and announced that in the absence of the two reformist leaders, the green-movement's leadership would be transferred abroad.

If the movement's command-body is relocated outside Iran, its main role (according to Makhmalbaf) will be to support and coordinate the activities of the opposition inside. Sazegara, always a strategist, says that the opposition will move ahead on three fronts: undermining the regime's legitimacy, cultivating more fissures within the top leadership, and paralysing the governing system. An arena now dominated by protests against human-rights abuses would be expanded to include strikes and other forms of non-cooperation to bring the state's operation to a halt.

The people's business

The test of this ambitious programme will come soon, in the events of 18 September and the period after 23 September when (in addition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's United Nations address) students return to schools and universities for the start of the new academic year.  

The regime's brute force has been enough to prevent it being overwhelmed by the wave of popular anger since the fraudulent election of 12 June. But resistance to it is finding other channels, including the targeting of companies deemed to be collaborating with Iran's rulers. A consumer boycott of Nokia Siemens followed revelations that the company had sold communications-monitoring systems to the regime. The effects of such protest have also been felt by the Irancell mobile-phone network operator, the "Mohsen" brand of rice (whose earnings support the Revolutionary Guards), and Iran's state radio and television (whose head Ezatollah Zarghami is reported as saying that the number of TV viewers had shrunk by 40% since the election).

An engineer in Tehran describes the current mood. "Even people who voted for Ahmadinejad have now turned against him due to his choice of highly incompetent and inexperienced cabinet ministers, and the huge 30% increase in meat and fruit prices in this month of Ramadan. His government is so unpopular that for the past month Iran premier-league football matches have had to be held without any spectators in the stadiums in order to prevent people from being seen and heard vilifying the president - and even Ayatollah Khamenei - in public.....gatherings of any sort are routinely broken up by riot-police wearing masks and shields, who continue to be (discreetly) present in Tehran's main squares and metro stations."

The message continues: "Ahmadinejad has to go to appointments in a helicopter as people will tear him apart if he shows his face on Tehran streets....his residence in Pasteur Road is guarded by a large group of machine-gun wielding basiji ruffians. The unusual thing is that these basijis are now wearing black-cloth masks to hide their identity from passers-by.....previously it was the demonstrators who wore masks but now it is the basijis who are forced to do so - as citizens will beat them up and burn their motorcycles if they catch them alone somewhere."

Iran's people have already written a new chapter in their history this year. There is more to come.


Also in openDemocracy on Iran's disputed presidential election:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after" (17 July 2009)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran: revolution beyond caricature" (7 August 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a political shadow" (17 August 2009)

Aziz Motazedi, Iran: revolution for the hereafter (25 August 2009)



Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)

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