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Iran's crisis: regime and street

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
22 June 2009

  • Hossein Bastani: Ayatollah Khamenei's calculation
  • Kamin Mohammadi: Iranians far and near 
  • Reza Molavi: The politics of a moral drama
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    Hossein Bastani: Ayatollah Khamenei's calculation

    Iran's supreme leader's supports Iran's president. The coming days will test how far.

    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered his first public speech since Iran's presidential election at the Friday prayers in Tehran on 19 June 2009, a week after the controversial vote had delivered a landslide victory to the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader's intervention, in front of a vast crowd that included senior clerics and politicians - though only one of Ahmadinejad's three rival candidates - was a turning-point in Iran's tumultuous post-election events.

    Hossein Bastani is an analyst of Iranian affairs. He was a member of the editorial board of Rooz online, and was secretary-general of the Association of Iranian Journalists

    The leader of the Islamic Republic again upheld the official results of the election, even as intense public protests continue against them and in favour of the second-placed Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

    Khamenei rejected allegations that the election result was unreliable: it was impossible that there had been "11 million fake votes", for "(the) Islamic Republic does not tamper with people's votes." He also warned the protestors that they should end their street demonstrations and marches; if they don't, "commanders behind the scenes" will be held responsible for their actions. 

    The supreme leader's political stance is a risk - for the effect of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's behaviour and pronouncements (both before and after the election) is to impose great costs on the government of Iran and the leader of the regime - by sharpening divisions within the political elite, helping to provoke the largest street protests in the country since the 1979 revolution, incited much international public opinion against Tehran, and even invited serious doubts over the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's  right to govern.

    Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

    "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)

    Yet Khamenei's threatening posture towards the election's critics has not curbed the street protests; even a large security presence and the intimidatory tactics of the basij militias could not prevent people continuing to assemble over the weekend of 20-21 June. The number being killed, though still small, is rising;  if there is more official violence towards protestors, the pressure on the regime from inside and outside will increase.

    Ayatollah Khamenei continues to support Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because he is convinced that the "enemies" of the Islamic republic are threatening its existence;  that "resistance" to these is essential; and that the president and his allies represent the strongest current in this regard.  He argues that the current government's "assertiveness" produces results; Mohammad Khatami's policy of relaxation of tension with the west during his presidency (1997-2005) resulted in Iran being labelled part of an "axis of evil", whereas the firm policies of the post-2005 administration have now produced calls in Washington for talks with Iran.

    The logic is that the reformers' refusal to recognise the threats posed by the west and its values make them in effect "domestic enemies" who pose dangers to the very existence of the Islamic Republic. The needs of the state demand that reformists such as Mir-Hossein Moussavi are prevented from returning to power.

    From Ayatollah Khamenei's perspective, the benefits of containing the domestic and foreign enemies of Iran are so high that they are worth the costs that come with supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But will this calculation withstand the continuation and perhaps even escalation of the post-election crisis, including the increased use of repressive violence by the security forces? The coming days in Iran will provide an answer.

    Kamin Mohammadi: Iranians far and near

    Iranians outside Iran are living some of the most intense days of their lives.

    If my experience is any guide, Iranians outside Iran are living some of the most intense days of their lives. Since the first, disputed results of the presidential election were announced soon after the polls closed on 12 June 2009 and the protests almost immediately started, my waking hours are absorbed - hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute - in gathering computer-delivered news about what is happening in my homeland.

    Kamin Mohammadi is a journalist who has written widely on Iran, as well as on travel and health issues. Her website is here

    Also by Kamin Mohammadi in openDemocracy:

    "Lebanon: the view from Iran" (9 August 2006)

    "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

    It is compulsive, and also complicated. The intense emotional engagement brings with it far more unease than satisfaction. The process of digesting the news from family and friends in Iran that clogs my inbox, of following multiple links to blogs, of watching sometimes horrific videos, leaves me at once outraged and energised yet also sickened and paralysed into inaction and silence. If there is a pattern to these feelings, it lies in an often wild pendulum-swing between a vague sense of hope and elation, and deep shame and depression.

    The shame is hard: that even while people were being beaten and shot in Tehran on 20 June, police were waiting at the hospitals to arrest or take down the names of the injured - the foretaste of a midnight visit to their homes from the basij militias; shame that while the regime was killing its own people, it was the foreign embassies that opened their doors to the wounded to help us.

    But the pride too is profound: in the fearlessness of my compatriots; in the humanity and solidarity that binds us, a reminder of the Persian poet Sa'adi's words - as true today as when they were written in the 13th-century - "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence"; and in the defiant night-time chants of allahu akbar (God is great) that arise from the Tehran rooftops, at once an echo of the 1979 revolution, an eerie act of resistance, and a desperate call for mercy and strength.

    Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

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

    In 1978-79, these cries were symbolic of opposition to the Shah's tyranny and the much-proclaimed gharbzadegi (westoxification) of Iranian society, and of the call for a return to the core Shi'a Muslim values that a vast majority of Iranians held dear. Now, they are being raised against the architects of the Islamic Republic themselves, the very men who helped Ayatollah Khomeini shape the regime that he called "God's government". 

    An epic struggle for the soul of "God's government" is now being waged in the regime‘s upper echelons. The people of Iran - voters, citizens, students, protesters, women and men, exiles and those resident abroad - are looking on, seeking amid a flux of emotion to make their voices heard.

    Reza Molavi: The politics of a moral drama

    There are echoes of 1978-79. But this time change may take longer to arrive.

    The Shah of Iran was overthrown by "people power" when millions of Iranians took to the streets to call for his removal. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born out of this huge social mobilisation in 1978-79  when the entire country came together to express its dismay with the social, economic, and political situation that the Shah had presided over. Reza Molavi is executive director of the Centre for Iranian Studies, University of Durham

    The "people" of this great movement came from all walks of Iranian life, gradually assembling into a national uprising inspired by one cry: the Shah must go. What they had not thought about was who should replace the ruler they wanted to shake off.

    Thirty years on, Iran is again witnessing "people power" at work. The numbers may not yet be comparable and the majority may so far from the educated middle-classes; but people from many backgrounds and walks of life are continuing - despite stringent security - to pour onto the streets. The immediate trigger for the protest is the irregularities surrounding the presidential election of 12 June, which official results almost instantly awarded to the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But this event, which has cast doubts over the very legitimacy of the state's leadership, has now provoked the deeper conviction among millions of Iranians that Ahmadinejad - whom many refer to as "the dictator" - should go. As in 1978-79, however, they do not know what they have bargained for.

    Against the backdrop of a consistent hard line from the official leadership around supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is understandable that voices in the west seek to cheer the marchers on to continue the struggle to the end. The ruthlessness of the regime's thuggish apparatus should give them pause. When plainclothes basijis and regime diehards venture out on their motorcycles equipped with clubs, chains, knives and Kalashnikovs to suppress peaceful marchers, it is hard to ask anyone that they should endure the beating, arrest and even killing that may follow.

    The very fact that the restraint and dignity of the huge majority of the marchers in Tehran and other cities are admirable, and that the forces ranged against them are powerful, should advise caution. Moreover, beyond the moral drama there are political realities that must be taken into account: that the supreme leader's inflexible stance guarantees further bloodshed, that the nuclear centrifuges are spinning at maximum speed in Natanz as part of an issue that still needs diplomatic resolution, that Mir-Hossein Moussavi is as much of an establishment figure as Ahmadinejad  - and that political change is in the air in Tehran, even if it will take a little more time to arrive than Iranians and their friends in the west might hope.

    The election fallout shows that the legitimacy of the regime is being deeply and publicly compromised. But this is only a first step.  It is truly shocking to see the blood in the streets of Tehran and the security forces of the Islamic Republic shooting innocent people. Iranians will not forget this deplorable human-rights fiasco. But by standing back from the drama of Iran's post-election landscape, analysts might reflect more deeply on the current balance of power in Iran - and conclude that, this time unlike 1978-79, the change that is coming to Iran will be more through evolution than revolution. 

    Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

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

    Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 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)

    Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 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)

    Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 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)

    Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

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

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

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