Continuing developments today in the evolving story out of Iran: The New York Times reports (“Leading Clerics Defy Ayatollah on Disputed Iran Election”) that one of the most important groups of religious leaders in Iran “called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.” In another story today, the Washington Post reports that the opposition candidate, Mousavi, has released a 24-page document on his Web site detailing accusations of election fraud. And the editor-in-chief of the state newspaper, and an advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, has accused Mousavi of treason and called for him to be tried. This story isn’t over.
I have been meaning to write a long piece on recent events in Iran. But I don’t need to now. Robert Dreyfuss has done it for me in The Nation: Iran’s Green Wave. This is the best piece I have read on Iran; it makes most of the points I had intended to make. Read the whole thing. Don’t rely on these excerpts:
[T]he opposition's leaders are not exactly revolutionaries. The coalition ranged against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a kind of counter-establishment representing a huge split within Iran's secular and clerical elites. It includes the reformists, led by Moussavi, who served as prime minister during the tumultuous and violently repressive 1980s, and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and former speaker of Parliament, both of whom ran against Ahmadinejad. It includes relatively moderate, pragmatic conservatives and the wealthy business elite, typified by the behind-the-scenes role of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily billionaire mullah and wheeler-dealer who was president in the 1990s. And it includes many hardline conservatives from the
so-called "principlist" faction, which previously lined up behind Ahmadinejad but this time rallied behind opposition candidate Mohsen Rezai, a founder of the IRGC, who has been bitterly critical of the president and who at least initially claimed election fraud.
But there's no denying that for the first time since the1978-79 revolution, which led to the Islamic Republic, Iran's leadership is confronted with an explosive and unpredictable challenge: from below, a mass movement whose street energy and high-tech organizing savvy spread from Tehran to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and other cities. And within the elite there is a swelling wave of dissatisfaction with the narrow-minded radicals in power, who are blamed for having squandered the country's oil wealth, mismanaged its economy and forced Iran into a crippling regime of sanctions that have walled it off from the technology and foreign investment it desperately needs. As a result, Iran is at a crossroads.
In one direction is a slide toward greater xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, in part because the radical forces stirred up among Ahmadinejad's electoral base will be hard to put back in the box. The broad consensus behind Iran's system of rule-by-clergy has been shattered, and the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime has lost its legitimacy. To shore up support, it's blaming various greater and lesser satans in the United States, Europe and Israel for Iran's troubles, making it exceedingly difficult for the country to re-establish ties to the West. At best, Iran will remain embroiled in the stalemate it has faced since 2005, with the economy continuing to unravel. At
worst, it could fall into North Korea-like isolation, with fundamentalists and the security establishment preaching that subsistence-level economic privation must be endured for the sake of Islamic purity.
At the very least, the clergy-run, quasi-democratic Iranian state has been replaced by something that looks a lot more like a military dictatorship. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has installed scores of ex-commanders from the IRGC throughout government ministries and as governors and local officials in all thirty provinces. Ahmadinejad's cronies have created a powerful clique loyal to Khamenei but, at the same time, encircling the office of the Leader. The conventional wisdom--that the Leader is the all-powerful commander in chief, while the president is an elected figurehead with little real power--may be tilting, if it has not already been
turned on its head. In the other direction, a victory by the opposition--as unlikely as it appears in the wake of the regime's crackdown--might let in a lot of fresh air. It could smooth the path for an accord with the West, pave the way toward greater cultural and civil liberties, and reverse the downward economic spiral. Under this scenario, Iran could still cling to much of its current form of government, though it would be less rigid. But what scares many conservatives, and no doubt much of the establishment, is that this time it might not be so easy to stuff the genie of reform back into its bottle. A large number of those supporting Moussavi--it's impossible to know how many--want far more than reform. They want an end to the very idea of an Islamic Republic. Their hero is Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister who nationalized Iran's oil in 1951, challenged the shah and was toppled in a coup by MI-6 and the CIA in 1953. Reform in Iran is a slippery slope, and once reforms get started the very fabric of the Islamic Republic could unravel.
It's that scenario that Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their IRGC and Basij allies are determined to resist at all costs. And they're prepared to unleash Tiananmen Square levels of violence to make sure it doesn't happen. …
It was clear by nightfall on election day, June 12, that something was wrong. Across Tehran, troop transports rumbled out of the IRGC's fortified bases. Before the polls had even closed, Tehran took on the air of an occupied city. Later that night, ominously, my cellphone went dead, like everyone else's. Not long past midnight, the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the victor, crediting him with nearly two-thirds of a record turnout, having accomplished the near-magical feat of counting tens of millions of paper ballots in a couple of hours. Later that day, as outrage over what was widely seen as a manipulated result rippled across the city, Khamenei confirmed Ahmadinejad's win. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in protest.
"Moussavi and Karroubi had earlier established a joint committee to protect the people's votes," Ibrahim Yazdi, who was foreign minister in the early days after the revolution and who now leads the suppressed Freedom Movement of Iran, told me. "Many young people volunteered to work on that committee. But the authorities didn't let it happen. Last night [election night] the security forces closed it down." Describing what the regime did as a "coup d'etat," he said, "The security forces occupied the offices of many newspapers, to make sure their reports on the election were favorable. They changed many headlines." Over the next days newspapers were closed, Internet sites blocked or disabled and opposition campaign offices attacked and shuttered. Hundreds of officials, journalists and dissidents--perhaps as many as 2,000--were arrested, including Yazdi. Some analysts argue that Ahmadinejad may have won, citing his populist appeal, but that's farfetched. An analysis prepared by Chatham House in London argues persuasively that the vote was skewed, comparing it with the totals for 2005. It showed that, in at least ten provinces, in order to have amassed the totals given him, Ahmadinejad would have had to win all the voters who backed him in 2005, all the voters who last time voted for Rafsanjani, all the voters who last time sat out the election and didn't vote at all, and--varying by province--up to 44 percent of the voters who in 2005 backed the reformist slate. Other analyses piled up similar anomalies. One employee of the Interior Ministry told reporters that the ministry "didn't even look at the vote" but made up the numbers. Said Yazdi, "The counting of the votes took place in the personal office of the minister of the interior, with only two aides present." …
As recently as May, Mir-Hossein Moussavi--an architect, artist and president of the Iranian Academy of the Arts, who speaks Farsi, English, Arabic and Turkish fluently--could not have imagined himself leading a throng of followers, some of them calling for the downfall of Khamenei. …
With impeccable establishment credentials honed during his stint as prime minister, Moussavi took sides in a left-versus-right split among the Iranian elite, including the clergy, that resulted in the creation of two broad factions at the end of the 1980s. The left-leaning Association of Combatant Clergy, also known as the Roohanioon, quit the more conservative Association of Militant Clergy, known as the Roohaniyat, which was loyal to the newly inaugurated Ayatollah Khamenei, who succeeded the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. Among the Roohanioon leaders were Moussavi, Mohammad Khatami and a group of relatively progressive, open-minded thinkers who became known as Iran's "reformists." In 1997, at the end of Rafsanjani's presidency, the reformists' first choice to run for president was Moussavi. When he demurred, Khatami ran and--to the surprise of everyone--won overwhelmingly. Moussavi was a key adviser to President Khatami.
The hard right, egged on by Khamenei, counterattacked. It used death squads, vigilantes, secret intelligence units, the Guardian Council and the judiciary to cripple Khatami's presidency. In 2005, with the backing of the IRGC, the hardliners rallied behind the candidacy of Ahmadinejad, who after his election promptly launched a political, cultural and economic reversal. The IRGC itself became Iran's most powerful institution. Alongside its military might, it acquired a vast economic empire, from oil and construction to cellphone technology. Suddenly its personnel were everywhere. "The IRGC commanders, both active and retired, act as a kind of fraternity or freemasonry, wielding power that goes far beyond their official positions by virtue of the informal network they operate," an Iranian insider told me, looking to his left and right to make sure he wasn't being overheard in a busy Tehran lounge.
When Moussavi decided to run for president this past March, almost no one believed he could get traction. …
Several factors combined to make Moussavi a viable candidate. First, with organizational and financial support from the Rafsanjani family and wealthy mullahs and businessmen tired of Ahmadinejad's cronies running the economy, Moussavi built a formidable countrywide campaign machine. Second, the brilliant Green Wave strategy, designed by a 27-year-old whiz kid named Mostafa Hassani, caught fire, and soon green ribbons, armbands, headbands, scarves and flags festooned Iranian cities. "I wanted something simple, something that could be replicated even by poor people in remote villages," the long-haired, lanky Hassani told me, sitting in Moussavi's cluttered campaign headquarters during election week. And then, on June 3, Moussavi electrified Iran during an unprecedented televised debate with Ahmadinejad. With the president sitting across from him, Moussavi called Ahmadinejad a liar and accused him of pushing Iran toward "dictatorship." The next day, green-wearing crowds began chanting, "Death to the liar!" and "Death to the dictator!" Nothing like it had ever been seen in Iranian politics.
Moussavi had another not-so-secret weapon: his wife, Zahra Rahnavard. A noted intellectual and sculptor, Rahnavard campaigned alongside her husband, sometimes holding his hand. Clearly a liberated woman, she called for an end to the much-despised harassment of women by the cultural police and backed equal rights for women. At a vast rally in downtown Tehran, I watched her mesmerize the crowd. "We are going to make a revolution in the revolution!" she cried. "We are going to make it modern and up-to-date!" As one, tens of thousands of people chanted: "Moussavi! Rahnavard! Equal rights for men and women!" Women in pink lipstick and with blond highlights in partly uncovered hair shouted beside women in black chadors.
And then there was the Obama factor. Countless Iranians watched his June 4 Cairo speech, and its transcript was parsed word by word. By offering to respect Iran rather than locating it in the "axis of evil," Obama appealed to secular nationalists, activists seeking greater individual freedom and businessmen hungering for an end to the sanctions strangling Iran's economy. Nearly everyone I spoke with during the ten days I was in Iran brought up Obama, whether I asked or not. At a frenzied Moussavi rally in the city of Karaj, west of the capital, I met a campaign organizer, Hojatolislam Akbar Hamidi, 48, a distinguished cleric who's known Moussavi for more than twenty years. "I listened to Obama's speech, and it made me very happy," he told me. "But we're afraid that some Iranian authorities do not understand the positive message of Obama." In interviews at polling places on election day, dozens of voters praised Obama's opening to Iran. At a Tehran mosque where hundreds of people were lined up to vote, several dozen crowded around as I asked an older woman why she supported Moussavi. When I suggested, "Perhaps Moussavi and Obama might meet someday soon?" the crowd, translating for one another, erupted in cheers, laughter and thumbs-up signs.
More prosaically, many plugged-in Iranians told me that nearly the entirety of Iran's business class is fed up with Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric, and they want to put an end to sanctions. Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former official at the Ministry of Industry, said that as a result of sanctions critical sectors of the economy--including computers and information technology, oil and natural gas, and civil aviation--are suffering badly. "Ahmadinejad's is the first right-wing government since the revolution, and it has been a catastrophe," he said. "You cannot run the government with populism. You need experts. You need technocrats. You need planners." (Laylaz was arrested days after the election; he's still in detention.) To get a sense of what the business community thinks, during election week I attended a forum packed with executives at the offices of Etelaat, a liberal newspaper, where eight former ministers of oil, industry and mining slammed the government over its incompetence. Later, at Moussavi's campaign office, one of them, Mohammad
Reza Nematzadeh, who was minister of industry under Khatami, told me that he'd
put his business on hold to travel across the country working for Moussavi. "I'm
a businessman, and I've been reluctant to get into politics," he told me over
several cups of tea. "It's the desire of most of us in the business community to
rebuild relations with the United States," he said. "It doesn't mean that we have to give up our independence or our dignity."
Besides reformists, students, women and businessmen, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are losing their core constituency: the clergy. And given that Iran is a state run by the priestly class, that might prove their undoing. I spoke to a dozen or so clerics, from low- to mid-ranking mullahs to a few who'd attained the rank of hojatolislam, just below ayatollah. There are hundreds of thousands of mullahs in Iran, perhaps a hundred or more who have attained the rank of ayatollah, and just two dozen or so who have developed sufficient reputation and following to be called grand ayatollah. And more and more of them, including many grand ayatollahs, have joined the opposition. "After the television debates with Ahmadinejad, a large number of mullahs who'd been undecided went over to Moussavi," one hojatolislam told me. They were offended, he said, by Ahmadinejad's insulting attitude toward
Moussavi--particularly his rhetorical assault on his wife, Rahnavard, whom he
accused of falsifying her academic credentials--and his accusations against
Rafsanjani and Khatami. "A president should be polite," the cleric told me. "Impolite behavior and ugliness cannot be accepted."
Another cleric, who campaigned for Moussavi in dozens of Iranian towns and cities, said that the majority of mullahs had abandoned the president. "There is a big gap between Ahmadinejad and the clergy," he told me. "Many of the grand ayatollahs are angry, because the president has taken many actions without consulting with them. They are especially unhappy because he has shown an aggressive face of Islam to the world, and Islam is not aggressive. It is a religion of peace." Some three-quarters of the grand ayatollahs in Iran support Moussavi, he told me. Ten of them sent a joint letter to Ahmadinejad, but he ignored them, he said. Several others have openly castigated the regime for its treatment of protesters.
A very well-connected mullah I talked with said that he is a friend and follower of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Back in the late 1980s, Montazeri was the designated successor to Khomeini as Iran's Leader, but hardliners--including Khomeini's son and a circle around Khamenei--ousted him, he told me, because of his liberal views and installed Khamenei. Through this mullah and several other intermediaries, both Moussavi and former president Khatami keep in close contact with Montazeri, as well as with many in the clerical establishment in Qom. In the wake of the election Moussavi and his supporters began organizing what they hoped would be a broad consensus among senior ayatollahs to force Ahmadinejad out or, if it comes to that, to replace Khamenei himself. "Khamenei does not deserve the position that he has," the mullah told me. "He has become a politician, and as a politician he has been corrupted." Describing Khamenei in these terms is extremely unusual, and indicates how much the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei axis has lost its legitimacy. "Khamenei has lost the support of many high-ranking clergy in Qom," declared Ibrahim Yazdi in my interview with him.
Trying to pull together this opposition is Rafsanjani, who so far has stayed behind the scenes but according to numerous reports from Iran is playing a critical role in efforts to counter both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The former president is chair of the Assembly of Experts, a group of more than eighty clerics who have the power, under Iran's Constitution, to appoint or dismiss the Leader. "Rafsanjani has convinced the majority of the Assembly of Experts and several dozen clerics in Qom to support an effort to overturn the election results," a well-connected Iranian told me. According to Yazdi and several other Iranian activists and analysts, at least some of the clergy want to replace Khamenei with a far more moderate, less political council of ayatollahs as a way of restoring consensus in the leadership [see Sarfaraz,
"Iran's New Revolutionaries," in last week's issue]. It would in effect be the end of the Khomeini doctrine of velayat-e-faqih ("rule of the jurisprudent"), which is the underpinning of the notion of a Supreme Leader, a concept invented by Khomeini that is far outside mainstream Muslim, and even Shiite, thinking. …
Obama's earlier outreach undercut the hardliners and gave a psychological boost to Iran's reformists and to millions of Iranians who saw Moussavi as a vehicle through which to improve US-Iranian relations. If Obama wants to support the opposition, the best thing he can do is to continue to extend his open hand to Iran.
Read it all here.
The protests that started in response to the stolen election now threaten the whole system of clerical rule. This appears to have been essentially a coup by the Revolutionary Guard, led by Ahmadinejad and with Khamenei acquiescing. And they appear to have won the first round. But the downfall of the Shah unfolded over about a year, so it is still too early to call this fight. I think Khameini’s credibility as Supreme Leader is shot. Clerical rule in Iran, if it survives, will never be the same.
I was surprised how many in the US (mainly conservatives) were quick to buy into the idea that Ahmadinejad might have legitimately won the election. Just one example was George Friedman at the Stratfor newsletter (no free link) who announced almost immediately after the election (“Western Misconceptions Meet Iranian Reality,” June 15, 2009):
“… Mousavi got hammered. Fraud or not, Ahmadinejad won and he won significantly. That he won is not the mystery; the mystery is why others thought he wouldn’t win.”
This view was typically premised on the notion that reformers consisted entirely of young liberals from “North Tehran” (sort of the Iranian equivalent of our own “San Francisco liberals”). The “Real Iranians”, supposedly, were rural fundamentalists who voted for Ahmadinejad. There are a couple of problems with this narrative. Iran is a highly urbanized country, with roughly 70% of the population living in urban areas. And 70% of the population is under age 30. Combine that with half the population that is female, and the old, rural male is a distinct minority in Iran. There is not some massive rural population that resulted in Ahmadinejad winning almost two-thirds of the national vote.
(American conservatives seem to be projecting on Iran their own notion that the “real America” consists of rural whites. In fact, less than 20% of the US population is now considered “rural” according to the US Census. And whites now account for only roughly 65% of the US population – but are less than a majority in the most populous state, California, as well as in Texas and New Mexico. Whites are getting close to falling below majority status in Nevada, Maryland and Georgia. Even then, the rural vote in the US is not some kind of conservative monolith – Obama won 45% of the rural vote.)
In fact, Ahmadinejad actually lost the rural vote in 2005, which includes large non-Persian populations. And these days a lot of rural voters in Iran are upset about the lousy state of the Iranian economy. Yet, this time around, the official results had Ahmadinejad winning all provinces with remarkably consistent percentages, despite pronounced ethnic and regional differences in past elections. For example, the official election results had Ahmadinejad beating Mousavi in the capital of his home province, Tabriz, by 57% to 42% -- this in an Azeri region that tends to be anti-Persian and supportive of its native son. Similarly, the official results had one of the other opposition candidates, Karroubi, receiving only 5% of the vote in his home province of Luristan, down from 50% in 2005. All implausible in the extreme.
Indeed, the only time a non-reformist candidate has won the presidency in Iran was Ahmadinejad in 2005 when the turn-out was only 48% due to a de facto boycott by supporters of the reformers. This time around, the turn-out exceeded 85%, which should have reflected a landslide for the reformers. For more analysis of the election results, check out this paper by the Chatham House of the UK, cited in the Nation piece above.
There was a highly misleading, but widely quoted, op-ed in the Washington Post shortly after the election which noted that in a poll three weeks before the election Ahmadinejad led Mousavi by a 2 to 1 margin. But the op-ed inexcusably failed to note the actual poll numbers – Ahmadinejad’s lead was actually only 34% to 14%. It’s hard to see how an incumbent gets from 34% to over 60% in three weeks. Juan Cole analyzes the poll and concludes (here and here) that it supports the view that Ahmadinejad lost decisively.
Fareed Zakaria has done a great job covering this story – a couple of his pieces here and here are worth reading. And Eurasianet, a part of George Soros’s Open Society project, has had some good analysis, such as this piece.
American neocons have had trouble dealing with the turn of events in Iran. As the election approached and it was becoming apparent that Mousavi might win, perhaps even in a landslide, some neocons went so far as to publicly express their hope that Ahmadinejad would win, the better for keeping up the drumbeat for war with Iran. One widely-noted example was Daniel Pipes, who wrote (in a blog post entitled “Rooting for Ahmadinejad”):
[W]hile my heart goes out to the many Iranians who desperately want the vile Ahmadinejad out of power, my head tells me it's best that he remain in office. …[B]etter to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep … And so, despite myself, I am rooting for Ahmadinejad.For other US conservatives they fact that the face of the reform movement on the street has tended to be well-educated, young urbanites and independent women – well, somehow it just can't be legitimate.
And, then, there was John McCain who, as with Georgia last summer (“we are all Georgians now”), couldn’t wait to escalate US involvement in this conflict … because, after all, this is really all about us (or, specifically, him).
But with Ahmadinejad appearing for the time being to have consolidated his hold on power, the right wing in this country seems to have settled back down to the conclusion that … we should (of course) encourage Israel to attack Iran. Because, after all, you can’t have too many wars. We are now seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan the disastrous consequences of having diverted our attention and resources to Iraq (I found this story last week particularly disturbing: “In Refugee Aid, Pakistan’s War Has New Front”). And our military is overstretched already with two wars. But why not start another? John Bolton, our former UN ambassador with the dead rodent above his lip and a serious anger management problem, argued for that in the Washington Post this week (“Time for An Israeli Strike?” – the question mark is redundant): “Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable.”
Pop quiz: With the hardliners in Iran trying to blame recent protests on the US and the UK, an attack on Iran by Israel with the approval of the Great Satan would, a/ strengthen the hardliners, or b/ strengthen the reformers? What happens in any country under attack by a foreign enemy?
It’s hard to believe that less than five months ago these guys were actually running the United States government. That is Change We Can Believe In. Let’s hope our brothers and sisters in Iran succeed in their own Change.