Iran’s post presidential election protests are not evidence of a brewing revolution; rather they unmask a power struggle among the ayatollahs. The fracturing of the leadership has resulted in clear winners and losers internally and externally.
Iranian authorities declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, the winner in the June 12th election with 63 percent of the votes. But Ahmadinejad’s opposition alleged election fraud which triggered sweeping protests followed by a bare knuckled government response and a tepid investigation.
Last week, Iranian authorities imposed order to “secure the rule of law” according to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ayatollah unleashed the security forces — Basij militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to use whatever force necessary to squelch continuing popular dissent which had raged in Tehran since the election.
So far, the government’s crackdown has claimed at least 17 lives, eight members of the pro-government Basij militia, dozens more wounded and as many as 240 people jailed, including 102 political figures.
Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, asked Khamenei to investigate allegations of widespread election fraud. The “investigation” confirmed irregularities but authorities rejected calls for an election annulment. They insist the identified three-million fraudulent votes are not enough to overturn the landslide for Mr. Ahmadinejad.
All this is an ugly reminder of an oppressive regime, but so far the peoples’ response doesn’t constitute a revolution. By comparison the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was the genuine article. It was a sudden and top-down populist, nationalist and Shia Islamic seizure of power that transformed Iran’s economic, social and political institutions. Shrill media reporting would have you believe it is happening again. However, Stratfor, a respected intelligence think tank, wrote, Tehran is “not St. Petersburg in 1917 or Bucharest in 1989 — it was [China’s] Tiananmen Square” in 1989 where mostly students and intellectuals protested against government authoritarianism and for economic and democratic reform.
For the election crisis to morph into a full blown revolution the protests would have to spread throughout the country, the economy would have to shut down and the military would have to turn on the leadership. None of these conditions materialized.
The protests petered out this week under an ever-intensifying crackdown and Mousavi bowed to pressure from the likes of Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami who threatened, “Anyone who takes up arms to fight with the people, they are worthy of execution. … [they are] at war with God” and should be “dealt with without mercy.”
For now the protesters have our sympathy and our support although greatly weakened by our reticent president. The oppressive government remains in power and is using the protests as an excuse to further distance Iran from the U.S.
The crisis produced winners and losers.
Iran’s security forces are winners, especially the IRGC. The government turned to the guards once Tehran’s streets filled with angry protesters. They responded with brutal tactics — clubs, gun fire and tear gas — to shutdown the protests and silence the media.
The 125,000 strong IRGC’s loyalty comes at a price, however. Since taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad shifted the center of power from the clergy to the IRGC. The guards have steadily expanded their authority to include critical portfolios such as Iran’s missile program, its oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure and Iran’s atomic programs. Today, Iran’s power shift puts it much closer to a military dictatorship than the theocracy promised by the 1979 revolutionaries.
Ahmadinejad’s victory is also a win for the terrorist organizations on Israel’s borders who can count on continued Iranian funding and weapons. For many of the Arab states it appears to be a return to the status quo. While they have no love for the Persians and would like to see the radical, hegemonic, ballistic missile-armed leadership removed, at least the U.S. will not now be cementing a closer relationship with Tehran at Arab expense.
The “Twitter” reformers are winners because they exposed the oppressive regime and showed the world that some Iranians really want change. They used social networks like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to undermine the ability of the authoritarian regime to control access to and distribution of information. For a short time their firsthand reports gripped the world with insights from Tehran’s bloodied streets.
President Obama is the biggest loser because he appears to be an inept leader and his plan to diplomatically defang Iran lies in shambles. A recent Washington Times article claims Obama sent a letter to Iran’s supreme leader expressing interest in “cooperation in regional and bilateral relations” and a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Then, almost two weeks after the election and the anti-protester violence, Obama condemned the regime.
On June 23, Obama belatedly condemned “… these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.” But he was careful not to reject the flawed election results because he feared America would become “a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States.” That outcome was predictable and is exactly what transpired.
Ayatollah Khamenei addressed both Obama’s letter and the president’s stern remarks. The cleric asked, “Which one of these remarks are we supposed to believe?” Then he blamed America’s “agents” for the protests, vandalism, looting, sabotage and starting fires.
Ahmadinejad said Obama’s stance on Iran’s post election turmoil imperils relations. "They keep saying that they want to hold talks with Iran … but is this the correct way? Definitely, they have made a mistake," Ahmadinejad said.
Iran’s clerics are big losers because they split over the election. Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad and endorsed the crackdown. Ali Akbar Hasheimi Rafsanjani, the former president who leads two influential councils, openly supported Mousavi’s candidacy. During the protests, Rafsanjani family members were detained apparently in an attempt to pressure the cleric to drop his support of Mousavi which was seen as a challenge to Khamenei.
Rafsanjani still remains on the sidelines of the crisis perhaps because he does not want to undermine the Islamic republic. However, Stratfor cites a Saudi media outlet that reports Rafsanjani may be setting up an alternative clerical establishment in defiance of Khamenei. This would seriously weaken the Islamic republic if true.
Mideast peace is a loser. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Tehran’s brutal actions “unmasked” the Iranian regime’s “true nature.” He emphasized that a government willing to shoot its own people could not be trusted. Expect Tehran to become more repressive at home and take more risks with its foreign policy.
The election crisis split the ayatollahs and demonstrated a real revolution is possible with the right kind of support. But for now Iran is more militaristic, the suppressed reformist movement is licking its wounds, the Mideast is less safe and President Obama’s plan to talk Ahmadinejad out of atomic weapons and terrorism is dead in the water.