Friday, June 26, 2009

Iran - Is an elite "compromise" (or counter-coup) in the works?

The unfolding political crisis in Iran has many layers and dimensions, some more readily visible than others. The most conspicuous and inspiring part of this drama has been the confrontation between the popular movement led, or rather represented, by the reluctant semi-revolutionary Mir Hossein Moussavi and the escalating repression unleashed by the hard-liners. That's going on in plain view, relatively speaking.

But the crisis also involves complicated struggles between different factions and power centers within the political elite (discussed, for example, here & here & here), not least the long-term conflict between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. As the Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour recently put it:
At a political level what’s taking place now, among many other things [!], is the 20-year rivalry between Khamenei and Rafsanjani coming to a head [....] It’s an Iranian version of the Corleones and the Tattaglias; there are no good guys and bad guys [in that particular fight--JW], only bad and worse.
Those dynamics have been more opaque, but a lot of analysts and observers believe that they may ultimately be most decisive in shaping the immediate outcomes. Everyone assumes that there is frantic maneuvering going on behind the scenes, and rumors are rife.

=> A number of factions within the elite, including elements of the higher clergy, are more or less hostile to the Khamenei/Republican Guard/Ahmadinejad axis and feel threatened by its increasing grip on power, which the election coup was intended to consolidate. Some of the most dramatic rumors, or informed speculations, suggest that Rafsanjani may be able to "assemble a religious and political coalition to topple the supreme leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." On Thursday a piece in the Nation by an Iranian journalist writing under the pseudonym Babak Sarfaraz reiterated this scenario:
Khamenei’s anguished sermon on June 19 was not provoked simply by the popular uprising in the streets. According to a well-placed source in the holy city of Qom, Rafsanjani is working furiously behind the scenes to call for an emergency meeting of the Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts — the elite all-cleric body that can unseat the Supreme Leader or dilute his prerogatives. [....] Rafsanjani’s purported plan is to replace Khamenei’s one-person dictatorship with a Leadership Council composed of three or more high-ranking clerics; this formula was proposed and then abandoned in 1989 by several prominent clerics. [....]
=> Another variant of this rumor suggests that behind the scenes a "compromise" solution is in the works that would allow a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. Here's one version from the Iranian-American writer and academic Reza Aslan in the Daily Beast:
Reliable sources in Iran are suggesting that a possible compromise to put an end to the violent uprising that has rocked Iran for the past two weeks may be in the works. I have previously reported that the second most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts (the body with the power to choose and dismiss the Supreme Leader) is in the city of Qom—the country’s religious center—trying to rally enough votes from his fellow Assembly members to remove the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from power. News out of Iran suggests that he may be succeeding. At the very least, it seems he may have gained enough support from the clerical establishment to force a compromise from Khamenei, one that would entail a run-off election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Reports of the possible compromise, though unconfirmed, are coming from multiple sources. [....]
This would be a remarkable denouement, since it would not really be a "compromise" so much as an acceptance of the central demand of the Moussavi camp. After everything that Supreme Leader Khamenei, in particular, has said and done so far, I imagine he would see this as a devastating blow to his credibility (even if Ahmadinejad and the forces he represents manage to win or steal a hypothetical second-round vote).

Partly for those reasons, I confess that I am very skeptical about this scenario. But I wouldn't mind being proved wrong, since if something like this did happen, it would represent a significant defeat for the hard-line Khamenei/Republican Guard/Ahmadinejad bloc. They would have managed to provoke an effective coalition against them by the other major elite factions--backed up by the pressure of the popular movement out in the streets and, no doubt, a desire by sectors of the elite to avoid the political risks of very large-scale bloodshed. And, under the circumstances, the results could help move Iran in the direction of a more open and democratic society.

Thus, I hope this scenario is less implausible than it looks to me right now. It would have to be rammed down the throat of the hard-liners, and they do happen to control the most armed force, but they might be hesitant to attempt a crudely overt military coup against the institutions of the Islamic Republic if the rest of the elite were united against them. When people are really backed into a corner politically, they sometimes wind up doing a lot of things they don't really want to do.

=> Mehdi Noorbaksh, another Iranian-American academic with extensive contacts in Iran, assembled a range of recent developments and other possible clues into an analysis arguing that a behind-the-scenes elite "compromise" along these lines might be in the cards. He's given me permission to post it (below).

Noorbaksh is careful to indicate that this prognosis is speculative. But a lot of things going on in Iran are sufficiently fluid and murky that I suppose it can't be ruled out. So Noorbaksh's analysis is worth considering. And if something like this actually happens, you read it here first. (Unless, of course, you already got this rumor from another source.)

Watching and waiting,
Jeff Weintraub

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[Mehdi Noorbaksh: June 25, 2009]

There is a possibility, and I am saying a possibility, for a compromise on the election result among the involved parties in Iran in the next couple of days. I received a call from Iran late last night indicating that there is a possibility for a runoff between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. There are a few points that we should consider in this context.

1. The Guardian Council all but acknowledged election irregularities a few days ago and indicated that it involved 3 million votes. This body did not restrict these irregularities to a few thousand or even a hundred thousand votes, but millions. That was a face saving gesture to open the door for a possible future compromise in the event of mounting pressure. There are other irregularities having the same nature. Many districts, up to 170, show voter turnout of 95% to 140% of the eligible voters.

2. Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian parliament, is trying to convince the leadership on the side of the supreme leader to give national TV time to Mousavi to talk to the Iranian people. In his TV talk a couple of days ago, Larijani was critical of the Iranian national TV for not allowing Mousavi to use that medium of communication to talk to the Iranian people. He also announced that a few members of the Guardian Council were biased toward one candidate, namely Ahmadinejad, in the election.

3. There is report that Rafsanjani has succeeded to get the signatures and support of many of the high clerics in Qom denouncing the election. If they openly denounce the election that could be a colossal blow to the supreme leader, and the much diminished legitimacy of the institution of Velayat-e Faqih and his authority.

4. The Guardian Councils’ investigation of the vote fraud has been extended, possibly to gain more time in negotiating a solution to the conflict.

5. There are reports that divisions within the Revolutionary Guard are beginning to surface. There is speculation that one of the commanders, Afzali, has either resigned or been abdicated from his post.

6. Rallies are expanding in many other cities of Iran, and street demonstrations have not been diminished in Tabriz, Isfahan, Kermanshah and other cities. Although the size of the demonstrations is smaller, they are more violent and forceful.

7. The killings of demonstrators will definitely result in more defiance and bolder actions of the protesters and gain more legitimacy for the green movement and its leadership. More killings will definitely delegitimize further the supreme leader’s authority. Imposing a government, after mass killings, on the Iranian people is a much more difficult task.

Mehdi Noorbaksh
Associate Professor of International Affairs
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

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