Friday, June 19, 2009

Khamenei's ultimatum

[Click HERE for a Channel 4 video report]

In his first public statement since last Friday's presidential election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered an address to the nation in the form of a Friday sermon. His message was bluntly intransigent and openly threatening. Some highlights from the Guardian's report:

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a stern warning to opponents today to stay off the streets and denied claims that last week's elections had been rigged.

In an uncompromising address at Friday prayers, Khamenei claimed that the high turnout at the elections showed how much the Iranian people supported the regime, and blamed western powers for interfering in Iranian politics, singling out the UK as the "most treacherous".

In a thinly veiled warning to the reformist presidential challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Khamenei said opposition leaders would be held responsible if they did not call for an end to the protests that have rocked Iran since last Friday's disputed election. [....]

"Arm wrestling in the street must stop," Khamenei said. "I want everyone to put an end to this. If they don't stop this … they will be held accountable for all of this."

The ayatollah insisted that it was "natural" for people to support different candidates but that the foreign media was responsible for portraying supporters of Mousavi as opposed to the Islamic revolution.

"Enemies try through various media, and some of these media belong to the Zionists … they try to make believe that there is a fight between supporters of the opposition and the Islamic establishment," said Khamenei. "They have no right to say that, that is not true." [....]

Ahmadinejad and his cabinet ministers attended the prayers, as did the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and senior military officers from the revolutionary guards. Many of those in the audience appeared to be government employees or members of the president's militia. [....]

Mousavi was conspicuous by his absence from Friday prayers at Tehran University, where Khamenei was making his first public appearance since controversially endorsing Ahmadinejad's election as president. [....]

Defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who like Mousavi has dismissed the official election result, also stayed away from the university today.

If there was any possibility that the crisis might be resolved by a deal between different elite factions, Khamenei's speech seems to have ruled it out quite definitively. It already looked clear that the government and the opposition were headed toward a showdown, and this speech will probably accelerate that outcome.

What Moussavi, Karroubi, and the rest of the opposition are demanding is the cancellation of last Friday's election be and a re-run. (For a compact explanation of why anything short of that would be pointless, see this piece by the Iranian human-rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.) Khamenei, for his part, has ruled out any significant questioning of the official results at all.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that both the government and the opposition are boxed into position where it's hard for either to retreat or compromise without risking total defeat. If Moussavi calls off further demonstrations, he will not only be capitulating, but will also demoralize and probably enrage millions of his followers (who may ignore him anyway). On the other hand, unless the demonstrations start to peter out fairly soon--which looks very unlikely--the hard-liners will probably move to end the crisis by crushing the opposition, and I see little reason to doubt that their armed forces will prove reliable for that purpose. Depending on how that's done, it might or might not be a very bloody affair.

Watching and waiting,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. For some further analysis of Khamenei's address, see Gary Sick's impressions here and the piece below.

The Guardian (London)
Friday 19 June 2009
What Iran's supreme leader Khamenei said - and what he meant

The address lasted more than an hour and was split into two sections. The first was principally a theological ­monologue. The second dealt largely with the turmoil gripping the country. Here are the key phrases, and what they mean.

"The competitions have ended. All those who have voted for these ­candidates will, God willing, receive their due reward. They all belong to the revolutionary front … Not just the 24 million votes that have been cast for the chosen president. Forty million voted for the revolution."

Implicit is a declaration that, ­notwithstanding offers to recount votes, last week's result will stand. Despite urging the complainants to go through "legal channels", Khamenei is in effect forestalling the outcome of such moves by presenting the 24 million votes credited to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("the chosen president") as an uncontested fact.

"The legal mechanism for elections would not allow any cheating. Those involved in the election process know this, especially when there are 11 million [Ahmadinejad's claimed victory margin] votes between two people. Sometimes the difference is 100,000, so at the time there might be some doubts. But how can 11 million votes be replaced or changed?"

Khamenei is dismissing out of hand the fraud accusations that triggered the street demonstrations of recent days.

"You should remember the last will and testament of the late imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] – the law determines what should be done. Why are elections held? So that any differences would be settled at the ballot box … not at the street level.

By invoking Khomeini's famous words ("the nation's vote is the final word"), he seems to be implying that Mousavi and Karroubi and their followers are straying outside the limits enshrined by the Islamic revolution, and questioning their legitimacy.

"Street challenges are not acceptable after the election. I want everybody on all sides to put an end to this method. If they don't, the consequences and the riots should be shouldered by those who don't put an end to it … If there are any consequences, it will directly affect the leaders behind the scenes."

These are ominous remarks which appear to warn of a looming crackdown. The "leaders behind the scenes" may refer to the two defeated reformist candidates and – even more significantly – Rafsanjani, who is universally accepted as Mousavi's most important backer.