Thursday - Iran on the brink (Economist)
Developments in Iran move fast these days, so this is already not quite up-to-the-minute. But I recommend it to anyone who wants get a coherent overall picture of the situation heading into this weekend; Rodenbeck pulls together the jumble of events over the past week as well as some of the background to the election itself. This may strike some people as a little long to read on-line, but it's worth it. The coming days will test the analysis it offers.
June 18, 2009 | TEHRAN
Demanding to be counted
An apparently rigged election is shaking the fragile pillars on which the Iranian republic rests
Iranians voted in record numbers on June 12th. Analysts had predicted a close race; hope of change was in the air. So for many, the official result—with a claimed margin of 63% for the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—was a preposterous sham. At first, youths took to the streets in Tehran and elsewhere, lighting fires and smashing shop windows. When these were beaten back, opposition grew. Braving an official ban and rumours of police gunfire, well over a million Iranians took to the streets of Tehran on June 15th, dwarfing a televised victory rally staged the day before by Mr Ahmadinejad. A fractured, demoralised opposition suddenly appeared united, empowered and focused on Mir Hosein Mousavi, the soft-spoken former prime minister who, by the official count, had polled only 13m votes to Mr Ahmadinejad’s 24m. Their protests have continued ever since.
In the three decades since the Islamic Republic was founded, Iran has not been rocked like this. Tehran is engulfed in huge marches every day. Women in chadors, bus conductors, shopkeepers and even turbanned clerics have joined the joyous show of people power. Nationwide strikes are planned.
But the government has struck back. Its men have beaten up protesters and fired on the crowd. Reformers, intellectuals, civil leaders and human-rights activists have been arrested or have gone missing, not only in Tehran but also in Tabriz, in the north-west, and across the country. Since the Ministry of Guidance has expelled foreign journalists, the course of the repression will be hard to follow. And the outcome of this clash is impossible to predict.
The unrest is not, or not yet, about the basic underpinnings of the system created by Iran’s 1979 revolution. Protesters have deliberately dressed modestly, enlisting religious symbolism to appeal to the notions of injustice and redemption that lie at the heart of Shia Islam. It is about feelings, shared on both sides of the divide, that the Islamic Republic has gone astray. The split reflects not only a polarised electorate, but also a deep and growing schism within the ruling establishment.
Iran’s unique system rests uncomfortably on two pillars, one democratic, the other theocratic. The elected parliament and presidency have plenty of power over state spending and investment, but little over national security, including Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. This falls under the aegis of the theocratic branch, embodied by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr Khamenei serves not only as a moral authority but also as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and controls a range of powerful bodies intended to enforce the “Islamic” nature of the system, including courts, state broadcasting and the Guardian Council, an appointed committee charged, among other things, with vetting candidates and monitoring elections.
Today’s upheaval undermines both these pillars at once. Most Iranians believe electoral fraud has occurred on a massive scale. The implications are far-reaching. Extracting the state from the cloud of suspicion that has fallen over it will be tricky. A clampdown by the army and police, with Mr Ahmadinejad brazening out his critics, would wreck the Islamic Republic’s democratic pretensions for good. But this turmoil has not just undermined Iranian democracy; it has also damaged the prestige of the supreme leader.
Most of Iran’s fast-expanding but hard-pressed urban middle class dislike Mr Ahmadinejad. They suspect that his re-election was intended to stamp legitimacy on the grip of hardliners who consider the “Islamic” bit of the revolution more essential than its “republican” part. Among his opponents are pious conservatives, including some prominent senior clerics, as well as liberals who would, if given a real choice, probably opt for a secular state. But even in south Tehran, a working-class area assumed to be for Mr Ahmadinejad, pro-Mousavi voters thronged the streets: a middle-aged woman in tears lest the election was stolen, and a young man who used the only English word at his command to explain his choice: “Freedom”.
Their leaders are figures who, like Mr Mousavi, gained prominence in the early years of the revolution, but have learned pragmatism since. Many are linked to the reformist movement that briefly thrived during the presidency, from 1997 to 2005, of Muhammad Khatami, a smiling cleric whose enormous popularity failed to make headway against entrenched and occasionally vicious conservative opposition. Several of those arrested this week were Mr Khatami’s close advisers.
Men like these see Mr Ahmadinejad’s administration as dangerously incompetent in its domestic policy and recklessly confrontational in foreign affairs. Most ominous to some have been his purges not just of reformists, but also of the wider revolution-era nomenklatura from ministries, local government and universities in favour of people seen as narrow-minded, bullying provincials. This, together with the parcelling-out of rich government contracts to ideological allies such as the Revolutionary Guard, has raised fears that the state is drifting towards a Venezuelan model of demagogic cronyism.
What conservatives dread
The president’s supporters also suspect a coup, but one along the lines of eastern Europe’s colour revolutions. The danger, as they see it, is that Iran’s pure Islamic identity will be diluted by a wave of Western materialism, encouraged by a corrupt elite whose revolutionary ardour has faded. Supporters of Mr Ahmadinejad’s millenarian populism include commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and its larger volunteer auxiliary, the baseej, as well as allies the president has packed into the regular army, police and intelligence services. They are backed by extreme conservatives among the Shia clergy, some of whom say a pious elect, not the people, should rule. Other support comes from the (shrinking) peasantry, pensioners, war veterans and others who have benefited from the spendthrift but scattershot generosity of Mr Ahmadinejad’s government.
The supreme leader, too, who should theoretically remain above the political fray, has frequently signalled tacit support for Mr Ahmadinejad. This means that he cannot easily dissociate himself, as he has in the past, from whatever electoral malpractice there may have been. Not only did he hastily bless the election result, pre-empting its validation by the Guardian Council as the rules require. He also, before the election, described the kind of candidate voters should choose in terms that made it clear he was referring to the president. Moreover, one of Mr Khamenei’s sons is believed to have not only quietly sponsored the president’s rise from provincial obscurity, but also orchestrated his two presidential campaigns.
The first of these, in 2005, also produced credible charges of fraud, albeit on a smaller scale. Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric who ran in the recent election, was narrowly beaten to second place in a first round of voting because of a suspiciously heavy tilt to Mr Ahmadinejad in outlying provinces. This propelled Mr Ahmadinejad, then a political novice, into a surprise second-round triumph against Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president. Mr Karroubi’s protests at the time were quashed by the supreme leader.
This new result looks even more suspect. Before the vote, the president’s rivals had voiced worries about possible fraud. A news report claimed that whistleblowers inside the Ministry of Interior, which organises vote-counting, had warned that it planned to tamper with the outcome. Mr Rafsanjani, still a power-broker as head of two bodies that are meant to adjudicate between branches of government, took the unusual step of firing off a long, heated public letter to Mr Khamenei, declaring that unless the supreme leader acted to ensure a fair vote, trouble would ensue.
Conservatives at the heart of Iran’s “deep state”—that coterie of officials and clerics who are assumed really to be running things—were known to have been disturbed by the sudden snowballing of support for Mr Mousavi. He had at first been seen as a conveniently weak replacement for Mr Khatami, who withdrew from the race in his favour. Particularly upsetting to them was the disregard for public decorum displayed by the young women (“whores of the West” in one baseej newspaper) who joined Mr Mousavi’s rallies. The rigged count itself appeared to many to be a direct response to these fears.
Early on Mr Mousavi, who, supporters say, was tipped off by allies within the Ministry of Interior, proclaimed himself the likely winner. But soon afterwards rolling official results, announced with unusual speed, showed him far behind with only a third of the vote. Suspicions rose further as observers were barred from some counting centres, and the campaign headquarters of Mr Ahmadinejad’s opponents found its telephone lines cut, along with the nationwide text-messaging services they had intended to use to keep an independent tally of the vote. Any remaining doubts vanished on June 14th, as police sealed the headquarters of Messrs Karroubi and Mousavi, placed them under house arrest and detained dozens of their most prominent supporters.
Mr Ahmadinejad certainly has millions of enthusiasts, particularly in areas beyond the scrutiny of Tehran’s chattering classes. Yet the official result still seemed incredible. Mr Karroubi, for instance, had won more than 5m votes in 2005, but now trailed in last place with a mere 330,000 out of the 39m cast, fewer than the number of spoiled or blank ballots. All three challengers were shown to have lost even in their own home regions, despite strong local loyalties and the expectation of state largesse from having sons in high places.
What could explain such an apparently blatant attempt to rig an election that, even had Mr Mousavi won, would have represented little threat to either the republic or its supreme leader? The most likely theory is of a plan gone awry. Given the line-up of institutions either controlled by Mr Khamenei or systematically packed with Mr Ahmadinejad’s supporters, and given that no incumbent president in Iran has yet lost to a challenger, it may have seemed safe to bet on the president’s victory. This would have brought the added satisfaction to many dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, possibly including Mr Khamenei, of weakening the position of Mr Rafsanjani, who has mounted a rearguard struggle to contain the president’s influence.
Just to make sure, strong potential challengers, such as Mr Khatami and the popular, conservative mayor of Tehran, Muhammad Qalibaf, were “persuaded” by the supreme leader not to run. Compared with the ebullient, politically canny Mr Ahmadinejad, the three remaining challengers appeared drab and uninspiring. Mr Ahmadinejad felt so confident that he agreed to an unprecedented series of televised debates. His superior political skills gave him the advantage on screen, but his scorn for his rivals helped stir up a surge of sympathy for Mr Mousavi, dispelling the political apathy that normally pervades Iran’s middle class.
Conservatives suddenly found themselves facing a torrent of youthful activists, their passion for change magnified by the spontaneous but effective use of simple symbols and modern communications. Stunned by this turn of events, Iran’s deep state appears to have opted for a last-minute, and therefore clumsy, attempt to alter the outcome in the president’s favour.
Democracy in the balance
What will happen now? None of the possible outcomes looks good. Mr Mousavi, who, along with Mr Karroubi, has shown unexpected steel in the face of pressure, insists that the only solution is to cancel the election results altogether. “Otherwise,” he says, “nothing will remain of people’s trust in the government and ruling system.” Yet, in deference to the Supreme Leader, the three disappointed challengers have also gone through the motions of a formal protest to the Guardian Council.
This 12-man body, chaired by an ultra-conservative who personally endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad, officially has ten days to investigate the charges pressed by Messrs Mousavi and Karroubi. Faced with the pressure of street protests, it has already, grudgingly, agreed to at least a partial recount of votes. Mr Khamenei has sought to bolster his position by issuing his own call for an inquiry. Yet many reformists fear that the intention is to play for time while passions burn out, and then declare some slight irregularities that do not affect the outcome. As a result, they appear grimly determined to carry on the protests.
Waiting for change
The more immediate concern is that Mr Ahmadinejad may impose a form of martial law. There are already ominous signs of such a move, as arrests of prominent reformists widen, censorship and controls on communication tighten, and feared vigilantes of the baseej lash out with impunity. Given the machinery of oppression at his disposal, Mr Ahmadinejad could probably maintain power by force, though no one can say for sure where the army stands. But force would devastate the image of a state that he exalts as the pinnacle of good governance. Moreover, Mr Ahmadinejad would need the support of the far more cautious, consensus-seeking supreme leader, and this is far from assured.
Mr Khamenei faces a deep quandary. A resolution to the crisis that fails to assuage the huge and growing mass of Mr Mousavi’s supporters would do permanent damage to his regime’s democratic pillar. Few Iranians would ever again deign to volunteer for the empty pageantry of voting. Yet giving in completely to their demands would expose his own weakness and fallibility. Underlying all this is the bitter irony that in its paranoia to avoid a “velvet revolution”, Iran’s deep state has itself engineered precisely the conditions that might make such a revolution happen.