Iran elections: Are fists unclenching in Iran?

Iran elections: Are fists unclenching in Iran? June 16, 2009
No peace yet

Whether the recent election in Iran was rigged or not – and evidence is increasingly showing that it was – things are bound to escalate now that official news reports are acknowledging the deaths caused by the government’s response to protests by supporters of opposition candidate Mir Husain Mousavi against the current president and declared victor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Though many are calling this “the new revolution” it may be a bit early to make such a claim. Although the 1999 and 2003 protests fizzled out after a few days, today’s protests are unique in that the people are united around the reformist politicians against a specific action of the largely conservative government. They also appear to be much larger and made up of more than just university students. Though mainstream media has been tepid in their coverage of the events, a different filter exists in some of the live blog feeds from within Iran (you can follow two of the better live blog feeds here and here), all colored by disdain for the elections and sympathy for the protesters.

It is important to note that the government is not a singular, monolithic entity that the people are wholly united in outcry against, as was the case under the Shah. This time, different elements of the government are divided against each other, which adds complexity to the issue. In this multi-layered struggle, evidence of fraud in the election continues to mount – to the point that they have now been acknowledged by a Grand Ayatollah. As the protests get bigger and more violent, the government has to resolve its own internal problems and make the next move in an effort to bring back stability.

Evidence has pointed to deep divisions within the government (two brief examples here and here) over several issues, from the economy to renewing relations with the U.S. Ahmadinejad’s policies have been blamed for a rise in inflation and unemployment, and his behavior hasn’t done anything to help lift the sanctions crushing the Iranian economy. Needless to say, he has made a few enemies.

Take, for example, the precarious positions of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, a former president largely seen as a pragmatic centrist, is the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the only governmental body with the authority to actually dismiss the Supreme Leader and elect a new one. To complicate matters further, Rafsanjani has been waging a very public, bitter campaign against Ahmadinejad’s reelection.

At the same time, Ayatollah Khameini all but threw his full support behind Ahmadinejad during the campaigning, and did so again just after the results were announced. Conversely, Rafsanjani resigned as head of the Expediency Council in protest. Though he remains chair of the Assembly of Experts, there is speculation that he may be doing what he can to secure the votes necessary to dismiss Khameini.

Such a scenario may be unlikely, but this and the other events unfolding now are still very telling. The internal power struggle in Iran’s government has possibly reached a breaking point. During the 1979 revolution, people united around Khomeini and his leadership, and many still believe in the judgments he made regarding who would lead in his absence. But considering the societal changes over the past 30 years, something had to give. Perhaps this is just the time for the Islamic Republic system to readjust itself.

As far as the protesters are concerned, the elections and those behind them are the problem, and not the Islamic Republic system itself. Much of the protesting, similar to 1979, is Islamic in tone: “Allahu akbar” features heavily among the chants that have been heard from the streets and on the rooftops, indicating that this is probably not some kind of secular revolution, but rather a desire for more democracy within Iran’s Islamic framework. Iran’s Shi’a Islamic identity is an integral part of its history and culture, so it’s not surprising that the protests are colored this way.

Still, it has been taboo in Iranian society up until recently to publicly criticize the government. Most presidential candidates haven’t varied too much from each other, or the ones promising reforms were unable to carry them out. As politicians began to openly criticize each other during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, people began to take more of an interest. The subsequent presidential campaigning and debates helped boost voter turnout to 85%, the highest since reformist President Mohammed Khatami’s election in 1997.

Whether Mousavi’s supporters wanted a relaxation of social restrictions, economic policy reform, or even a rapprochement with Western states, it seems that a particular segment of Iranian society was hoping for reform and, having had a small taste of the democratic system, now feel they are being cheated out of it. Time (and perhaps Twitter) will tell how big that division actually is.

As for the American response, Barack Obama is wise to lay low and give the situation a little time to sort itself out. Throwing official U.S. support behind Mousavi at this point would play into Iran’s history of being messed around with by foreign governments. And the possibility that fraud was not involved in the election still must be considered. I spoke recently to a Persian professor who, though no fan of Ahmadinejad, sincerely believes that he was elected fairly. I have since heard from several more Iranians with the same idea. Short of giving Israel the go-ahead to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, there may not be a more counter-productive thing for the U.S. to do at this point.

The most likely result of all this is that either the appropriate levers of government will be pulled and somehow the election is declared invalid, or Ahmadinejad’s win is somehow consolidated and the people are beaten and bruised into submission. In the first case, leaving all the original people in power with a “re-do” scenario puts them back to square one with everyone a whole lot angrier at each other. The latter scenario seems less likely because the increasingly undulating waves of angry human bodies are tough to beat into submission with batons or by calling them names in the state media.

Barack Obama and others may have hoped that Iranian leaders were ready to “unclench their fists,” but few leaders are ever ready to do that. Instead, the world must wait and see who in the government gets their way and, at the same time, keep an eye on how much of Iranian society is dedicated to fighting this election and seeing everything through.

(Photo: Faramarz Hashemi)

Adam Cameron is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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