Momentum for change in Iran


AFTER last weekend’s depressing events – at least 10 deaths, by official count, on Saturday, followed by nary a whimper of public protest on Sunday – it appeared that the repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran had succeeded once more in trampling on the hopes of citizens disinclined to tolerate any further the totalitarian excesses of a theocratic state.

But appearances can be deceptive. And the unpredictability of what may lie ahead is underlined by the fact that the scale of unrest in the wake of this month’s presidential election took by surprise not only the regime but also its opponents. The momentum thereby generated may yet mark out 2009 as a watershed year. After all, some of the slogans that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have, literally, been shouting from the rooftops – most notably "death to the dictator" – have barely been heard since a momentous popular upsurge drew a line under the Pahlavi autocracy 30 years ago.

However, the fact that the potential alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is personified by the former prime minister of the Islamic Republic who was considered close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini serves as a reality check: a reminder that the present tussle is taking place within the context of the theocracy that replaced the Shah’s odious monarchy. The struggle against that regime was by no means an exclusively Islamist affair: its secular component encompassed a wide range of activists and intellectuals, from liberals to communists.

A substantial proportion of those who subsequently refused to bow to the supremacy of the clergy ended up dead. The remainder were incarcerated or exiled. Mir Hossein Mousavi shares the guilt in this context, notwithstanding the claim that throughout his tenure as prime minister, there were tensions between him and the then president, Ali Khamenei. Mousavi was effectively purged from the leadership after Khomeini’s demise, when Khamenei was elevated – beyond his competence, according to his many detractors – to the level of ayatollah and ensconced as Supreme Leader. It is in that supremely undemocratic capacity that he has endorsed the re-election, by a barely believable landslide, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The impression of factional arm-wrestling has been reinforced by the support extended to Mousavi by two of Ahmadinejad’s presidential predecessors, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, both of them clerics whose supposed reformist tendencies were thwarted during their respective tenures by theological conservatives of Khamenei’s ilk.

Although Rafsanjani – who was trounced by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, and who has been accused of corruption by the incumbent president – remains technically influential as the head of the Assembly of Experts, which can theoretically replace the supreme leader, four of his female relatives were briefly taken into custody at the weekend. This followed unconfirmed reports that Rafsanjani was devoting his energies to rallying fellow Shia clerics at their headquarters in Qom to Mousavi’s cause, and was clearly intended as a warning.

The prospect of the mullahs undermining the basis of their theocracy through infighting, or of reformists gaining the upper hand, is not unpleasant and one would have thought it might particularly enthuse those who are most vociferous in somewhat simplistically characterizing Ahmadinejad as the very incarnation of evil. Wouldn’t the neocons and the Zionists, for instance, rather have an Iranian leadership that’s somewhat less repressive domestically, more tentative in its backing for Hezbollah and Hamas, and disinclined to spasmodically invoke its determination to destroy Israel?

It seems not, primarily because any change for the better in Tehran would discredit their manichean view of Iran. The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv quoted a foreign ministry official’s description of Ahmadinejad as "the best thing that ever happened to us", while a columnist in the same paper told his readers on the day of the election: "If you have friends in Iran, try to convince them to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today. There is no one who will serve Israel’s PR interests better than him."

Dedicated neocons in the US have been similarly inclined, with some of them seeing no contradiction between this cynical stance and criticism of Barack Obama for his pragmatic refusal to take sides in the Iranian dispute. To the consternation of some of his allies, the US president has restricted himself to mild rebukes over the repression witnessed in Tehran – presumably based on the assumption that his administration’s capacity to negotiate with the Ahmadinejad regime would be severely hampered by open support for the opposition, while the latter would be unlikely to benefit from the perception of an American imprimatur.

That Ahmadinejad has deemed it necessary to nonetheless castigate Washington for its "interventionist statements" and to accuse London of provoking the unrest reflects his growing desperation. Such charges clearly have a resonance, given the long history of British and American interference in Iranian affairs. It would be naive to presume that efforts to determine the course of events are a thing of the past, yet to suggest the intelligence agencies of either country are capable of manipulating Iranian public opinion sufficiently to fill the space between Inqilab Square and Azadi Square with a mass of seething humanity is to give them far too much credit.

Ahmadinejad has variously described the protesters as "dust" and as "terrorists", and has relied on the notorious Basij militia to perpetrate violence against Iranians of all ages and both sexes. These are not the utterances and actions of someone confident of popular support. Although the Mousavi camp’s claim that the election was stolen is based largely on circumstantial evidence, Ahmadinejad has lately been eroding his own credibility and legitimacy, regardless of how many votes he secured. Whatever may have occurred on June 12, chances are that a rerun of the election – with strict monitoring of polling booths and the counting process – would yield a rather different result. Which alone more or less guarantees that there will be no repoll.

Many of Mousavi’s better-known supporters claim that he is a changed man and the ideal candidate of these times. "When Khatami was president of Iran, Bush was president of the US," says the renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Now the Americans have Obama and we have our version of Bush. We need an Obama." Mousavi, in his view, fits the bill: "Now he knows Gandhi – before he knew only Che Guevara." That claim ought to be taken with a pinch or two of salt, but it would nonetheless be a shame if the momentum for change demonstrated by the recent mass mobilizations in Tehran were to be squandered – or, worse still, drowned in a bloodbath by Ahmadinejad’s status quo-worshiping allies among the Basijis and the Revolutionary Guard.

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