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The crisis within the Islamic republic

Nearly five months later, the outcome of Iranian presidential elections is still contested. To-date no one has produced a conclusive proof that the results were falsified but there were a number of suspicious indications. One was that previous precedents for release of the results were abandoned – normally results emerged by region, but this time successive announcements were made, on the basis of a larger number of votes counted each time, for the country as a whole – and each time the proportion of each new tranche of votes going to each candidate was suspiciously similar.

The distribution of votes for each candidate, when the final results were out, showed again the same suspicious consistency across rural and urban voting districts. Ditto for those dominated by religious and ethnic minorities. It was as if someone had picked figures for the final result, and had then applied that formula to each part of the country in arbitrary fashion, with the help of a computer programme. Against all previous experience in Iranian elections, there was no significant sign of a swing toward candidates in their home districts: the formula held up even there.

The regime’s handling of the results deepened suspicions that the election was a coup carried out by the ruling group to keep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office.  Several months before the elections, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had made statements supportive of the incumbent that already marked a departure from previous practice. After the election results came out Khamenei spoke forcefully in support of Ahmadinejad’s re-election within a few hours, acclaiming it as a divine judgement. Previously the Supreme Leader had waited until the Guardian Council ratified the result, which usually took three days.

Even before the final results were known, in the small hours of the morning, police and troops were on the streets to forestall demonstrations – another grim novelty. They surrounded the Interior Ministry (from which the results were being announced), and Hossein Mousavi’s campaign headquarters, severely hampering the opposition movement’s communications, and their ability to respond to events.

Some western commentators said or wrote that the outcome of the elections was immaterial because there was little to choose between the policy intentions of the two main protagonists, Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. That missed the point. Mousavi and his reformist supporters were not looking to overturn the Islamic republic. But what had happened was no less important for the fact that they were not following a western-inspired agenda. By rigging the elections (as was widely believed to have happened) the regime had gone much further than it has ever done before in subverting the representative element in the Iranian constitution - and had thereby precipitated a crisis over the very nature of the Islamic republic.  Important figures like former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami were openly critical of what had happened. 


The opposition candidates Mousavi and Medhi Karrubi (the latter a more longstanding and more radical figure in reformist politics than Mousavi) refused to be silenced.  The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was forced to take a more partisan position than ever before, abandoning the notion that his office put him above day-to-day politics.  The demonstrators rewarded him with the chant marg bar diktatur (‘death to the dictator’).

Ever since the revolution the Islamic principle and the constitutional, republican, democratic principle had worked uneasily together, and the democratic element had been eroded.  But now those who had cherished the representative strand, who had believed this to be one of the achievements of the revolution, and that its survival gave some hope for renewal and peaceful change, were faced with the bald fact that it had been snatched away. They were now being ruled under the threat of naked force, under the aegis of a ruling group whose claim to Islamic legitimacy was itself wearing thin.  Several leading clerics were critical of the conduct of the elections while others stayed pointedly silent. The crisis was not just a confrontation between the regime and a section of the populace; it was also a crisis within the regime itself.

In the meantime, the regime blamed Western governments for instigating the demonstrations, and the Obama administration in particular was faced with a sharpened dilemma – should it pursue its policy of détente with a regime that had just, in the judgement of many of its own citizens, stolen an election in such a bare-faced manner? But the logic of engagement with Iran had not depended upon the virtue or otherwise of the Iranian regime, and Obama continued his cautious attempts to engage with the Iranians. This was despite revelations in the autumn that showed that the Iranian government had been constructing another uranium enrichment facility near Qom, and new missile tests.

The elections and their aftermath further strengthened the position of the Revolutionary Guard corps - Sepah-e-Pasdaran. Their close relationship with President Ahmadinejad was well-known, and there were many reports (as in 2005) of their engagement in the election campaign in his interest. But the dependence of the regime on them to face down opposition and keep the ruling group in power was only intensified by the outcome of 12 June.  The role of the Revolutionary Guard in every aspect of Iranian life, and especially in the economy, had been increasing and strengthening for many years. It was emphasised further in October 2009 when a company linked to the Pasdaran paid the equivalent of US$ 8 billion for a controlling share in the state telecommunications monopoly.

The country is looking more and more like a military dictatorship – a tighter and more effective version of what the revolution had brought down in 1979. The diminished prestige of the Supreme Leader means that his office is increasingly dependent on the Revolutionary Guards – but also has enabled other clerical figures to become more prominent in the opposition. After the 12 June elections Ayatollah Montazeri commented ‘what we have is not Islamic republic but military republic’

Despite this gloom, the elections also showed the continuing commitment of young Iranians (despite previous indications of nihilism and despair) to the principles of justice and constitutional government, in an Iranian Islamic context that their predecessors have been struggling for since 1906. There is no reason to think that they would give up on those principles. The even longer history of the profound Iranian distaste for unjust and oppressive rulers gives hope that they will ultimately prevail. So Supreme Leader, please watch out!

Michael Axworthy is the author A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind and teaches at Exeter University.

 Also carried by New Indian Express, 12 November 2009

 As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND.
Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy