Week of 6.19.09
Was There a Coup in Iran?
Babak Rahimi is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California. He has been in Iran since March to cover the elections.
By Babak Rahimi
Read his pre-election essay: Inside the Iranian Elections
"Ahmadinejad, Iran is not Chile!" is one among many anti-government slogans I have been hearing since Saturday, when the country saw an explosion of spontaneous demonstrations throughout its major cities after the announcement of the election results, seen by many as rigged and, hence, illegitimate. The above slogan captures one of the most significant claims made by the pro-Mousavi supporters, who are composed mostly of affluent northern-Tehrani youth. Their view is that the presidential election was nothing but an electoral coup that was pre-planned and methodically engineered by the security-military apparatus of the state, best represented by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which Ahmadinejad was once a member.
"I cannot believe that they thought we will buy their lies. Did they think we will simply accept this election as legitimate and go home accepting the situation?" an older man explains while reading a pro-Mousavi newspaper at a busy park. An angry young woman from southern Tehran, where Ahmadinejad has allegedly received many votes, reacts to the results by saying, "This is not over at all; my vote was stolen! We will raise hell in this country!"
"An angry young woman reacts by saying, 'This is not over at all; my vote was stolen! We will raise hell in this country!'"
In another passionate remark, an ardent supporter of Mousavi says: "This is an electoral coup! How could we have failed to see this?" For the most part, a mixture of rage and disbelief underlines the emotions of many pro-Mousavi supporters, who earlier assumed their candidate would overwhelmingly win the elections. A level of unease prevails over the streets of Tehran, as many speculate over the actual results of the elections.
Did Ahmadinejad really win this election? If not, was this a pre-planned coup as some are suggesting? Let me explore the possibilities, while keeping in mind that much that can be said about the election results is still open to speculation.
"For the most part, a mixture of rage and disbelief underlines the emotions of many pro-Mousavi supporters."
The official view, espoused by pro-government supporters, is that Ahmadinejad has been and continues to be popular in the rural and provincial regions of the country. He has many supporters primarily because of his welfare programs that target the urban poor and the rural population. With the expansion of huge state subsidies and the distribution of state funds to various provinces, where he has regularly visited since 2005, the president has managed to muster enough support to legitimately claim victory. In many ways, the pro-Mousavi faction has simply misunderstood the force behind the populist campaign of the president that has largely evolved around anti-corruption and social justice.
But we simply do not have hard evidence that the rural regions gave overwhelming support to the current president. And my own fieldwork in the provinces of Bushehr, Khuzestan and Lurestan shows quite the opposite. For example, I have come across major tensions between provincial officials—especially the local Friday Imams—and Ahmadinejad administrative officials based in Tehran. The Friday Imam of the port-city of Asalooyeh, Bushehr, is a case in point. During the president's final visit to the port-city, the local Imam refused to meet the president, an act of defiance which was praised by many locals.
"The level of support for Ahmadinejad [in the rural regions] was considerably lower than I expected."
During my travels in the provinces, I also conducted informal interviews in the rural regions. The level of support for Ahmadinejad was considerably lower than I expected. In fact, I heard some of the most ferocious objections to the administration in the rural regions.
True, Ahmadinejad's populist policies has appealed to many in the working class, but there are also many who are highly frustrated with the regime. During a pro-Mousavi political rally a few days ago, I met and interviewed a number of men from these impoverished sections of southern Tehran, who described Mousavi as the man of the "Mostazafin" or the dispossessed. Clearly, the above observation is not a scientific survey and does not reflect the opinions of the entire country. But there is something here that could challenge the official view that class and provincial-rural voters played a central role in the elections.
"[The theory is] Ahmadinejad and some of his supporters ... have pre-planned a coup through the electoral process."
So was this a coup? This conspiratorial view has become increasingly popular among many pro-Mousavi supporters and some academics studying the elections in Iran. The theory goes something like this: With the support of the Iranian security-military complex, Ahmadinejad and some of his supporters, including hard-liner clerics, planned a coup through the electoral process. In this vision, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to serve as a symbolic leader of the newly formed junta state, but true power remains in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and the intelligence services. The result: a total military-political take over of the middle-aged revolutionary politicians, like the current president, and ultimately sidelining elder revolutionary iconic figures like Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohsen Rezai, Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hussain Mousavi.
What gives credibility to the above theory is the overwhelming evidence that the hard-liner Revolutionary Guard has increasingly become a major economic and military institution in the country since the early 2000s.This may suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a new leadership in Iran, led mostly by non-clerical politicians with support from the military forces and the intelligence services.
"As I write this, I am aware of the possibility of my own arrest."
Perhaps the tremendous sense of anxiety among many Iranians could also provide some clues as to the rise of such a new junta state. Fear of arrest by security agents, dressed up in plain clothes and intermingling with ordinary people, is now prevailing over the streets of Tehran and other major cities. Some of the followers of Mousavi I spoke with worry that they can be arrested at any given moment by the intelligence services, some of whom are pretending to be Mousavi supporters.
As I write this, I am aware of the possibility of my own arrest. Prior to the elections, a suspicious person inquired about my whereabouts from my wife. Luckily, I was away conducting my research. These days, life in Iran is highly unpredictable.
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