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Week of 6.19.09

Was There a Coup in Iran?
By Babak Rahimi

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.

Read his pre-election essay: Inside the Iranian Elections

Iran election unrest
Credit: Hamed Saber
"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.

Viewer Comments

Commenter: Emeka Nnaji
No sane person will be a fan of Ahmadinejad, but clearly, if you are going to pass some article as a balanced piece,you have to do better than this. I am not Iranian, but I am interested in getting an accurate reflection of what is going on there. We do not want another drum beat that led to the debcle in Iraq.

Commenter: Theo
What is happening in Iran today is what AMERICANS should have done when BUSH stole the first election in FLORIDA. And stole the second election in OHIO.
I guess both GORE and KERRY were just wimps and AMERICANS were too busy shopping, and democracy became a joke.
How many people including journalist were beaten, and jailed during the Republican conventions in 2004 and 2008?

It is nice to see ordinary people in Iran fighting the establishment. Americans, wake up because you are not free.

Commenter: CurlingRiver
Do what's best for you - stay or leave. I think by now, we have a pretty clear idea what's happening. And we'll be able to tell from a distance whether any change has occurred. So, if you must leave, thanks for your work so far. Please take care of yourself and your family. Best to all.

Commenter: Babak Rahimi
Neda's death was extremely painful to watch on TV.
Last night I saw a number of Basiji militia men standing in the Vali Asr square. Tehran looks scary these days.
Can't wait till I return to US.

Babak in Tehran on June 23, 2009

Commenter: JoAnn Witt
I wish there would be a revote, with objective monitors----that would not include anyone from the U.S.. The U.S. has enough problems with voting, also.

This would foil attempts from outside to influence the election. I just don't trust the U.S. to not be involved, somehow. Iran has a lot of oil, and Mousavi, a conservative in the past, now talking about negotiations regarding nuclear development, just doesn't sound like someone looking after Iran's interests. I want to know where Mousavi got his campaign money.
With Israel having nuclear weapons and being trigger happy, Iran should not cave on nuclear energy.

I don't approve of women having to be so covered up, and I must say why Iran isn't afraid of who might "be under there" is a mystery to me. Anyone could be going around "under there." But this is a social matter for a different battle.

Commenter: Ben Tremblay
I just ReTweeted "Official stance / statement by Assembly of Experts supporting Supreme Leader not signed by all members."

Where is Rafsanjani in all this?

Commenter: Jeanne Sansbury Bell
How can those of who use Twitter aid the flow of information into, out of and in Iran?

Commenter: Ana Kirola
We are all witnessing history here. Iran's future has spoken. We are praying for you and are spreading the word out. Believe me, you have a strong support system in the wrld. Insha Allah things will work themselves out. God Bless You All!

Commenter: Desi Escobedo
Free Iran now! The good people of the world support and pray for your struggle. God bless you.

Commenter: Babak Rahimi
Here's the situation: it appears that the Revolutionary Guard was in full force present in the streets of Tehran. Thousands of those who showed up early to the sites of demonstrations were separated off and surrounded by the Guards, police and the Basijis, while the latter groups, who arrived later, were also surrounded. I hear that some have been wounded, though no reports of any death.
Divide and rule was the key tactic used by the state police.
Also, Mousavi was present at the demonstrations.
He has, apparently, announced his willingness for "martyrdom," a major symoblic act of defiance after Supreme Leaders' speech.
A semi-state of martial law seems to have ascended on Tehran.
I forsee major crackdowns in the next couple of days.
Will keep you updated.

Commenter: david doherty
I can't help but admire the Irainian people and think if we in the USA had half the back bone as the Irainians, when our dirt bag stole his election
from Gore, perhaps we could have Obverted the whole Iraqi mess, the finacial meltdown, healthcare crisis, hell we probably would have foiled 9/11, because we would of have had an administration that would/could read the intelligent reports and seen it coming.

Commenter: Reuben Brand
As a freelance journalist, and having spent the first part of the year living and working in Pakistan, this piece reminds me of the dismissal of the Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Shariff and his brother on February 25, by the Zardari Government.

The country literally raised hell, and began "the long march" from Lahore to the Capital, Islamabad.

My main point is that people power still works.

Pakistan turned into a police state for a few weeks, but when the people took to the streets and together, in a very load voice said "NO!" the government had little options left.

If the long march had reached Islamabad it would have been total chaos - So the Government decided to take the pseudo democratic way out and re-instate the officials who had been deposed.

The geopolitics of this entire region (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) have become a global fascination - As they are strategically important in the current "war on terror" - A term I loath to proliferate.

Mr. Rahimi is a very brave individual, as he stated in his final paragraph, " I am aware of the possibility of my own arrest," the threat of imprisonment for journalists speaking out in this region is a very real danger.

There should be more writers of this ilk who tell the stories other wont.

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