A Way Forward
23 Jun 2009 22:46
Photo: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 23 June 2003
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered what was widely considered to be a completely polarizing speech on Friday June 19. Speaking at Tehran University, the site of a brutal crackdown a few days earlier, he said that Iran's disputed presidential election had not been rigged, at least not to the extent that it could have changed the outcome. In that speech, he also stated that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views were closer to his own, thereby essentially dispelling any doubt about who he had hoped to see as the next president.
Ayatollah Khamenei went on to chastise the demonstrators' leaders. Referring to Mir Hossein Mousavi and other reformist leaders, the Supreme Leader said the responsibility for any violence or bloodshed would be on them. Instead of quelling the unrest, the Supreme Leader's speech sparked bloody demonstrations on Saturday June 20 during which up to 19 people were killed by security forces and the Basij militia, a paramilitary group controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). In particular, the cold-blooded murder of a 27 year old university student, Neda Soltan Agha, shook Iran and the rest of the world. She has become the icon of the struggle for a more democratic Iran. Since then, Tehran and other large cities have been tensely calm.
The question now is how Mr. Mousavi and the reformists should go forward.
First, any sensible strategy must take into account the realities of Iran and the world today. This is not 1978 or 79; it is not the time of the Cold War when Iran's neighbor to the north was the Soviet Union. The bipolar nature of the international community at that time, and in particular the West's support for Iran and the Shah, guaranteed Iran's territorial integrity. The situation is very different today.
Second, today there is increasing ethnic tension within Iran. Jundallah, a terrorist group based in Pakistan and believed by many to be supported by the CIA and Israel's Mossad, has been issuing separatist statements and carrying out fatal attacks in Iran's southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan. To the west, PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), a Kurdish terrorist group that represents the Iranian branch of the PKK (a Kurdish group that is based in Turkey and has been attacking government forces there for decades), has been carrying out terrorist attacks in Iran from northern Iraq. In the southwestern province of Khuzestan (where most of Iran's oil fields are), there is a small but significant population of Iranian-Arabs who have been restive as well.
Therefore, any action that could lead to large-scale violence would only ratchet up ethnic tensions in Iran. Ever since Princeton University Professor and Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, spoke of exploiting Iran's diverse population for political purposes, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby in the United States have openly talked about the desirability of breaking up Iran. Surely, any large-scale violence and resulting repression would provide fertile grounds for exploiting ethnic tensions, which would threaten Iran's territorial integrity.
Third, this is the first time that two factions within Iran's political establishment are feuding so openly with each other. Important political figures such as Mr. Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have impeccable revolutionary credentials, and have been part of the establishment for the past 30 years. They therefore cannot be easily dismissed by the hard-liners as agents of foreign governments, or as being influenced by the United States -- labels that have been used in the past by the hard-liners to eliminate their foes.
Fourth, fissures have appeared in the ranks of conservatives loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. The Speaker of the Majles (parliament), Ali Larijani, openly acknowledged that a large number of people believe that the election was rigged, an opinion he has said "must be respected." He also repeated the assertion of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi that the Guardian Council (the Constitutional Body that vets candidates, monitors the elections and certifies their legitimacy) has not been neutral, with some of its members openly supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Larijani's deputy, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, stated the same in a television interview. While it is possible that the two are shedding crocodile tears in order to appease some of the moderate opposition and buy time for the conservatives, it is more likely that their statements reflect divisions within the ranks of the people around Ayatollah Khamenei. In fact, Mr. Larijani never publicly endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Fifth, important clerics and ayatollahs in Qom and elsewhere are unhappy with what has happened. Almost none of them have congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad for his "re-election." Such important figures as Grand Ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri, Yousef Saanei, Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, and Lotfollah Saafi Golpaaygani, all of whom were close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have publicly criticized and attacked the results of the election. Even conservative ayatollahs, such as Naser Makarem Shirazi, Abdullah Javadi Amoli, and Ebrahim Amini, have been silent. In fact, Ayatollah Amini refused to lead Friday prayers in Qom after being attacked by supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad. The important leftist cleric organization, the Association of Combatant Clerics, which includes such important figures as Mr. Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoiniha, has strongly supported Mr. Mousavi, and has called for the annulment of the election.
And, of course, Mr. Rafsanjani, an ayatollah himself, a most powerful politician at the very center of the conservatives' attack, is an arch foe of Mr. Ahmadinejad. There have been credible reports that he has been working behind the scenes to convene an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader, has the authority to monitor his performance, and even sack him). We must also remember that during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s Mr. Rafsanjani was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, therefore, has close relations with at least some of the top commanders in the army and the IRGC. Rumors continue to circulate that some of the top commanders of the IRGC have been arrested for opposing bloody crackdowns on protesters and for supporting Mr. Mousavi.
Thus, a sensible strategy for the reformists and Mr. Mousavi is one that focuses in part on dealing with threats to Iran's territorial integrity and national security. The IRGC must be dissuaded from using large-scale violence. Fissures in the ranks of the conservatives and clerics must be used to develop a broad-based coalition. This is possible only if the goals of the protesters are not too lofty and within grasp. (The "lofty" goal of overthrowing the government, for example, is not achievable; it will increase bloodshed, spark ethnic tension, and threaten Iran's territorial integrity.)
The exiled opposition, such as the monarchists and supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), a cult listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, have called for the overthrow of the government. The same groups, which had been calling on the people to boycott the election, are now trying to exploit the situation.
The best strategy for developing the coalition is, therefore, a campaign focused on a narrow goal that is achievable, but also one that opens the door for making deeper and more meaningful changes to the current system. At present this goal is the annulment of the election and holding a new one monitored by objective and neutral observers. If that goal is achieved, that itself will be a great setback for the hard-liners and supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
The annulment would practically eliminate the possibility of large-scale fraud in future elections, and would give a strong mandate, supported by the vast majority of the people, to Mr. Mousavi for making deep and necessary changes to the system, including stripping the Guardian Council of the power to vet candidates; revising the Constitution, giving more power to the president, limiting the power of the Supreme Leader and perhaps replacing the post of the Supreme Leader with a Leadership Council, which is favored by many clerics and influential ayatollahs.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau