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The Leaders of Iran's 'Election Coup'

18 Jun 2009 12:1429 Comments
CLINTON IRAN

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders chant slogans during their meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not pictured, in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 11, 2007. (AP Photo/ISNA, Rouhollah Vahdati, File)

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 16 June 2009

The rigged presidential election in Iran -- a coup d'etat, according to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a spokesman for the main reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, and other analysts -- has prompted protests both inside and outside Iran. There is, however, little understanding about the ideology and motivation behind the operation.

The coup leaders represent the second generation of Iran's revolutionaries. They tend to be in their early to mid-fifties, so they were young at the time of the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. They all supported the Revolution, and most of them joined Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) almost immediately after the Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime in February 1979. They fervently supported the young revolutionary government, and then fought two fierce wars in the 1980s under the command of their clerical masters -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Hojjatol-eslams Ali Khamenei (the present Supreme Leader) and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the former President), and others. [Hojjatol-eslam is a clerical ranking lower than an ayatollah.]

The young revolutionaries fought against far better financed Iraqi forces for eight years, expelled them from all of the Iranian territory occupied by Saddam Hussein's forces, and ended the war in a stalemate, which was a great achievement for Iran considering its international isolation while Iraq was supported by the West and the Soviet Union.

Domestically, the young revolutionaries fought a bloody war with the forces of Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), an armed Islamic leftist group that had fought against the Shah's regime. After the MKO began assassinating Iran's revolutionary leaders in June 1981, the young revolutionaries and the IRGC waged a bloody battle with them as well, executing MKO members and sympathizers by the thousands, and forcing them into exile in Iraq, where they collaborated with Saddam Hussein's regime in its war with Iran.

At the same time, exploiting the threats to Iran's national security as their excuse, the young revolutionaries helped their clerical masters impose extreme political repression in Iran. All of the independent newspapers and publications were shut down, and almost all political groups were banned, save those that were subserviently loyal to the clerical establishment.

The result of the repression was the effective elimination of all secular groups from Iran's political scene. At the time, there was no great resentment expressed by the population at large. The country was at war with a powerful external enemy supported by the West and the Soviet Union, while at the same time, the MKO was also carrying out assassinations internally. But the elimination of the secular political forces was a terrible blow to Iran's political development.

After the war with Iraq ended in 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed in the summer of 1988. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed away in June 1989, and Iran began to gradually recover from casualties, both economically and politically. The economic reconstruction was led by Mr. Rafsanjani, then president.

The young revolutionaries then broke off into two camps, generally speaking. In one camp were those who believed that the country needed a political opening and a relaxation from the extreme repression that existed in the 1980s. This group included not only those who had fought the war with Iraq, but had also carried out the fight with the MKO. Many of them were members of the intelligence apparatus, which gave them a realistic assessment of what the country's needs politically. Members of this group were mostly Islamic leftists, and were instrumental in the birth of the reform movement in the 1990s. They are still active in the reformist camp, and include such prominent reformists as Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, Mohsen Armin, and Dr. Ali Reza Alavi Tabar, all leading reformist strategists.

The young revolutionaries in the second camp remained within the ranks of IRGC. By the early 1990s, they had risen up to command important positions within the Guard. People such as Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the top IRGC commander; Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the head of the IRGC's political directorate; and Brigadier General Ali Reza Afshar, the deputy Interior Minister, belonged to this group. Some of the second-generation revolutionaries of this camp joined the government, including Ezatollah Zarghami, who runs the Islamic Republic National Radio and Television, and Mr. Ahmadinejad. These were the right-wing revolutionaries.

The death of Ayatollah Khomeini had another long-term consequence whose effect is felt today. His death allowed the ultra-right reactionary clerics to gradually make a comeback in Iran's political scene. Such clerics belonged to the Hojjatiyeh Society. Founded in 1954 by Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi as an Islamic organization opposed to the Bahai faith and the Sunni sect of Islam, the Hojjatiyeh was penetrated by SAVAK, the Shah's dreaded security agency in the 1960s and 70s, which used it as a buffer against the spread of Communism in Iran.

Hojjatiyeh members believe, as most Shiites do, that the Mahdi, the Shiites 12th and last Imam, will come back some day to save the world from corruption. But, they also believe that they should "prepare" society for Mahdi's return. In the early days of the Hojjatiyeh, its adherents believed that a chaotic society would provide the best conditions for the return of Mahdi, a view that is rejected by most Shiites.

The Hojjatiyeh did not participate in the 1979 Revolution. In fact, it also actively opposed it. At that time, they believed in group leadership and, therefore, they also opposed Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of Valaayat-e Faghih (governance of the Islamic jurist), which is the backbone of Iran's Constitution and bestows upon the Supreme Leader most of the constitutional power. Thus, Ayatollah Khomeini banned them in 1983 and said famously about them, "they cannot even run a bakery, let alone a country." Hojjatiyeh went underground and patiently waited to make its comeback.

When the Hojjatiyeh started to make a comeback in the 1990s, its member no longer used that name. In fact, some of them even denied that they belonged to the Hojjatiyeh. Instead of believing in a chaotic society for the return of the Mahdi, they began advocating an Islamic Government led by an unelected Supreme Leader, rather than an Islamic Republic. Their present leader is Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a hard-liner who has openly opposed any elections. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi issued a Fatwa two weeks ago saying that if the achievements of Mr. Ahmadinejad in spreading Islamic values around the world, it is proper to do what it takes to re-elect him, implying that fraud and cheating are allowed (a view which has been rejected by other Ayatollahs). He once said, It does not matter what people think. They are ignorant sheep.

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi believes that sovereignty does not reside with the people -- it resides with God. He also believes that the Supreme Leader is selected by God and is Mahdi's deputy in his absence. In his opinion, the task of the ayatollahs in the Assembly of Experts (AE), a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and monitors his performance (and can even dismiss him), is to discover who the selected Leader is. He believes people must never question the Supreme Leader and obey him absolutely. He is currently a member of the AE. Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami has referred to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's followers as shallow-thinking traditionalists with Stone-Age backwardness.

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's base of power is the Haghani seminary in Qom that was founded in 1964 under the name Montazeriyeh seminary; it was renamed after Mr. Haghani Zanjani, a wealthy merchant with connections to the Hojjatiyeh, endowed the seminary. His disciples include the Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei (a graduate of the Haghani), Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh (a senior aid to Mr. Ahmadinejad), and Mr. Ahmadinejad himself. In fact, all of Iran's Intelligence Ministers since the 1979 Revolution are graduates of the Haghani.

After Ayatollah Khomeini's death, in order to create a political cover for himself and his followers and counter the accusations that he had opposed the Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi also founded the Imam Khomeini Educational Institute in Qom -- even though he opposed the Ayatollah and had turned down the invitation of his students to join the Revolution -- and publishes a weekly, Partow-e Sokhan. He is the spiritual leader of many of the top commanders of the IRGC. The Basij militia, a paramilitary group controlled by the IRGC, has also been deeply penetrated by his disciples as well, as has been the Judiciary. Ayatollah Khomeini's chief of staff, Ayatollah Ahmad Tavassoli, said after the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 that, "the executive branch of the Iranian government, as well as the troops of the IRGC, have been hijacked by the Hojjatiyeh."

Ever since he was elected the President in 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly spoken about the "Islamic Government of Iran," rather than the "Islamic Republic of Iran," as well as the return of Mahdi, hence advocating Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi's views. Followers of the Ayatollah make up an important segment of Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters. He has also repeatedly accused Mr. Rafsanjani and other first-generation revolutionaries of being corrupt, and has claimed that he knows of thousands of corruption cases, mostly pointing to first-generation leaders, although he has never ever presented any concrete evidence. Thus, he has been sending signals of what is to come (see below).

In Iran the elections are supervised by the Interior Ministry. There is no independent organization for the elections. The Interior Minister, Mr. Sadegh Mahsouli, and his principal deputy for the elections, Mr. Kamran Daneshjou, are both close aids and friends of Mr. Ahmadinejad and former commanders in the IRGC. Many of the provincial governors who also play important roles in the elections are former military men. Mr. Mahsouli had actually come out in support of his old friend.

Ever since General Jafari was appointed the top commander of the IRGC, he has been warning against internal dissent and internal "enemies," clearly implicating the reformist/democratic groups. He even re-organized the IRGC to better respond to domestic disturbances.

In the last week of the campaign, signals started emanating from the high command of the IRGC that it was not happy with developments. General Javani warned on June 8 in Sobh-e Saadegh (True Dawn), the weekly published for the armed forces, that the high command of the IRGC considers the campaign of Messrs Mousavi and Karroubi tantamount to preparing for a "velvet revolution." He warned that the IRGC "will kill it [the velvet revolution] at its inception." Kayhan, the newspaper that acts as a public mouthpiece for the IRGC/security forces, also warned of a colored revolution. This was a clear signal something was being planned behind the scenes to prevent a victory by a reformist candidate. The leaders and ideologues behind the election coup were none other than second-generation revolutionaries, mostly from the IRGC, whose spiritual leader is Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

The goals behind the coup include the following:

The first goal is to purge first-generation revolutionary leaders (with the exception of Ayatollah Khamenei). The main target here is former president Rafsanjani, a powerful politician who heads two important Constitutional bodies, the Assembly of Experts (AE), and the Expediency Council that arbitrates the differences between the Majles (parliament) and the Guardian Council. Also included in this group are Mr. Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a mid-ranking cleric, former Speaker of the Majles, and a strong critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad; Mr. Mahdi Karroubi, the second reformist candidate in the election and a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini; and Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist candidate, and Iran's Prime Minister in the 1980s.

Why do they want them out of the scene? For three reasons. One is that the coup leaders consider themselves -- and rightly so -- as the saviors of Iran. They are the ones who fought Iraq for eight years. Secondly, at least part of the IRGC high command wishes Iran to be in a perpetual revolutionary state, but believes that the first-generation of revolutionaries have sold out the ideals of the 1979 Revolution.

In his "victory" speech on Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad never once mentioned Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic, or even Ayatollah Khamenei, his main supporter. The significance of the intentional omissions should not be missed. Just as Joseph Stalin and Deng Xiaoping kept Vladimir Lenin's and Mao Zedong's pictures everywhere, they always acted in the opposite way of what they appeared to be advocating; Iran's second-generation revolutionaries will keep Ayatollah Khomeini's pictures everywhere, but will act against his teachings, including his most famous saying,

The scale [for people's acceptance of a politician] is people's vote.

The second goal of second-generation revolutionaries is moving the country closer to an "Islamic Government," and further away from an "Islamic Republic." This is done by making elections a meaningless process by resorting to any means available, including rigging and manipulation. This move has marginalized reformist and democratic groups in Iran.

The third goal is to start preparations for the eventual successor to Ayatollah Khamenei. He is known to be ill. By accusing Mr. Rafsanjani of corruption, the second-generation revolutionaries wish to eliminate him -- the head of the Assembly of Experts appoints the Supreme Leader -- as the natural successor of Ayatollah Khamenei, hence paving the way for Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi who is a member of the AE. Everything appeared to have been planned well in advance, but the coup leaders did not expect the people to stand up to them.

Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, the IRGC has penetrated important sectors of Iran's economy, and is rapidly developing a monopoly on a majority of a wide range of government projects as well as the private sector. On the other hand, Mr. Rafsanjani and his associates also have extensive economic activities and interests. They also favor foreign investments in the country, whereas the IRGC opposes it because it cannot compete with modern technology and planning.

This is a pivotal moment in Iran's history. If the reformists and the Iranian people cannot reverse the outcome of Iran's rigged elections, Iran will enter a dark period of dictatorship, with no light at the end of the tunnel. The country will be controlled completely by the military/security forces, with an unelected Supreme Leader as its titular head, and no elections (or extremely meaningless ones). This would be a terrible development for the rest of the world as well.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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29 Comments

Thank you for one of the most informative and important articles I have read on the situation. Excellent work.

Houman H. / June 17, 2009 1:02 AM

Wonderful article! Thank you, as a Canadian I'm very interested in what is going on in Iran. I'm aware that the politics are very convoluted and confusing, and appreciate this primer immensely. I very much hope that the Persian nation can once again reclaim its former status a great nation of the world, and be a modern, progressive, free and open society that can become the shining example for the Islamic world to follow. With Iran attempting to acquire nuclear weapons and a space program to deliver those weapons anywhere in the world it is not an overstatement to say that the future of global civilization is at stake with the struggle of the Iran people to free themselves from Islamofascist dictatorship. The world is watching and we are behind your noble and brave efforts. Future generations will look at this moment as a heroic time. Best of luck to you all!

DM / June 17, 2009 1:59 AM

best analysis of current situation... but if you look closely at the faces of the revolutionary guards on top of this article, it is obvious they are no revolutionaries but semi fat cats who ambition to become full fat cats

ulysses / June 17, 2009 4:27 AM

This posting has more information in it than I have gotten from the media during this entire affair. Thank you for your intelligent analysis, much needed and much appreciated,

JustAJoe - Pasadena USA / June 17, 2009 6:34 AM

I can say sincerely that this Mousavi is NO reformer. This guy ruled in times of war 1981-1989 and your country lied in ruins during this sad times and the war lasted about 8 years. For God sake, who has said that this guy will change something for good in your country. The only thing which he can do is giving national resources and prosperity to foreign concerns to have profits fom himself and his friends and weak the country.

Ilo / June 17, 2009 6:57 AM

Thanks for this sum up,


I didn't know much about Iran's history, now I know a bit more

running / June 17, 2009 7:23 AM

This Mousavi is NO reformists-it is real old clique and regime. It is the old clique who wants to regain the power and ruin this your country what he did not manage to the end in years 1981-1989. But it was very, very poor. Stop to be really stupid and bow to mindless propaganda. There are two factors which forces psychoes from usa to generate these mindless riots - will of robbing natural resources of your country and increasing the prises of oil - some big corporation must pay something for us government then they want to sell their products more expensive.

Of course that everybody would elect this present president Ahmadinejad and this election was not falsed. It cannot be that a 30% minority of blockheads will terrorize the whole country- Where is your vote - it was counted up but it was only 30% of people who voted for this Mousavi because it seems that majority of this Iranian society has brain in head not hay. When usa supports and promotes its systems so much because it is the work of this sick reptilians - then let usa explain how this system looks like in reality - mindless, plundering, occupying invasions in mindless wars, war crimes-hundreds of tousends of people dead in your neighbourhood, the whole countries which were destructed by usa, all these people who sit without charges in american concentration camps - apogeum of american regime, financial crisis - Unemployment which grows more and more, corruption, rebirth of rascism and nationalism, and this ,,big ,, prosperity of usa? About 28 mln of unemployments and it will be worse and worse, hundreds of tousends of people who live on the streets because mortgage crisis. And all this western world looks just like it. Money pumped in mindless wars - crime against humanity and ruining of another countries, dirty streets, unemployed and homeless on the streets-it is just this proamerican big system. Do you want this thing? maybe you know many things because you have not seen much things in your lives.

Iwon / June 17, 2009 7:27 AM

"Why do they want them out of the scene? For two reasons."


Could there also be a third, economic factor to the rivalry, namely the clash of vested interests of IRGC-linked companies with those of Rafsanjani and co., who favour opening up the economy to foreign trade and investment?

benedict / June 17, 2009 9:08 AM

Excellent article. Sheds a lot of light. Thanks

ben / June 17, 2009 9:28 AM

Really informative post - lots of deep background and a new perspective on events. Good luck to the people of Iran and down with Yazdi!

jim abu dhabi / June 17, 2009 9:37 AM

An extremely interesting and informative article. when I read things like this I wonder why our on air media cannot inform and educate people like this. Or even our newspapers.

Luckily, Andrew Sullivan had a link to this.

I have been trying to understand the whys of the coup and what the objective was. A dictatorship with a cleric as a figurehead and the military to enforce and repress.

It is sad to even contemplate the Iranians, with their highly educated population and curiosity, their sophistication and their great history to end up being brutally repressed I especially find the further suppression of women to be alarming if this coup succeeds.

I wish we all could let the people in Iran know that the world is following this and stand with them in spirit.

vwcat / June 17, 2009 9:56 AM

It does not matter what you think of Mousavi; if he won the election the people should have him. That is a Republic. You sound like George Bush: we cannot have all our freedoms because the Muslims want to attack us. We know those old tricks of blaming everything on foreigners.


Don't blame your problems on us. Grow up and look in the mirror. 40 million votes cannot be counted by hand in 3 hours. Why not just admit you want a dictatorship and stop playing games.

Lexcordis / June 17, 2009 10:52 AM

Excellent article giving good insight into Iran's internal religio-poli machinations.


The last few paragraphs paint a picture of a political situation similar to that of the US in 2000 when Bush stole the election with the help of his brother and the Supreme Court...

Ky / June 17, 2009 10:54 AM

IWON - You're an idiot and a mouthpiece for anti-Mousavi propaganda, and you can't spell worth a damn.

The_FNG / June 17, 2009 11:00 AM

This was an excellent article-- I very much appreciate the clear and interesting explanation of some very important backstory that is glossed over in even the best Western media. Here's hoping you and yours are victorious and safe.

Townleybomb / June 17, 2009 11:50 AM

Iwon, please, stop being so ignorant and thinking everything relates to USA. This has nothing to do with USA. These riots are NOT generated from USA, and once again stop thinking USA has to be involved in every issue around the world.


These people are risking their lives, fighting for their freedom. Simple things you take for granted in USA, these people struggle with everyday. People are just fed up with the government controlling and policing their everyday life. They are tired of the isolation from the international community and the general perception they have in the west. This is completely different.

SE / June 17, 2009 12:11 PM

Ulysses: The next time I chat with them, I'll tell them to go on a diet to make you happy. I'll also ask if they will please, please stop building a nuclear bomb.

Peter Shalen / June 17, 2009 12:27 PM

Thank you for the article. It is good to know more about them and how thing going between them.

Roxana / June 17, 2009 12:46 PM

Thanks for this, it helped clarify my thinking on the subject quite a bit.


Clearly, this is about far more than whether or not Mousavi is a reformer. It's about whether or not Iran gets to have elections at all.

Demosthenes / June 17, 2009 1:53 PM

Mr. Sahimi


Fantastic article, very well written and right to the point. It just all make sence. I sent the link to all my friends. You made very important points that helps understand some of the clashes between forces inside Iran.

Babak / June 17, 2009 2:21 PM

Brilliant! Thank you.

Iain D. / June 17, 2009 2:46 PM

Dr. Sahimi,

Why not publishing this master piece in NY Times?

This is the best analytical article I have ever found on the complex issue of hazy network of power in Iran. Fantastic Job!

Yeki az bacheha / June 17, 2009 6:05 PM

Shame on the Iranian Religious Leaders..

Their "FAKE" Government, ALL Security Forces,

All who have shed the blood of those citizens protesting peacefully for their human right to Freedom and Fairness.


They will ALL eventually answer to GOD!

His fury will be 1000 times Greater than their Evilness, Stupidity, Ignorance and Greed.


God be with ALL of those pursuing a Peaceful March for what is rightfully theirs.


America stands behind Prays for and supports you in this struggle.

ShameOnKhamenei / June 24, 2009 10:36 PM

Ahmadinejad's FRIENDS are the election supervisors?? And the commander of the IRGC pretty much came out and said reform wasn't going to happen? And they expected Iranians to believe the election wasn't rigged? Talk about insulting the people's intelligence.

Heidi / June 25, 2009 12:40 AM

very useful and insightful analysis for anyone seeking to better understand the dynamics of the on-going contention in Iran.

Baba Aye / June 25, 2009 12:40 AM

It looks like they've calculated properly. The general public in Iran doesn't seem to beleive that the protests are genuine, and since the Supreme Leader is a religious leader, they have faith in him. The Islamic Republican form of government, I think, doesn't have any way to counter the above described coup, the AE is supposed to be a check on an improper Supreme Leader, so control of the AE gives control of the country, there is no mechanism for popular support itself to remove a Supreme Leader, and there is a built in mechanism for the public to always support the Supreme Leader since he is a Holy Man.


Looks like there's practically no way to reverse the trend internally, and there is no way to force regime change externally. If the government is able to suppress the demonstrations, I doubt that the West will but strong sanctions on Iran (like, say, putting an embargo on their oil exports), and even if it could Russia and China would still support them. Heck, Iran will almost certainly still be in the UN after all is said and done too. Looks pretty hopeless.

Nygdan / June 25, 2009 10:18 AM

As a member of Baha'i Faith who lived once upon a time in Iran, I came in contact with some members of Hojjatiyeh. Maybe every ideology that is based on hate eventually turns inward and its flame of hate devours its own flash. This article was very insightful. There is also another article (in Farsi) in this link http://www.iran-emrooz.net/index.php?/politic/more/18706/ that suggests how in history, the persecution of Baha'is in Iran paved the way for the persecution of all who seek the betterment of Iran's fortunes..

Peiman / July 13, 2009 1:16 PM

What a load of crap; did you come up with all this crap or some Jews helped you?

Kiumars / September 5, 2009 8:45 PM

khamenei vilaya osizera vilaya

ali zadeh , Tehran / December 31, 2010 5:34 PM