Will the regime survive?
04 Jul 2009 15:21
By GARETH SMYTH in Beirut
Those anticipating the downfall of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and even the Islamic Republic of Iran should note that governments and dynasties throughout history have often survived on the divisions of their opponents.
With their ranks depleted by arrests, the reformists this week reiterated their rejection of the presidential election.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi and Mohammad Khatami thereby expressed support for the Islamic system. For them, it is the alleged manipulation of the election, rather than the subsequent protests, that has weakened the regime.
"A big segment of society has lost all trust in the system, and this is a disaster," explained Khatami, in a comment quoted by the Washington Post.
Interestingly, the reformists' statement was not signed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has allied himself with Karrubi and Khatami since around 2006. Although Rafsanjani's daughter took part in post-election demonstrations and was briefly arrested, Rafsanjani is keeping behind the scenes. He may sense that street protests are now counterproductive and that it's better to bide his time.
There is an even wider disagreement between the reformists and those who want to end Iran's Islamic system.
In 2005 and again this year, reformist presidential candidates have offered "rights" to Iran's ethnic minorities. But this is a far cry from the ethnic-based organizations who want a federal Iran, some of whom -- at least among the mainly Sunni Baluch and Kurds -- use a violence that is anathema to the reformists.
And both the reformists and the ethnic-based groups are at odds with those in exile since the early years of the Revolution.
Royalists -- who now look to the son of the late Shah, Mohammed Reza -- have support within Iran, but it is mainly among older Iranians and based more on nostalgia than the realities of 2009. For Mohammed Reza, there is no difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad.
The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) has long been discredited among Iranians by its violence, alliance with Saddam Hussein and degeneration into a cult. The MEK has used front organizations to project itself as a broad-based opposition but while these have attracted some western parliamentarians they are shunned by Iranians.
What of the states opposing Iran?
For many years they have failed to agree on a strategy for curbing its nuclear programme, much less changing its government or regime. The United States and Britain have led the field in imposing economic sanctions, with European states following with varying degrees of reluctance as Russia and China drag their heels, agreeing some UN sanctions while their state-owned companies move into the Iranian energy markets.
For Iran to play off such divisions is nothing new. Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister who provoked a US-led coup in 1953 by trying to nationalize oil, spoke of a "negative equilibrium" between the powers competing to control Iran.
But, as Mossadegh discovered, such divisions do rule out action. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has identified Iran as the most urgent challenge to the international community. This may serve to distract attention from settlement building and the blockade of Gaza, but Tehran certainly does not rule out talk of attack as mere bluster.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, wrote in the Washington Post on July 2 that "the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable."
"The gulf between the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the citizens of Iran has never been clearer or wider," wrote Bolton, and so "military action against Iran's nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently."
Iran's reformists have long accused the American right of undermining them. They argue that threats to Iran, sanctions, or even funding of civil disobedience, strengthens the fundamentalists.
"To threaten Iran, nearly every day, America is looking for any excuse -- the nuclear issue, terrorism, human rights, the Middle East peace process," Saeed Hajjarian, now in jail, said four years ago. "There are different US pressures but some make the situation here more militarized, and in such an atmosphere democracy is killed."
For western liberals meanwhile, the mass of Iranians -- especially "young Iranians" -- simply want "democracy" and "freedom." Some Americans even hope Iran is on the verge of a popular revolution that will both imitate and somehow reverse 1979.
"The media, academia, NGOs and Western governments aren't involved in a plot," one former Tehran correspondent recently told me. "It's rather the way people who grew up in Western countries interpret what's going on in Iran and tend to wish for societies that are reflections of their own."
In reality most Iranians are not going to risk their lives for change with no clear goal. Historians have long pointed to Iranians' deep-seated fear of insecurity. And Ayatollah Khamenei knows this very well.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau