Where is Iran headed?
08 Sep 2009 13:52
Living in a bubble, increasingly out of touch. Archive photo. By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 8 Sept 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Comment The crackdown on peaceful demonstrators protesting the massively fraudulent June 12 presidential election attracted world-wide attention and unified the opposition to a large extent. It created deep fissures, not only between the people and the political establishment, but also within the conservative camp. A significant number of the leading clerics, including the conservative ones, criticized the aftermath of the rigged election.
The violent crackdown has backfired, as have the atrocious crimes carried out in jails, detention centers (and other locations) ever since: torturing, murdering and raping detainees; arresting reformist leaders, subjecting them to solidarity confinement and applying physical and psychological pressure to get them to "confess" to absurd scenarios that the hardliners dreamed up for them, then putting them on display at Stalinesque show trials; kidnapping innocent people, such as Atefeh Emam, the 18-year-old daughter of Javad Emam, a leading member of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization (IRMO), one of the two top reformist political groups.
The show trials are no longer public, as the so-called confessions failed to convince anyone -- including apparently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- of the "guilt" of the reformist leaders. Instead they generated considerable sympathies toward them, even among a faction in the conservative camp.
In addition to all this, the country is in a highly agitated state. People jump at any opportunity to express their anger and opposition to the hardliners. The best evidence of this is that the hardliners do not even allow any public gathering, even on important religious occasions during the fasting month of Ramadan, which is in process.
It is true that the hardliners are in control, but the control has been achieved by guns and brutal force, and has thus come at a very heavy price: a complete loss of the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of a significant majority of Iranians. Under the leadership of right-wing extremist commanders, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which defended the country during the Iran-Iraq war, has transformed itself into the instrument of oppression and repression; on top of that, its spider-like web of companies have taken control of most of Iran's economy.
Due to the revelation of crimes that have taken place in the jails and detention centers, it appeared for a brief time that the hardliners were in retreat:
First, they acknowledged some crimes have been committed in the detention centers. They were forced to do so when a son of a prominent conservative, Mohsen Rouholamini, a 25-year-old Tehran University graduate student, was murdered in Kahrizak detention center.
Second, Ayatollah Khamenei retreated from linking the reformist leaders to foreign powers, although Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his IRGC supporters still repeat the accusations.
Third, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former judiciary chief, was appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei to the powerful Guardian Council (a Constitutional body the vets candidates for most elections) as a member. Many have interpreted the appointment as the first step for the departure of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative secretary-general of the Council, and an ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad.
Fourth, some of the detained reformists and their supporters, as well as some of the arrested journalists, were released, but the most important reformist leaders remain detained.
Fifth, Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious Tehran Prosecutor-General and the Revolutionary Court Prosecutor, was removed from his positions by Hojjatoleslam Sadegh Larijani, the new judiciary chief. He was appointed as the deputy Prosecutor-General of the country. Some (such as the author) interpret these moves as a promotion for Mortazavi, who is known to have the strong backing of Ayatollah Khamenei. Others, such as Shirin Ebadi, the human rights advocate and the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Peace, believe that the moves represent a demotion for Mortazavi.
For a while these were all minor, but still hopeful signs that the hardliners might be retreating. But now it appears that even if they are, the retreat is tactical not strategic. Over the past week the evidence for the strategic resistance against the Green Movement has emerged:
First, Ayatollah Khamenei began talking about the need for "Islamization" of the universities, particularly revising the curriculum for the social and political sciences. In a meeting with hard-line students, as well as conservative academics, he indicated his displeasure with what he believes is the influence of Western thinking and philosophy on the Iranian educational system. In particular, he expressed alarm over the fact that nearly two-third of Iranian university students sought education in the fields of social and political science.
Second, many university students around the country have been summoned either to court or the Ministry of Intelligence and threatened. Some have been expelled from their universities; others have been suspended. Taken together with what Ayatollah Khamenei said, they represent evidence that the hardliners are prepared to close the universities indefinitely, as they have always been the hotbed of anti-government activities.
Third, Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the top IRGC commander, attacked the reformist leaders, and in particular former president Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, head of the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC), accusing them of plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic by weakening the Supreme Leader.
But the tough rhetoric of General Jafari and other hardliners was met by equally tough responses from the reformist leaders, who did not retreat in the face of the hardliners' threats. Mir Hossein Mousavi issued his 11th statement since the election, in which he accused Ayatollah Khamenei [without naming him] and the hardliners of distorting Islam and violating the Constitution, among other illegal acts, and acting according to their own personal views and whims. Mousavi also said they were turning their backs on the ideals of the 1979 Revolution and eroding morality in society. By quoting a verse from the Quran, he likened Ayatollah Khamenei to the Pharaohs, a most serious religious accusation.
Khatami in turn responded by accusing the hardliners of using tactics used by fascists and those who believe in totalitarian political systems to put down the protests and take control of the country. The language used by Khatami was particularly tough, given the mild manner in which he always speaks. The ACC -- Khatami is the head of its general council and Khoeiniha is its leader -- threatened to take General Jafari to court.
The Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), the largest reformist group, issued a toughly-worded statement (even though most its important leaders are in jail), declaring, "Due to the fraud in the election and the crimes in its aftermath, the IRGC is trying to escape prosecution by making accusations." The IRMO (many of its leaders are also imprisoned) issued another tough statement, declaring that, "What [General] Jafari said is sufficient proof that changes in the vote had [indeed] been engineered."
The Association of Teachers and Researchers of Qom's Theological Schools, a leftist clerical group, declared that, "Preserving the political system cannot be accomplished by the militarization of the country, displaying [sharp] teeth [meaning attempting to frighten people], arresting people, and resorting to inhumane and un-Islamic violence."
Hossein Hashemian, a Majles [parliament] deputy from Rafsanjan (in southern Iran) and head of its Imam Line faction [a reformist faction], used especially tough language to denounce General Jafari: "Due to his military rank, General Jafari has become too arrogant. I regret his rude manner of speaking. As a military man he has no right to intervene in politics. He should be persecuted." He also said that he had received reports that many had resigned from the IRGC over its actions in the aftermath of the election.
It is clear that the reformist leaders and the Green Movement have no intention of retreating. The question is therefore where is the Islamic Republic headed? To answer the question, both sides are confronted by several hard facts.
The hardliners -- or at least those of them who think more rationally -- must consider the following facts:
One is that the Green Movement is like a large tent. It is not a feminist, or labor, or student movement, but encompasses all of them and more. It was not formed based on the charisma of its leaders. In fact, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have very little, if any, personal charisma. Neither is the Green Movement an ideological movement. Rather it is based and built on the accumulated demands of the people ever since the 1979 Revolution, and particularly over the past four years, stemming from demands for a better quality of life, and greater social and political freedom. That is frightening to the hardliners, because it is not easy to suppress such an encompassing movement.
Second, the leaders of the Green Movement -- or at least those who play the most important leadership roles -- have been part of the political system for the past 30 years. It is impossible, despite all the rhetoric and accusations, to convince people that men such as Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami, or those who have been locked up, are somehow puppets of foreign powers.
The third important fact is that those who have shaped the movement are mostly young people. In fact they represent the third generation of the 1979 Revolution. The fact that 70% of the population is under the age of 35, and that the young people of Iran are highly educated, quite sophisticated and well-informed of world-wide developments, only add to the complexity and difficulty of suppressing the Green Movement.
Mehdi Bazargan, the nationalist first Prime Minister after the 1979 Revolution, once said, "This revolution [the 1979 one] was a revolution of the young and very young." Although Iran is not in a revolutionary state, the Green Movement is definitely a movement of the young, even if its de facto leaders -- Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khtami -- are in their 60s and 70s.
Fourth, the hardliners totally miscalculated the response of the people to the election fraud. They did not believe that the fraud would spark such large-scale demonstrations or that the ongoing resistance would be so stiff and lasting. They failed to take into account that Iranians have more than 100 years of historical experience in their struggle for democracy. In particular, they experienced the eight-year presidency of Khatami, and the fact that as he put it, the hardliners "created a crisis for the country every nine days." Thus, they recognize that without putting up a stiff resistance, there may not be a realistic opportunity for deep changes for a decade or two to come.
Fifth is the fact that on many occasions Ahmadinejad and his administration have been totally insulting to people, and in particular the opposition. Since his "re-election" in particular, Ahmadinejad has insulted the Green Movement repeatedly, provoking protests even by the conservatives. Iranian people do not take to such insults kindly; these insults have injured their pride.
Sixth, the Green Movement was formed based on the accumulated demands of the people. But after it failed to force a new election, it developed a new dimension, one that is stripping the government of its legitimacy. This is why the Green Movement has concentrated on making revelations about the crimes that have occurred. This has been recognized even by the hardliners. Ayatollah Khamenei said last week that in his view the problem with the present situation was not the crimes that occurred in the detention centers, but the fact that the credibility of the political system has been hurt.
On the other hand, to be realistic about the potential and chances of success of the Green Movement, its leaders are keenly aware of a few facts:
One is that the most powerful part of the opposition to the Green Movement is made up mostly of the IRGC and the Basij militia. They are armed to the teeth. The IRGC commanders -- at least those who ardently support Ahmadinejad -- are not afraid of bloodshed, having fought in the Iran-Iraq war for eight years. Being military men, they also think of violence as the first solution to any crisis.
Second, the hardliners control Iran's vast oil reserves. The proceeds from oil exports enable the hardliners to be financially independent of the people. The oil also gives the hardliners some international leverage.
Third, in addition to the oil income, the IRGC controls not only a significant part of Iran's official economy, but its underground economy as well. It has become practically impossible for the middle class in Iran to be involved in any major economic activity without having some ties with the IRGC.
But, at the same time, there are also factors that favor the Green Movement:
One is that those hardliners represented by Ahmadinejad have proven totally incompetent in running the country. No major index of economic activity showed improvement during the last four years. To the contrary, inflation and unemployment are at record levels; corruption is rampant; the IRGC and the Basij militia have been given the control of most of the economy; the economy is stagnant; and due to the intervention of the IRGC in all aspects of Iran's economy, not only are the domestic investors afraid of investing in major industrial projects that can lead to employment, foreign investors have stayed away as well.
Secondly, the Ahmadinejad group is totally devoid of intellectuals and deep thinkers who can lead or even show the way to improving the economy. Most moderate conservative experts have fled the Ahmadinejad camp. The composition of his new government, which is totally devoid of any "heavy weight" expert, is highly illustrative of that fact.
Third, within the conservative camp, the Ahmadinejad group is the most extremist. That has alienated even many of the conservative clerics. In fact, with the exception of the followers of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the ultra-reactionary cleric and ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad, the government has managed to insult or upset most of the conservative clerics.
Fourth, even within the very narrow definition of what the conservatives deem as legal actions, the Ahmadinejad group has managed to violate most laws. It ignores legislation approved by the Majles, particularly regarding the national budget; it has dissolved many of the well-established institutions of the bureaucracy, and it has used the budget illegally many times.
Even when it comes to the arrest and imprisonment of protesters and reformist leaders, the hardliners represented by the pro-Ahmadinejad faction act illegally. They have their own jail within notorious Evin prison, whose jurisdiction falls totally outside the judiciary -- even though the judiciary is controlled by the conservatives. So while political figures jailed by the judiciary are held in section 209 of Evin, those who are targeted by the hardliners are jailed in 2-A (2-Alef in Persian), which is controlled by the IRGC. In fact, if a person is jailed in section 2-A, his or her name does not even enter the official prison log.
Given these factors, in the view of many, the political establishment is neither Islamic nor a republic. This was recently expressed most clearly and eloquently by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. In addition to rejecting what the hardliners have done as Islamic or in accordance with the republican side of the political establishment, Montazeri declared that, "Why don't you just declare that the view of only one person is important?" He was of course clearly referring to Ayatollah Khamenei.
The factors that favor the Green Movement have also given rise to the deepest fissures within the conservative camps. These fissures are, in the author's opinion, one of the most important sources of hope and strength for the Green Movement. The hardliners have made it increasingly difficult for many of the conservatives to support them.
So, in summary, here is where the author believes the Islamic Republic is headed: A situation in which the fissures at the top become even deeper, as the hardliners' circle of 'insiders' become increasingly smaller, while at the same time, the anger and frustration of the people rapidly grows.
Unless the hardliners somehow decide to retreat and undertake deep and lasting reforms, the nation is moving toward a confrontation between the unarmed, but determined majority of the people, and the highly armed small minority that the hardliners represent.
It is frightening to even imagine what the result of such a confrontation might be. At a minimum, it would mean incredible bloodshed. But the most frightening possibility would be the disintegration of the country, given the composition of Iran's diverse population.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau