Oh What a Mess
by MEA CYRUS in London
26 Nov 2009 01:50
[ analysis ] At a recent security conference in Tehran, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi raised "the need to redefine the Islamic Republic's security atmosphere and interests." No one could have been too surprised when in that context Moslehi referred to "a center" whose members were actively seeking regime change from the inside -- such rhetoric is not new from top military or intelligence officials of the Islamic Republic. But when he went on to say that this center had managed to lure "some figures," he did raise some eyebrows.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's new Intelligence Minister was thinking just like his president. The "figures" he was referring to are politicians and clerics who hold very important positions in the establishment, like Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, a cleric who heads the Supreme Leader's Special Inspectorate Office. Ahmadinejad has raised his name a few times, most famously during June's live presidential TV debates, when he called the conservative cleric and his son's integrity into question.
Ahmadinejad has named others, such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the supposed head of this "center," who is seeking to knock him from power. Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of the Parliament, is another target. A day before Moslehi's speech, Alireza Zakani, a hardliner, said that Larijani had joined the subversive forces during and immediately after the election by implicitly supporting opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Some even say Larijani called Mousavi to congratulate him on his "sweeping victory."
Moslehi's speech, in which he warned of a tactical alliance between internal and external opposition forces, was simply a more clear articulation of arguments put forth by commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In recent weeks, the IRGC has repeatedly spoken of enemy plots and those inside the country who help them with their actions. The IRGC has also started to strongly emphasize the importance of rallying behind Ayatollah Khamenei, a clear indication that the Supreme Leader is feeling the heat from all directions, from some top clerics of the Council of Experts, who can potentially unseat him according to Constitution, or people on the street who chant "Khamenei is a killer," or from a math student who dared to openly challenge him in front of hundreds of students and academics about his handling of the post-election crisis.
Though the clerics' grip on power may appear to be tight, especially given its ability to widely deploy the IRGC and Basij militias, its fundamental weakness lies in the increasing numbers of formerly pro-regime Iranians who have started to ask themselves whether this was the "Islamic Republic" that they were promised. Protesters have already defiantly co-opted long-established state-sponsored slogans, chanting "Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, My Life is for Iran"; shouting "Death to Russia," in response to "Death to America"; or substituting "Iranian Republic" for "Islamic Republic" at the end of one of the most important slogans that started it all: "Neither East, Nor West, Islamic Republic."
This dramatic shift in public sentiment is not something to be easily dismissed. The Supreme Leader has personally objected to it. "What is the real meaning of changing slogans like 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' in recent events?" he asked in one of his speeches after the Qods Day demonstrations. Clearly, he is not pleased.
But neither are the Iranian people. There is increasing disappointment and hopeless at a regime that is showing absolutely no signs of listening to them or willing to address their demands in a more satisfactory manner. There is understandably no consensus among people on how to proceed from here. Those of a more conservative persuasion are worried about the weakening effects of the current crisis on Iran's national interests and its standing in the international community. Grappling with its faltering legitimacy, how will it tackle the nuclear negotiations and handle threats of sanctions or even a military attack, not to mention real or perceived activities of a subversive nature. Those more restless for change say the government has breached the public's trust in such a major way that there is no going back -- enough is enough!
The real decision-makers are aware of this situation and are dealing with the crisis by keeping the opposition from having a unified leadership. That is why security agents quickly rounded up opposition figures after the election and kept them under lock and key, releasing them one by one and only as a result of internal or international pressure. Government tactics seems to have paid off, as Mir Hossein Mousavi is cornered and his activities have been reduced to issuing statements. The next step is to put him on trial, a not-so-remote possibility.
Still, this does not suggest that there appears to be a national consensus to go for regime change, or anything close to it, like a "Color Revolution" as in Central Asia, as the Iranian government so badly frets. There are strong views on both sides and government actions are crucial in making people either change their minds or grow more spiteful.
The government and the Supreme Leader, whose signature can be seen everywhere, are seemingly in no mood to take a more critical look at the situation and still apparently think a harsh crackdown is the only answer. Proposals made by a wide range of politicians from both camps have fallen on deaf ears. The conservative and influential Society of Militant Clergy announced today that it had decided to disband a team it had put together to find a compromise to the current deadlock. Ahmad Salek, a cleric, told reporters in Tehran that "after talks with Bozorgan," or top officials, "the Society of Militant Clergy concluded that there was no need for this team to carry on."
The Rohaniat, as the group is called in Farsi, is very close to both the Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani. Its leader, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, a former Prime Minister, is a highly respected cleric among the top layer of the political elite. If the Society he leads has been told to dismantle its seven-member team, it speaks volumes about what is going on behind the scene and how the Supreme Leader is thinking.
Even other conservative parties such as the Islamic Coalition Society, which has stressed the need to find a compromise, which has spoken in a conciliatory manner about Karroubi and Mousavi, has changed its tone in the past two weeks and escalated its attacks on opposition leaders, calling them "puppets" being played by foreign powers. These groups get their lines from the Supreme Leader, and as their rhetoric shows, Khamenei and the IRGC have made up their minds not to give any ground to the opposition and their supporters among the students and ordinary people.
How telling that 30 years after the 1979 revolution the clerical establishment has come to resemble for ordinary Iranians a dictatorship far more cruel than the regime it toppled. Even establishment clerics like Mahdi Karoubi who spent years in the Shah's prisons, has made comparisons between the Western-propped Shah and "God-appointed" Khamenei. He has even pointedly said, "Don't act this way as the people might start to say 'God bless the Shah.'"
Although some high profile-clerics such as Ayatollah Montazeri, Sanei, Ardebili, Taheri and others have voiced their frustrations, a majority of the clerical establishment has not crossed the government line. Clerics know that the current crisis carries a strategic threat to their own survival, so they support and uphold the Supreme Leader's every commandment. The fact is that the political establishment has long changed the ways in which religious schools and seminaries operate financially, in order to make them increasingly reliant on the government. At the same time, clerics are closely watched and monitored to keep a tight control over what they say. So what Montazeri, Sanei and a few other high-profile ayatollahs say, is not something other clerics endorse, at least not publicly. This silence has taken its toll on the popularity of clerics; historically they were widely regarded to be independent and unafraid of the central government. But as these measures have quietly permeated all levels of the clergy over the years, it's no surprise that their independence has been so compromised.
This is not to imply that there are no signs of unease among clerics in Qom and other holy cities; there are. They may be questioning the current state of affairs, but so far no big cracks have appeared among the rank and file. But even at the highest levels of the political structure, they feel the sting of one phenomenon: the diminished esteem in which the mullahs are regarded. In the words of Rafsanjani, "people are turning away from clerics and seeking (political and general) guidance from students." This warning by Rafsanjani is meant to spell out for the Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment that a climate like pre-1979 is beginning to materialize. Like Ahmadinejad's Intelligence Minister, Rafsanjani is calling for a reassessment of the government's security interests. But the two mindsets are so far apart on what the regime needs to do for its survival that it is hard to imagine that in a fractured system like the current "Islamic Republic" any of them are going to be able to find a quick and secure way out of this mess.
Photos: Principlist MP Mehdi Kouchakzadeh exhibiting passionate disapproval of Ali Larijani, Majlis speaker.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau