Every Which Way But Lose
by MEA CYRUS in London
07 Dec 2009 23:10
[ analysis ] Iran's controversial presidential election left a thorn in the government's side, and few signs indicate a return to calm in the near future. A running "calendar battle" is prompting protestors to use every opportunity to pour onto the streets in Tehran and other major cities. These demonstrations do not indicate an immediate threat of regime change, but this persistent trend is nonetheless shaking Iran's political and clerical structure.
Baisrat, a website belonging to the representative of Iran's Supreme Leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has warned of five emerging fault lines now threatening the Iranian government. Two such fault lines have directly resulted from the recent presidential election. One is the "rift between clerics and velayat-e-faqih," the position of Supreme Leader, and the other is a "rift between the people and the State." IRGC's website has expressed concerns for media platforms used by or provided to opposition clerics. Such warnings are consistent with what some high ranking clerics like Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have predicted, that "people are turning away from clerics and showing more signs of accepting students and academics as their points of reference."
This trend poses a serious dilemma in terms of how to deal with the continued protests. Demonstrations inside and outside universities in Tehran and other cities will only exacerbate the problem.
On the eve of 16 Azar Student Day, many known opposition students were detained. Reformist newspapers were warned about the consequences of "sowing seeds of division." In an unprecedented move, journalists working for foreign news agencies received a text that their licenses had been suspended for three days, a move clearly meant to prevent media exposure. Internet and mobile phone networks were also shut down.
However, protests took place and students expressed their anger and frustration with little fear of the security forces. Mir Hossain Mousavi issued a statement, and while he did not call for students and citizens to march against the regime, the timing and wording of his statement was clear enough to tell Iranians that there was no turning back, and people need to resist in the face of baton-wielding uniform and plainclothes agents.
Security forces are acutely aware of the national and international outcry to the heavy-handed approach following the election. However, nothing has changed in the government's attitude that confrontation and media restrictions are the best options for dealing with protests. While IRGC tactics are as robust as before, Brig General Ali Fazli, commander of Tehran Seye-o-Shuhada division, was quoted as saying IRGC would offer flowers and roses to students on 16 Azar. Reports from inside the Tehran University premises indicated that Basijis chanted their pro-Khamenei slogans in response to slogans used by the opposition students. This cautious approach clearly showed that IRGC, the main guardian of the political status quo, has long been aware of the dead cycle that comes with using harsh tactics.
IRGC's military and political branches are of course dealing with calendar-based demonstrations on an ad hoc basis. Tactics used for dispersing protestors into small groups and not allowing large pools of people to gather in one spot may have been effective in anti-riot terms. But the longer-term issue for the government is the strengthened sense of resistance among the young and old Iranians who seem to have been emboldened by saying NO to the government, no matter what comes their way. Military and security agencies are apparently proud of their record in dealing with protests as there have been almost no fatalities in recent demonstrations. Although this seems true for the time being, inability or unwillingness to find a political solution leaves almost no room for national reconciliation. Hence, the cost for maintaining order is increasing significant for the clerical-military regime.
While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been told not to use any provocative comments like the one he made immediately after the protests emerged, calling protestors "a bunch of rubbish" (خس و خاشاک), other political institutions, especially the Parliament (Majlis) and Expediency Council, have been politically loyal to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader while Rafsanjani's proposals have fallen on deaf ears. While Ahmadinejad and his ministers are kept away from political fights with Mousavi and his supporters, politically orchestrated attacks on opposition leaders are voiced by conservative Friday Prayer Imams in Tehran and other main cities. Conservative media outlets like Fars and Kayhan provide voice to the government, presenting their own version of events which have all the trademarks of a psychological warfare and disinformation campaign.
This state of affairs presents an impasse that the Iranian regime needs to reconcile soon. There are signs of impatience and calls for an end are on the rise. On one hand, Hashemi Rafsanjani, on a trip to Khorasan, repeated his call for a resolution though he insisted that his ideas for a breakthrough remain the same as those he made public in his last Friday sermons. Since then, he has been released from such functions. In Mashad, he warned that the country needs a way out and criticized the narrow-minded approach shown after the election.
Still, there are vague signs that something might happen soon to try to remove the current deadlock. Of course the signs are complex and sometimes contradictory. But since the Supreme Leader called on political factions to refrain from "weakening" political figures, something all observers saw a reference to Hashemi Rafsanjani, some reformist clerics have called for all to rally around the Supreme Leader as a commander-in-chief who has a final say in all areas. The Supreme Leader might have come to realize that he has attacked too many fronts, especially when confrontation with the international community over the nuclear program has suffered from a weakened image within Iran. Such a realization, if reached, is enough to force his move, although it is very difficult to determine how he might adequately address the current disorder when he has clearly taken sides and represents an obstacle himself on the way towards a solution.
The Supreme Leader's public comments about Rafsanjani and some political figures' pleas to follow Khamenei's view might be a sign of change coming, though a weak sign that can disappear relatively quickly. The Iranian system, though quite authoritarian in many respects, has its own inherent safeguards to sidestep what the Leader asks for. That has happened before and so why not again, remarkably if the Supreme Leader has made comments designed to test waters and assess reactions. One thing is for sure though: In my view, he has reached the point of realizing this deadlock cannot carry on much longer. So the system should make a choice, which in its own eyes is a choice between bad and worse!
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau