The Regime's Mousavi Problem
by MEA CYRUS in London
15 Dec 2009 19:42
[ analysis ] Six months into a deep political crisis, a growing set of indicators is emerging that show the Islamic Republic of Iran is so fed up with post-election protests that it is willing to adopt extreme measures to bring them to an end.
As stated by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the country is, broadly speaking, now made up of two camps: "the elites" (students, academics, professionals) on one end, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij and security services, on the other. Though this characterization has been harshly criticized by conservative and radical ayatollahs such as Mohammad Yazdi, a former head of the judiciary, it is a pretty accurate depiction of the fault line dividing the Islamic Republic. Judging from the barrage of incendiary comments from Iranian officials and semi-officials on any given day, there is a growing sense that the regime is no longer going to put up with the opposition.
The opposition's escalating slogans and widening demonstrations questioning every aspect of the regime's values over the past 30 years have started to take their toll on the hardliners. The demonstrators have challenged the very name of the Islamic Republic by suggesting such alternatives as the "Iranian Republic," and even comparing the Supreme Leader to the last monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, by chanting "We said we did not want the Shah, (now) they call him Leader!"
The battle between the clerical regime and its own people has reached a crescendo, especially following the photo fiasco which broke out after Ayatollah Khomeini's picture was torn, allegedly by protesters, then broadcast for special effect on state television. Staged or not, conservatives and Ahmadinejad supporters have moved quickly to exploit it.
The clerical establishment has tried to use the incident to regain the upper hand by inflaming public opinion and turning it against the Green Movement and its leadership -- for this is payback time. From the beginning, Mir Hossein Mousavi delivered a harsh indictment against the regime by placing a photo of Khomeini on his official website without including one of the current leader, much to the consternation of this government and the Supreme Leader. Following the alleged desecration of Khomeini's image, the conservatives believe they had an opportunity to show that Mousavi supposedly had no real respect for Khomeini in the first place. This plot was designed to strip Mousavi of his revolutionary credentials and force him back into submission. But he has remained confident that his supporters will carry on regardless. Ironically, state television ignored the hundreds of pictures of the current Supreme Leader that have been torn or set alight by protesters.
Some clerics like Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam from the conservative Society of Militant Clergy (Jame-e Rohaniat) blamed Mousavi for "providing anti-revolutionary forces incentive to find a leader." By pressing for a cohesive leadership it configures all regime opposition under one umbrella and strengthens their efforts as the country becomes more polarized.
And yet another more radical cleric member of parliament went to an extreme by calling Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, Rafsanjani and others of their ilk "cheaper and worse" than Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
This anti-opposition chorus keeps getting louder because the government fears the growth of a movement that threatens to bring down the entire regime through the devaluation of what was once held sacred. As a 49-year-old resident of southeast Tehran recently told me, it was once very unusual for people to challenge the authority of the Supreme Leader. Now "death to the dictator" is a common chant and people publicly and privately demonstrate their anger against Ayatollah Khamanei, something that this politically neutral Tehrani said was not so visible before the election. In his words, "We just complained about food prices before the election. This level of aggressiveness towards Khamenei has never been seen before."
Establishing a leadership of its own appeared key for the survival of the opposition movement. Following the June election, those behind the coup deliberately attempted to block the formation of an opposition leadership by orchestrating sweeping arrests of those with experience in organizing and leading. This strategy failed, however, as the opposition movement managed to sustain momentum even without any particular structure in place, as their support grew and anti-government activities persisted.
The central leader by default is Mousavi, who plays a symbolic and spiritual role. It was surprising, even for the regime, to see a man who had been absent from the front lines of politics for 20 years supported by such massive numbers, not just at voting polls, but on the streets, amongst batons, tear gas and bullets. The clerical regime has been resolute in its efforts to prevent an increase in serious forms of dissent. As a hunter (an apt metaphor here) once described for me, "In decapitating a dangerous snake, you either trap it into a cage (prison) or cut off its head (assassination)." Now that the clerical regime has bared its teeth and claws to its own people and shown no interest in reaching a compromise, the snake options remain in how it deals with Mousavi.
Both options carry significant consequences for the regime. Jafar Shajooni, another member of Rohaniat, rejected the usefulness of the first. As he stated, "If jailed, Mousavi will become an icon." He did not elaborate further to say what other designs the regime could have for the ex-premier -- other than to hint, "They [Mousavi supporters] should be fearful. The moment we get the green light to deal with them, I will personally chew their throats."
A quantity analysis might pinpoint just how many times the Supreme Leader, his loyal IRGC force and other politicians and clerics have warned Mousavi of the consequences of opposition. The number of threatening remarks aimed at one individual is particularly indicative of the government's fear of backlash should they decide to make their move against him. Yet assassination options are not off the table. The history of the Islamic Republic has shown that eliminating a threat has always been a good option for them. The elimination option ranges from the "physical removal" of anti-revolutionary elements, whether inside or outside Iran, as we saw in the 1980s, to assassination attempts and threats of them from the holy city of Qom, such as when some ayatollahs there gave the green light to kill then President Khatami, as they believed there was enough religious justification for a "true Muslim" to carry out such an order.
A case in point is the failed assassination of Saeed Hajariaan, an ex-agent of the Intelligence Ministry who moved to the reformist camp and rose to the respected ranks of the theoretician of reforms under President Khatami. He was gunned down by a young Basiji, Saeed Asgar, who was imprisoned for the shooting following a reluctant court prosecution, and released long before the completion of his full sentence. Just before Asgar fired a bullet into Hajjarian's face that lodged into his neck and left him paralyzed, Hajariaan received numerous calls from many clerics and right-wing politicians warning him of "consequences."
Hajjarian, now bound to a wheelchair and in need of constant medical attention, enjoyed the same status as Mousavi. Both men are popular, clean of financial corruption, have held the highest and most sensitive government posts; and both know too much. Further, they are difficult to taint by accusations of affiliation with foreign powers. But Mousavi has carried the mantle further as an influential leader able to rock the boat in Iranian politics. Such figures -- Hajjarian and Mousavi -- if they don't back off, are usually dealt with like the snake's head, after which the regime can play out old scenarios: depicting the killer(s) as hired by foreigners to sow division among the nation, and then venerating the victim after his death.
When rogue intelligence officers hatched a plot to bring down President Khatami's administration by assassinating intellectuals and former politicians such as Daryoush Forouhar, the Supreme Leader went to Friday Prayers and lashed out at those who killed him and his wife by saying though Forouhar was an opposition figure, he (Khamenei) believed he was no threat to the country. This mafia-style tactic removes the person seen as a threat while the perpetrators lay a wreath at his grave to show their respect.
While some may think that the death of a protest leader might escalate the situation to a dangerous and unpredictable level, the regime is well versed at the blame game, calling for unity while shedding crocodile tears. Rioting is likely to be short-lived due to a lack of leadership along with the fear of a security apparatus that is so well adept at striking back.
No other leader has the capacity to lead Iranians now like Mousavi, as he is accepted by a wide coalition for many contradictory reasons, but all sharing one common goal: getting rid of Ahmadinejad. Other ayatollahs, even the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, lack that appeal, simply for being a cleric, an indication of just how far men of the cloth have fallen in the eyes of the public.
Dangerous movements of militias around Mousavi's office and a lack of adequate security protection are all ample grounds for concern. It is a matter of time for those pushing the two options to get them onto the agenda. While it is not unusual for the intelligence community and IRGC decision makers to be divided into two camps in how to deal with Mousavi, neither has been able to convince Ayatollah Khamenei to put Mousavi behind bars or to kill him. And although the Supreme Leader has never been merciful towards those who publicly disobey him, he has so far held to his belief that the arrest or death of Mousavi would provide yet more incentive to opponents eager to plot against the government.
Arresting Mousavi makes him a hero, which would only incite protesters even more. But removing him by the hands of a "true Muslim" or a suicide attack might create an opportunity for the government to blame terrorist groups like the MKO or the Rigi outfit in the Sistan and Baluchestan province (to wreak more havoc for the Islamic Republic, is how it will be spun), or claim an assassin was hired to take out Mousavi. Then, befitting of that Mafioso screenplay, "Martyr Mousavi" can be praised by the government who did him in.
Complicating the picture is the fast approaching religiously-potent month of Moharram. Moving from sermon to sermon, mourning the death of the Shia's third Imam, Mousavi should guard against being an easy target. In the event of "an accident" or suicide attack, disingenuous clerics can use the occasion to call people to calm and unity around the Shia banner. Moharram also carries its own hazards for the State: It will be very difficult to get protesters off the street; the only option to do so in such a case would be a curfew, whose use on a national scale has been unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution. But widespread rioting has the potential to bring the whole system down if things spiral out of control. Either way, with mounting levels of frustration at Mousavi, in the words of Mojtaba Zolnour, deputy to the chief representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC, "Grounds to deal with Mousavi should be laid out" once and for all.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau