Coup-d'État? The Iranian Election in Five Acts
by REZA VALIZADEH in Paris
18 May 2010 18:34
Was Iran's June 12, 2009, presidential election a coup d'etat? A journalist who was part of the establishment investigates and presents this analysis. This is the story from their perspective.
Act One: Rehearsals
One evening in spring 2009, a whiteboard located on the fifth floor of a Reformist campaign center displayed a set of bullet points under the heading "Three factors that can weaken us and lead to electoral defeat":
• Fraud √
• Oil Rent
• Ineptitude of Reformists
The election was not far off. The person who had written down these bullet points insisted that the only way to prevent fraud by the government was to raise voter participation beyond a certain level.
Just a few miles away, on Zaffar Avenue, two missions were being defined at another meeting. One concerned 11,000 "agents"; the other, 3,600. These agents would report on the activity at voting centers via text message, allowing a group of five people at this central location to remotely monitor the status of nearly all ballot boxes. Later, Minister of Intelligence Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie would dub those at this center the "Zaffar Nexus."
On a similar spring day, a Revolutionary Guard commander, Adjutant Colonel Aziz Djaefari, carried a letter that had to be delivered to 2,500 Ashura-al-Zahra camps and 28,000 warrior units of the Karbala brigade. The letter had a singular message: At Attention!
These spring days were quite wearing for the employees of the printing and publication division of Bank Melli, Iran's central bank. Quarantined for long hours, day after day, they printed, sequentially numbered, and organized ballot slips. They could never have imagined unnumbered slips turning up after the elections. Where did these slips come from? Certainly, they had not printed them. Were they produced at the Islamic Revolution Documents Center? At Kayhan Publications? By the Guards?
Just a few days before these events, a shadowy figure appeared at a secret meeting at a complex on Ameen Boulevard in Qom. He recited the following to set everyone straight:
When Talut [the army's commander] set forth with the armies, he said: "God will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, he goes not with my army. Only those who taste not of it go with me. A mere sip out of the hand is excused." But they all drank of it, except a few. When they crossed the river -- he and the faithful ones with him -- they said: "This day we cannot cope with Goliath and his forces." But those who were convinced that they must meet God, said: "How oft, by God's will, hath a small force vanquished a big one? God is with those who steadfastly persevere."
This passage, verse 249 of the Baqqarah (Young Cow) sura of the Qu'ran, fixed the curse. The elections were carried out. But Ahmadinejad's opponents and their supporters talked of something beyond election fraud: coup-d'état! The defeated side's supporters and democracy-supporting protestors poured into the streets and called Ahmadinejad, the Guards, and the Basij perpetrators of a coup. With his sermon at the Friday Prayers following the election, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with his son, Mojtaba, rose to the top of the list of culprits. Outside of Iran, analysts with a broader perspective named Russia as a partner in the crime.
Subsequent investigations and analysis have been carried out within the framework defined by this coup scenario. Perspectives have been stuck at this viewpoint, without opening up to offer a wider understanding of events. There has yet to be published a comprehensive, historical review of these events, considered either as an election or as a coup d'état. All considerations, so far, have been devoted to isolated parts of the story.
The following review, abridged from an upcoming book, seeks to offer a comprehensive, beginning-to-end narrative of the coup in a five-part weekly series. This review is based on the following principles:
1. The perspective on events surrounding the last Iranian election must be broader than has been the norm to date.
2. To decipher the coup mystery, light will be shed behind the scenes to trace the plotters and executors lurking in the shadows.
3. There is no sense in denying or confirming other narratives; this one must stand on it own.
4. Many off-the-record interviews and discussions were conducted. Those involved included high ranking commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, officers in intelligence and military units of the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Intelligence, and representatives of different political factions around the globe. The names of these figures, many of them obliged to take oaths of confidentiality, will be withheld for their security.
In our examination of the threads that may lead to the source of this coup, we will take historical detours, to the mid-1970s and further back, and geographical ones far afield. For now, the story starts thus:
The Master Key to the Coup Mystery
In their debates with Ahmadinejad, whether coordinating with each other or not, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi focused on certain of his political behaviors that are key to understanding the events that transpired a few days later.
In the debates, Karroubi and Mousavi alluded to the many reports of superstition, magic, and sorcery surrounding Ahmadinejad, and to the bright halo which he claimed shrouded him during his U.N. appearance. Ahmadinejad, of course, dismissed every one of these as rumors.
Mousavi, in particular, targeted Ahmadinejad's behavior in relation to foreign policy. He pointed out that threatening Israel with eradication and denying the Nazi holocaust was tactically wrong. Unequivocally, he declared that Ahmadinejad's belligerent rhetoric over the past four years, and especially at the Durban meeting, had in fact been advantageous to Israel, and that Ahmadinejad's foreign policy in general had produced results opposite to his slogans and declared strategies.
Ahmadinejad's bellicose and adventuresome policies were not limited to foreign affairs. Within Iran, the same disposition was expressed in the militarization of daily life via large-scale security projects, the designation and apprehension of "hooligans and troublemakers", and the many Guidance Patrols checking on Islamic dress codes.
Was this aggressive posture, within and outside Iran, the result of the religious beliefs and the political disposition of just the republic's 9th government? Or did it stem from the general character of the whole regime in that period? To begin to formulate answers to these questions, we must consider the history.
Long Training for a Short Coup
"The coup wasn't decided and carried out overnight. We need to go back several years," Colonel S.R.H., a high ranking intelligence and security commander said. His statement echoed that of Sergeant A.S., an intelligence agent in the Revolutionary Guards, emphatically uttered on the same day.
In 2004, less than four months into Ahmadinejad's first term, the Majles agreed to fund a government project overseen by the High Council of National Security to arm and equip the Basij with $350 million from the nation's foreign currency reserves.
Of course, Ahmadinejad's support of the Guards and the Basij predates his presidency. His substantial support of these organizations while he was mayor of Tehran is an open secret. First, instead of using the government's Social Welfare Organization, he assigned the task of local social assistance to the Basij Resistance Force units. Then, in January 2002, he awarded several urban and developmental projects to the Guards, without competitive bidding. Like all the regime's figures striving to rise in power, he set out to strengthen his base in the Guards. His older brother, Davood Ahmadinejad, then an intelligence commander at Tehran's Division of the Guards, played a crucial role. Nonetheless, the future president's base remained stronger with the Basij.
In the run-up to the 2005 presidential elections, a private poll was conducted by the directorate of Pars News Agency, in coordination with the Guards, to determine the best fundamentalist candidate from among Ahmadinejad, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and Mohsen Rezai. Ghalibaf had a majority and Rezai withdrew. But Ahmadinejad said that he didn't trust the Guards' polls and would not follow suit. This was the start of verbal sparring both between Guard commanders and between the Guards and the Basij. A large portion of the Guards backed Ghalibaf, while the Basij supported Ahmadinejad.
This infighting caused Ghalibaf and Alireza Zakani, both members of the Central Council of the Principalist Coalition, to file a complaint with Ayatollah Fazel-e Lankarani requesting his intervention. It is believed that Fazel-e Lankarani enjoys a special respect among Basij members, and most had chosen him over Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, as their source of religious emulation. He replied that the candidate should be the one viewed by the public as more fundamentalist, and with more affection. This declaration was distributed in many quarters of Tehran in a letter along with the poll results.
Still, Ahmadinejad would not withdraw. The reason was simple. The Basij had over 11 million volunteers and 900,000 organized active duty members, while the Guards numbered between 125,000 and 220,000. Beyond this numeric superiority, the Basij has had far more influence in most voting districts than any other organization. In addition, most of those put forward as voting station officials and ballot box monitors are active Basij members employed at various ministries.
The First Victim
Thus, Mousavi and Karroubi were not the first victims of Ahmadinejad's electoral machinations, nor even Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2005, but Ghalibaf in the run-up to the 2005 elections. His actions then, relatively limited as they were, were early training for the eventual coup.
The person at the start of this story, who listed "Fraud" as the primary factor that could cause Reformists' electoral defeat in 2009, had put a perceptive check mark next to it. Ghalibaf, of course, did not receive the candidacy tick mark in 2005. A crucial animosity developed between him and Ahmadinejad. Their personal feuds badly affected the relationship between the mayor's office and the national government.
As to the fate of those who had supported Ghalibaf back then, Colonel A.S. of the Guards' intelligence division offers, "After the 2005 elections and declaration of Ahmadinejad as the winner, supporters of Ghalibaf were transferred to the Joint Military Forces Center, were given minimally active or ceremonial, non-key positions to curtail their influence and reduce their importance in political power transactions."
The few projects given to the Basij during Ahmadinejad's mayorship were not the sole reasons the Basijis rose to his support in 2009 and prevailed upon the Guards and the leadership to go along. With the extensive celebrations he organized in honor of the Mahdi and his public pretense to piety, Ahmadinejad caught the eye of the shadowy figure mentioned above. He had found Ahmadinejad of the right disposition.
As mayor, Ahmadinejad would don a garbage collector's uniform and appear on rounds. He turned the mayor's office into a refuge for the destitute. For the first time in its history, the office handed out marriage loans. But, above all, it was the ten-day celebration of lights on the occasion of the Mahdi's birth -- when the mayoralty arranged for hojatieh and neo-mahdiat to be present and recruiting in every passageway -- that earned him an audience with the man in the shadows. This powerful man prefers not to enter the political arena personally. It is widely rumored that he has decided to designate the resident of the last mansion on South Palestine Avenue in Tehran as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic upon the death of the current one.
End of Part 1.
Iran's Political Coup by Gary Sick
Spokesman: Political Coup by Muhammad Sahimi
The Leaders of Iran's 'Election Coup' by Muhammad Sahimi
The Supreme Leader's One Vote by MEA Cyrus
Another Coup for the Hardliners by MEA Cyrus
The Man in the Shadow: Mojtaba Khamenei by Muhammad Sahimi
This series on the election by Iranian journalist Reza Valizadeh is a joint project between Tehran Bureau and Tehran Review. To read this article in Farsi, please click here.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau, Tehran Review