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A Way Forward

23 Jun 2009 22:4615 Comments

Photo: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 23 June 2003

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered what was widely considered to be a completely polarizing speech on Friday June 19. Speaking at Tehran University, the site of a brutal crackdown a few days earlier, he said that Iran's disputed presidential election had not been rigged, at least not to the extent that it could have changed the outcome. In that speech, he also stated that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views were closer to his own, thereby essentially dispelling any doubt about who he had hoped to see as the next president.

Ayatollah Khamenei went on to chastise the demonstrators' leaders. Referring to Mir Hossein Mousavi and other reformist leaders, the Supreme Leader said the responsibility for any violence or bloodshed would be on them. Instead of quelling the unrest, the Supreme Leader's speech sparked bloody demonstrations on Saturday June 20 during which up to 19 people were killed by security forces and the Basij militia, a paramilitary group controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). In particular, the cold-blooded murder of a 27 year old university student, Neda Soltan Agha, shook Iran and the rest of the world. She has become the icon of the struggle for a more democratic Iran. Since then, Tehran and other large cities have been tensely calm.

The question now is how Mr. Mousavi and the reformists should go forward.

First, any sensible strategy must take into account the realities of Iran and the world today. This is not 1978 or 79; it is not the time of the Cold War when Iran's neighbor to the north was the Soviet Union. The bipolar nature of the international community at that time, and in particular the West's support for Iran and the Shah, guaranteed Iran's territorial integrity. The situation is very different today.

Second, today there is increasing ethnic tension within Iran. Jundallah, a terrorist group based in Pakistan and believed by many to be supported by the CIA and Israel's Mossad, has been issuing separatist statements and carrying out fatal attacks in Iran's southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan. To the west, PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), a Kurdish terrorist group that represents the Iranian branch of the PKK (a Kurdish group that is based in Turkey and has been attacking government forces there for decades), has been carrying out terrorist attacks in Iran from northern Iraq. In the southwestern province of Khuzestan (where most of Iran's oil fields are), there is a small but significant population of Iranian-Arabs who have been restive as well.

Therefore, any action that could lead to large-scale violence would only ratchet up ethnic tensions in Iran. Ever since Princeton University Professor and Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, spoke of exploiting Iran's diverse population for political purposes, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby in the United States have openly talked about the desirability of breaking up Iran. Surely, any large-scale violence and resulting repression would provide fertile grounds for exploiting ethnic tensions, which would threaten Iran's territorial integrity.

Third, this is the first time that two factions within Iran's political establishment are feuding so openly with each other. Important political figures such as Mr. Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have impeccable revolutionary credentials, and have been part of the establishment for the past 30 years. They therefore cannot be easily dismissed by the hard-liners as agents of foreign governments, or as being influenced by the United States -- labels that have been used in the past by the hard-liners to eliminate their foes.

Fourth, fissures have appeared in the ranks of conservatives loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. The Speaker of the Majles (parliament), Ali Larijani, openly acknowledged that a large number of people believe that the election was rigged, an opinion he has said "must be respected." He also repeated the assertion of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi that the Guardian Council (the Constitutional Body that vets candidates, monitors the elections and certifies their legitimacy) has not been neutral, with some of its members openly supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Larijani's deputy, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, stated the same in a television interview. While it is possible that the two are shedding crocodile tears in order to appease some of the moderate opposition and buy time for the conservatives, it is more likely that their statements reflect divisions within the ranks of the people around Ayatollah Khamenei. In fact, Mr. Larijani never publicly endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Fifth, important clerics and ayatollahs in Qom and elsewhere are unhappy with what has happened. Almost none of them have congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad for his "re-election." Such important figures as Grand Ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri, Yousef Saanei, Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, and Lotfollah Saafi Golpaaygani, all of whom were close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have publicly criticized and attacked the results of the election. Even conservative ayatollahs, such as Naser Makarem Shirazi, Abdullah Javadi Amoli, and Ebrahim Amini, have been silent. In fact, Ayatollah Amini refused to lead Friday prayers in Qom after being attacked by supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad. The important leftist cleric organization, the Association of Combatant Clerics, which includes such important figures as Mr. Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoiniha, has strongly supported Mr. Mousavi, and has called for the annulment of the election.

And, of course, Mr. Rafsanjani, an ayatollah himself, a most powerful politician at the very center of the conservatives' attack, is an arch foe of Mr. Ahmadinejad. There have been credible reports that he has been working behind the scenes to convene an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader, has the authority to monitor his performance, and even sack him). We must also remember that during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s Mr. Rafsanjani was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, therefore, has close relations with at least some of the top commanders in the army and the IRGC. Rumors continue to circulate that some of the top commanders of the IRGC have been arrested for opposing bloody crackdowns on protesters and for supporting Mr. Mousavi.

Thus, a sensible strategy for the reformists and Mr. Mousavi is one that focuses in part on dealing with threats to Iran's territorial integrity and national security. The IRGC must be dissuaded from using large-scale violence. Fissures in the ranks of the conservatives and clerics must be used to develop a broad-based coalition. This is possible only if the goals of the protesters are not too lofty and within grasp. (The "lofty" goal of overthrowing the government, for example, is not achievable; it will increase bloodshed, spark ethnic tension, and threaten Iran's territorial integrity.)

The exiled opposition, such as the monarchists and supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), a cult listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, have called for the overthrow of the government. The same groups, which had been calling on the people to boycott the election, are now trying to exploit the situation.

The best strategy for developing the coalition is, therefore, a campaign focused on a narrow goal that is achievable, but also one that opens the door for making deeper and more meaningful changes to the current system. At present this goal is the annulment of the election and holding a new one monitored by objective and neutral observers. If that goal is achieved, that itself will be a great setback for the hard-liners and supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The annulment would practically eliminate the possibility of large-scale fraud in future elections, and would give a strong mandate, supported by the vast majority of the people, to Mr. Mousavi for making deep and necessary changes to the system, including stripping the Guardian Council of the power to vet candidates; revising the Constitution, giving more power to the president, limiting the power of the Supreme Leader and perhaps replacing the post of the Supreme Leader with a Leadership Council, which is favored by many clerics and influential ayatollahs.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Why are you so keen to see Mr. Rafsanjani overthrow Mr. Khamenei? Where is your proof of a "stolen" election? Why do you deal in rumors? Concerned about Iran's territorial integrity, are we? Really? Its a good thing you mentioned that as one would never divine such a concern on your part.

observer / June 23, 2009 8:33 PM

I feel that the key changes that u point to here have to be implemented quickly and broadly as possible. In essence the annulement of the election results and annoucement of new elections has to be carried out cocurremtly with the removal of the current leader and the establishment of a (shoora) or leadership council. This process must be carried out while the general population is still highly energized and fully invested in the process of a permanent change in the system which will safeguard their fundemental rights to be full participents in the future of their country.

Ardeshir / June 23, 2009 8:37 PM

Almost 100% agreed.

Mr observer you must be blind not to see this big fraud.

GreenWaveMan / June 23, 2009 9:25 PM

I believe your concern about Iran fracturing into ethnic mini-states is excessive. The majority of protesters are demanding fair elections and a new government, not a dispersal of the state. If the government is overthrown, it is hard to conceive of insignificant fringe elements suddenly sweeping to power with their fringe agendas. Mousavi, as we know, is a political insider and would want to keep the state intact.

I share your concern about the bloodshed involved with overthrowing the government. Does Khamenei have a conscience of any kind? If future demonstrations are resolutely peaceful, as Mousavi is encouraging, would there be more Neda's, or would there be new elections? It seems clear that the current regime has lost its legitimacy, and by murdering and brutalizing its civilians, it is no better than the Shah that it replaced a generation ago. Somehow, it has got to go. I don't have a crystal ball to say how it will happen, but how can Iran go forward as a country with the same leaders in power and try to pretend the last 2 weeks haven't happened?

And "observer": watch the news and get informed before you post anything.

Youssouf / June 23, 2009 9:37 PM

Good discussion points. I enjoyed the article.

I am, however, skeptical about another election bringing change. Change in face, yes, measurable changes in the structure of government, no.

You really believe that if Mr. Mousavi were to be president he'd be able to make the changes that you suggest in the last paragraph? Those bodies that overlook constitution, elections etc. would not just roll over and let them have it. The Iranian form of government is about control of mind and faith. Mandate from people is really good, but first step before anything is to force free press and tear down the walls of discrimination. Once that becomes true, those changes you suggest will come.

Iran needs a president that has power. That I agree. Clearly Khatamai is only concerned with helping his bloodlines stay in power.

SidelinePhilospher / June 23, 2009 9:49 PM

A new election might work out better if an organization such as the UN came in to oversee it.

peggyjags / June 23, 2009 9:57 PM

observer -

You're probably a hard liner from Iran which explains you're claiming reality isn't what it is. Isn't that just like your state media? They made lying statements as well during the height of the protesting like "There's only a few vandals. We have identified all of them and have them under arrest." LIES is all you hard liners speak, nothing but LIES.

notaintsowhat / June 23, 2009 10:15 PM

Dear SidelinePhilosopher,

The point of an in-depth article such as this is to present the reader with the complexities and nuances of the situation in Iran. There are various forces at work in the country, some with more or less responsibility toward the people, and each of them in power would enact policies that though indifferent to a sideliner, are of great import to the people living in Iran. I can see from your comment that you have not yet let any of the information sink in. Please reread the piece, and another work by the same author on this site, titled 'The Leaders of Iran's Election Coup,' and see if you see no major difference between the two sides involved. It may also help with you not confusing the many, and similar, names of the Iranian politicians. It's not Khatami, but Khamenei, I believe, that you are talking about.

Bistoon / June 23, 2009 10:17 PM

I just want to point out one mistake made by the author. Rafsandjani is not an ayatollah, his relidious rank is lower. He's an Hojjatoleslam!

Behrooz / June 24, 2009 7:58 AM

it's still not proven DEFINITIVELY if the election was rigged or massively fraudulent. many iranians do not think it was, myself included, even though we don't like the system as a whole.

i think the ethnic element is overblown in this article, as well as how much change mousavi could really make. thought provoking though.

Reza Kh / June 24, 2009 8:05 AM

It is great to hear Iranian voices speaking honestly and with intelligence about this situation and the way forward rather than listening to the posturing of more or less ignorant, if well meaning, fellow Americans. Thank you for doing this in a public way and allowing us to follow the lines of your thinking. We all, even the most uninformed of us I think, wish you well, and we are a little frustrated that there is not much we can do to help. You have our deep respect and

hopes for a more free and open society which serves your aspirations and empowers the Persian people to take its their positive place in the modern world.

dp / June 24, 2009 11:04 AM

I certainly qualify as an ignorant American. I am not particularly proud of that and I am joining this discussion to attempt to overcome my ignorance. I have much learning to do. I am proud to begin that learning by listening to people who know much more than I do.

I have at least made a life-long effort to learn. And it has been a long life. When I look at the events in Iran, I am first struck by the beauty, intelligence and compassion of the Iranian people. Along with this is heartfelt honor of the courage seen on every face marching in protest.

What disturbs me is this. Having been alive and conscious during the years of WWII, and growing up with Americans who served in that war, it is inescapable to avoid a deep concern over the possibility that something as tragic as Nazi Germany could happen again. Obviously it has. Whether it is the Rwanda Genocide, the regime of Saddam Hussein, or Edi Amin, and possibly our own experiences with recent leaders in our own country, about which I assure you there is raging disagreement,

The core of what disturbs me is this, how is it possible for one person to suppress the will and imprison the intelligence of an entire nation of noble citizens? With the advantage of time, the turn history took, the possible interpretation of the victor by the victorious, it becomes either very clear or simply very agreed upon, that Hitler was insane. If that has any merit as an assessment, and apparently it was also a contemporary assessment, even by officers in high command during Hitler's reign, how is it that the abusive actions, rhetoric, inflammatory and polarizing comments by the current Ayatollah, can not be considered to be of a very similar sort.

Understand, I do know that thousands of Germans loved Hitler until the day they died. Even possibly do today. And millions of Americans will go to their Maker firmly convinced that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were noble and just leaders.

So the thing that disturbs me is how is it that we cannot see clearly when the view is of a single, human being who is shrouded in the wraps of the bestowal we made to grant them the power to lead us?

I am not in any way meaning that this occurs only in Iran, or the US, or Iraq, Germany or England, or in our modern era. It appears that this blindness extends throughout our history as human beings. And it greatly disturbs me and provokes me to question.

Thomas McGaffey / June 24, 2009 12:46 PM

Here are my questions:

1. Was the election fair and how do we know?

2. Regardless of whether or not the election was fair, I don't believe these leaders in Iran have the right to kill people for protesting. I think it's ridiculous, arrogant, and evil to deny an individual the right to speak out against the government.

3. It seems to me that a small percentage of Iran's population voted? If that's true, why?

4. I've met about 20 Iranians here in America. All but a few were students at the time. Most of them felt that Iranians like Americans but don't like our government. The students I got to know were very nice. Do you think their view is accurate regarding Iranians feelings about Americans and our government?

5. One of the Iranians I met here told me four years ago that Ahmadinejad is much worse than the Shah or Ayatollah Khomeini. In his opinion, the CIA or someone should remove him before he does something terrible. What is different about Ahmadinejad and should we really fear him?

I think it is very important for Americans to learn about people in other parts of the world. How many Americans know that Iranians are not Arabs? Not many at all I would bet. Why isn't Iran more democratic? Is it realistic to think that one day it will be?

rotie / June 24, 2009 1:34 PM

To all the people that think this election was not rigged,

There are so many signs our there that indicate the election was a fraud. Let me start with quoting Mr. Sina Esmaili from "Seday-e-Edaalat" newspaper. In his article he looks at the numbers of the votes that could possibly be casted in any voting station. He says lets say that it would take a minute for a person to cast a vote. Considering that the voting time was about 13 hours the maximum number of votes couldn't be 780. Even if we consider 30 seconds per vote then the total in that ballot couldn't be more than 1560. Then he looks at Orumieh. Then he points out that in at least 130 ballots out of 250 there are more than 2000 casted votes; interestingly they are in Mr. Ahmadinejad's favor!!! This means 2.5 people managed to vote every minute.

Does this seem like something that could be done? Considering that we saw how many people were standing in lines and waiting to vote this does not seem to be possible.

Then there is the matter of 24 million votes that's claimed for Mr. Ahmadinejad. This means that he had to manage to keep his 11.5 million votes in 2005 and the rest would have to come from the following sources: 1) about 10.6 million new votes were casted this time compare to 2005 2) 6.2 million people voted to Mr. Rafsanjani last time 3) 10.4 million peopl voted to other reform candidates.

According to the researches done this means that Mr. Ahmadinejad had to attract Mr. Rafsanjani's votes plus all of the new votes and 44% of last time's reformists votes!!!!

Do you really believe that he's done such a great job to attract all those votes?!!!!!

Nari / June 24, 2009 3:40 PM

Two thoughts flit through my mind in reading this excellent piece: 1. Reading the perspectives of the Iranian leaders is very similar to following those of members of the Soviet Presidium(i.e., Kremlin watching) in the 1960s; and 2. The protest movement started like the French revolution seeking incremental change in supporting Mr. Mousavi. Wish I had a crystal ball to guess its future course.

Richard Kadas / July 5, 2009 10:56 AM