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Will the regime survive?

04 Jul 2009 15:2115 Comments

img_I19_ME2_Ahmadinejad1By GARETH SMYTH in Beirut

Those anticipating the downfall of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and even the Islamic Republic of Iran should note that governments and dynasties throughout history have often survived on the divisions of their opponents.

With their ranks depleted by arrests, the reformists this week reiterated their rejection of the presidential election.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi and Mohammad Khatami thereby expressed support for the Islamic system. For them, it is the alleged manipulation of the election, rather than the subsequent protests, that has weakened the regime.

"A big segment of society has lost all trust in the system, and this is a disaster," explained Khatami, in a comment quoted by the Washington Post.

Interestingly, the reformists' statement was not signed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has allied himself with Karrubi and Khatami since around 2006. Although Rafsanjani's daughter took part in post-election demonstrations and was briefly arrested, Rafsanjani is keeping behind the scenes. He may sense that street protests are now counterproductive and that it's better to bide his time.

There is an even wider disagreement between the reformists and those who want to end Iran's Islamic system.

In 2005 and again this year, reformist presidential candidates have offered "rights" to Iran's ethnic minorities. But this is a far cry from the ethnic-based organizations who want a federal Iran, some of whom -- at least among the mainly Sunni Baluch and Kurds -- use a violence that is anathema to the reformists.

And both the reformists and the ethnic-based groups are at odds with those in exile since the early years of the Revolution.

Royalists -- who now look to the son of the late Shah, Mohammed Reza -- have support within Iran, but it is mainly among older Iranians and based more on nostalgia than the realities of 2009. For Mohammed Reza, there is no difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad.

The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) has long been discredited among Iranians by its violence, alliance with Saddam Hussein and degeneration into a cult. The MEK has used front organizations to project itself as a broad-based opposition but while these have attracted some western parliamentarians they are shunned by Iranians.

What of the states opposing Iran?

For many years they have failed to agree on a strategy for curbing its nuclear programme, much less changing its government or regime. The United States and Britain have led the field in imposing economic sanctions, with European states following with varying degrees of reluctance as Russia and China drag their heels, agreeing some UN sanctions while their state-owned companies move into the Iranian energy markets.

For Iran to play off such divisions is nothing new. Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister who provoked a US-led coup in 1953 by trying to nationalize oil, spoke of a "negative equilibrium" between the powers competing to control Iran.

But, as Mossadegh discovered, such divisions do rule out action. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has identified Iran as the most urgent challenge to the international community. This may serve to distract attention from settlement building and the blockade of Gaza, but Tehran certainly does not rule out talk of attack as mere bluster.

John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, wrote in the Washington Post on July 2 that "the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable."

"The gulf between the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the citizens of Iran has never been clearer or wider," wrote Bolton, and so "military action against Iran's nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently."

Iran's reformists have long accused the American right of undermining them. They argue that threats to Iran, sanctions, or even funding of civil disobedience, strengthens the fundamentalists.

"To threaten Iran, nearly every day, America is looking for any excuse -- the nuclear issue, terrorism, human rights, the Middle East peace process," Saeed Hajjarian, now in jail, said four years ago. "There are different US pressures but some make the situation here more militarized, and in such an atmosphere democracy is killed."

For western liberals meanwhile, the mass of Iranians -- especially "young Iranians" -- simply want "democracy" and "freedom." Some Americans even hope Iran is on the verge of a popular revolution that will both imitate and somehow reverse 1979.

"The media, academia, NGOs and Western governments aren't involved in a plot," one former Tehran correspondent recently told me. "It's rather the way people who grew up in Western countries interpret what's going on in Iran and tend to wish for societies that are reflections of their own."

In reality most Iranians are not going to risk their lives for change with no clear goal. Historians have long pointed to Iranians' deep-seated fear of insecurity. And Ayatollah Khamenei knows this very well.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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to ... GARETH SMYTH ..and so then.. what can we hope for the Iranian population which wants its freedom from religious rule then with the president we have? Not one thing.

Tell me, sir... are you on the side of freedom .... or of islams theocracy ? I have read very little of what you write ..so I would like to just see you write it for me here and now to be clear. Also.. do you visit the USA in any particular area to speak?

Thank you for your clear answer.


Juliette / July 4, 2009 2:03 PM

I am on no-one's side. I am a journalist.

My piece is about the divisions within Iran and especially within the wide range of groups that oppoose president Ahmadinejad.

You see a conflict between "freedom" and "Islam's theocracy".

If you read the Der Spiegel interview this week with Mohsen Kadivar, you will see it does not see it it in such terms. Indeed Iran's reformists see their struggle as one for democracy within some kind of Islamic framework.

Then there are all the exile groups, and the ethnic-based groups, some of whom have a level of agreement over federalism.

There is no broad-based opposition platform or coalition. That is my point.

Gareth Smyth / July 4, 2009 2:32 PM

John Bolton is no longer able to represent U.S. foreign policy -- thank God. I hope the brave people of Iran understand that people like Bolton, former President George W. Bush, and Sen. John McCain are no longer setting the tone for our country. (They, like Ahmadinejad, lost the election.)

I worry that military action from the West would break whatever unity the opposition has into a thousand pieces. Certainly the half-dozen Grand Ayatollahs that have written to support the protests would oppose U.S. soldiers. I think Ahmadinejad's last, best hope to cling to power is in violent U.S. intervention in Iran.

Bendix Anderson / July 4, 2009 3:26 PM

I feel like Julliett that there is a large group in Iran who want freedom. They want their vote to count. Here in America we had our election, even though it was close, stolen in 2000. Supreme court judges put in place by The first George Bush went against what they would usually do and stopped the counting of the votes. We in America were angry but we did not seem to have the courage or intelligence to protest this hijacking of Democracy.

So we ended up with a real bad president who wrecked the country and the world. His faith based decisions were so erroneous but he clung to them and fed the fears of those like him, the religious and ignorant right. This only made Ahmadinejad stronger and bolster a right wing in Iran.

He alienated all of Europe and all of the middle east except Britain and Israel. He appointed Bolton an out and out ignoramus to a position he should never have had.

Fortunately Bush could not be re-elected and by the time he left his popularity was at 13%. I knew he was an idiot when he traded Sammy Sosa in his early prime to the Cubs and proceeded to spiral the Texas Rangers ball club into bankruptcy.

If the people in Iran could get rid of the obviously lying regime they have as we have done there could be peace and an understanding amongst the governments and their people. I speak to people all over the world on Skype and in person and I can see all of us want the same thing. We just want to live peacful and enriched lives. The Internet allows so much communication to anyone, anywhere. As long as a Theocracy exists intelligent thinking cannot take place.

Luis Garzon / July 4, 2009 7:24 PM

the article is stupid, at least get the name of the Shah's son right please. His name is Reza Pahlavi. Not mohammed reza. LoL. Shows how ignorant the writer of the article may be when it comes to Iranian affairs. Nuff Said!

winston / July 4, 2009 8:18 PM

@ Bendix

US is now represented by the likes of Rev Wright and Bill Ayres in the shape of Hussein Obama. Too sad to see the US has joined the rank of banana republics.

winston / July 4, 2009 8:19 PM

Dear Mr. Smyth,

I really appreciate this article. The more I learn about the complexities and divisions within Iran, the more I realize how much I don't know. Thanks to this website and others reporting on the current uprising, I now can't get my hands on enough books about Iranian history. I just read The Shah of Shahs by Kapuscinski, and I wish I could find an equally engaging account about the post revolution period (suggestions are welcome).

It is striking to me that during the 1979 revolution, while kicking the Shah out was the primary goal, Khomeini was the leader that gave people hope that they could actually accomplish it. The problem now (although maybe this is a good thing) is that there is no one leader, symbolic or otherwise, playing that role. It will be very interesting to see if a "democracy" movement can rise above divisions, and result in a legitimate representative government, rather than continuing the cycle of dictatorial rule.

As the quote from your correspondent friend illustrates, we in the west are interpreting these event through our own lens, without a lot of knowledge about the complexities inside Iran, or the legacy of history, which is so important there.

Please continue your important work. It is much appreciated.

Lori Crook

New York City

Lori Crook / July 4, 2009 11:40 PM


Some people think about global issues, and part - wants a little bit. And everyone wants freedom. But there is no absolute freedom, even if there is another way of thinking and freedom of choice. Always someone will be unhappy choice. We need to think about the minority. All the problems come from the minority.

gennady / July 5, 2009 4:55 AM


Do you think the Shah can make a comeback? Are you in Iran? Does he have support there? Do people remember the good days under his father?

Nazih Musa / July 5, 2009 5:19 AM

For the information of the so called ' I am on no-one's side. I am a journalist'.

Personal Information of Prince Reza Koroush Pahlavi - ' Reza Pahlavi II ' - The Constitutinal King Of Iran:

Since the establishment of the clerical regime in Iran, and the passing of his father, the late Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi has been a leading and vocal advocate of the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights for his countrymen.

In 1978, Reza Pahlavi, then Crown Prince of Iran, left his homeland to complete his higher education in the United States. An accomplished jet fighter pilot, Reza Pahlavi completed the United States Air Force Training Program at the former Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. He is a Political Science graduate of the University of Southern California.

Reza Pahlavi has lived in Morocco, Egypt and, since 1984, the United States. He married Yasmine Etemad Amini on June 12, 1986. Yasmine is a graduate of George Washington University School of Law. Together with his wife and three daughters, Noor (April 3, 1992), Iman (September 12, 1993) and Farah (January 17, 2004), they reside in the state of Maryland.

Born on October 31, 1960, in Tehran, Iran, Reza Pahlavi is the eldest of four. Since the tragic passing of the late Leila Pahlavi (March 27, 1970 - June 10, 2001), Reza Pahlavi's siblings include Farahnaz (March 12, 1963), a brother Ali Reza (April 28, 1966), as well as a half-sister, Shahnaz (October 27, 1940).

Bahramerad / July 5, 2009 6:45 AM

Well, yes, Pahlavi has been in the US most of the life.

Yes, he has trained as a US pilot. Yes, his wife went to a US university.

But does he have any support in Iran?

Is anyone in Iran calling for a monarchy?

Are any of the hundreds of journalists and politicians being detained actually royalists?

Is there any prospect of the royalists uniting with other exiled groups, much less with the people organizing protests in Iran?

Nazih Musa / July 5, 2009 9:10 AM

Ms Crook,

Thank you for your kind words.

I would recommend two books by Ervand Abrahamian, 'Khomeinism' and 'Tortured Confessions'.

Roy Mottahedeh. 'The Mantle of Prophet', is also outstanding.

Afshin Molavi - the Soul of Iran, called Persian Pilgrimmages in some editions - is maybe the best of the more anecdotal, descriptive books.

Iranian cinema is also full of treasures.


Gareth Smyth

Gareth Smyth / July 6, 2009 5:37 AM

The author of this article is a dork. He knows jack about Iran. He's read 4 books and is now commenting on a big country with complicated issues. I am disappointed at Tehran Bureau for publishing crap on their website recently. I am removing them from my twitter acct and my blog lists.

@ Nazih

I'm 28 yrs old and I lived 24 yrs in Iran. It's up to the people of Iran to choose their next form of government WHEN & IF this current regime falls.

winston / July 6, 2009 11:34 AM

Monarchy is dead in Iran - Although I beleive that Shah had good intentions for his country, his mistakes paved the way for this murderous theocracy to take shape and grow like cancer.

I also agree with Mr. Smyth that there is no coherent opposition in Iran (at least on the surface)for people to look up to. Mousavi is jsuta nother mullah. They are all cancerous to freedom in Iran.

Any outside interference (specially military) will have dire consequences for freedom as it will unite the people against it - no matter what.

Although Iranians have been stepped on by others in the past - and present - we have never been colonized. All you need are foriegn boots on Iranian soil and all bets are off.

People of Iran need to undo 30 years of tyranny and murder themselves -This regime is illegal - Islam is illegal.

Long live Iran - fight for secular democarcy.

Over and out.

Farhad Joon / July 6, 2009 12:06 PM

What if the repression of Iran's young educated and technically sophisticated population forges a truly revolutionary underground? This must be considered a possibility as the young in any country are less interested in security than other population segments. Alternate outcomes exist in any scenario. Wasn't the successful constitutionalist revolution of 1906 was driven by an educated urban population? History in broad terms seems to repeat itself.

Richard Kadas / July 7, 2009 8:49 AM