Page 1 of 2 THE ROVING EYE The meaning of the Tehran spring
By Pepe Escobar
It is 1979 in Tehran all over again. From Saturday to Sunday, the deafening
sound deep in the night across Tehran's rooftops was a roaring, ubiquitous
"Allah-u Akbar" (God is great). Then, in 1979, to hail the Islamic revolution;
now, in 2009, to signify what appears to be the hijacking of the Islamic
revolution. Then, the revolution was not televised; it was via (Ruhollah
Khomeini) radio. Now, it is being broadcast all across the world.
Let's cut to the chase: what Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi
qualified as "this dangerous charade" and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
"the sweetness of the election", or better yet, a "divine assessment", has all
the non-divine markings of intervention by the Iranian Republican Guards Corps
(IRGC). This follows President Mahmud Ahmadinejad officially gaining 64% of the
vote in defeating Mousavi in what in
the days before Friday's vote had widely been called as a very close race.
Scores of protesters equating Ahmadinejad with Augusto Pinochet in 1973's Chile
might not be that far off the mark. Call it the ultra-right wing, military
dictatorship of the mullahtariat.
This is emerging as a no-holds-barred civil war at the very top of the Islamic
Republic. The undisputed elite is now supposed to be embodied by the
Ahmadinejad faction, the IRGC, the intelligence apparatus, the Ministry of the
Interior, the Basij volunteer militias, and most of all the Supreme Leader
The elite wants subdued, muzzled, if not destroyed, reformists of all strands:
any relatively moderate cleric; the late 1970s clerical/technocratic Revolution
Old Guard (which includes Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and
Mousavi); "globalized" students; urban, educated women; and the urban
Even fighting a cascade of political and economic setbacks, for the past three
decades the regime has always been proud of the Islamic Republic's brand of
popular democracy, and its alleged legitimacy. Now the revolution enters
completely uncharted territory as thousands of people have taken to the streets
in protest against the result.
What will be the distinguishing features of the military dictatorship of the
mullahtariat? How does the revolution recoup from a coup? A 29-year-old female
journalist working in a moderately conservative Tehran newspaper spelled it out
for Radio Free Europe: "Coup means that right now they're beating people in the
streets. A coup means they didn't even count people's votes. They announced the
results without opening the ballot boxes. It was sent as a circular to the
state television, which announced it. Is it so difficult for the world to
The trillion-dollar-question regarding this new "revolutionary" situation is
that as things stand, no pacifying solution can be found within the
institutional framework of the Islamic Republic. In a nutshell, Ahmadinejad has
made his power play against Mousavi and Rafsanjani. The Supreme Leader fully
supported him. Mousavi and Rafsanjani, plus Khatami, need an urgent
counterpunch. And their only possible play is to go after Khamenei.
As Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, among others, has
noted, Rafsanjani is now counting his votes at the Council of Experts (86
clerics, no women) - of which he is the chairman - to see if they are able to
depose Khamenei. He is in the holy city of Qom for this explicit purpose. To
pull it off, the council would imperatively have to be supported by at least
some factions within the IRGC. The Ahmadinejad faction will go ballistic. A
Supreme Leader implosion is bound to imply the implosion of the whole
Null and void
As a prelude, Mousavi has already bypassed the Supreme Leader, sending an open
letter to the powerful mullahcracy in Qom asking them to invalidate the
election. Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, head of the election
vote-monitoring committee, has officially requested that the Council of
Guardians void the election and schedule a new, fully monitored one.
One of the stalwarts of Qom power, the moderate Grand Ayatollah Sanei, who had
issued a fatwa against vote rigging, calling it a "mortal sin", has
already declared the Ahmadinejad presidency "illegitimate". His house and
office are now under police siege. Iranians eagerly expect a public
pronouncement from Grand Ayatollah Muntazeri, the country's true top religious
figure (not Khamenei) and a certified anti-ultra-right wing.
Even more strikingly, a group of Ministry of Interior employees sent an open
letter to the chairman of the Council of Experts (Rafsanjani), the president of
the parliament (Majlis), former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, the heads of
the legislative and the judiciary, and many other government agencies. The
crucial paragraph reads: "As dedicated employees of the Ministry of Interior,
with experience in management and supervision of several elections such as the
elections of Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami, we announce that we fear the
10th presidential elections were not healthy."
The Islamic Combatant Clergy Association (ICCA), close to Khatami and
supportive of Mousavi, said on its website that the counting process was
"widely engineered [manipulated]", and there was enough evidence to prove it.
So for the ICCA, the election should be nullified.
Mohsen Rezai, who ran as a conservative and who is nothing less than a former
head of the IRGC, also sent a letter to the Council of Guardians saying the
election was illegitimate. This is crucial; it means a serious crack inside the
IRGC - because Rezai's former subordinates are still active and will inevitably
support him (he remains very influential). "Officially", Rezai had less than 1
million votes. He maintains that according to his own polls, "in a worst-case
scenario I should have had between 3.5 and 7 million votes."
Even a former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ayatollah Mohajerani,
went on the BBC Persian service to say the Supreme Leader was not infallible,
and should be replaced in case of "dishonesty".
How it all evolved
The ultra-right wing maybe has not seen it coming this way - the urban youth of
Tehran behaving like it's May 1968 in Paris. But they seem to have prepared
themselves accordingly. The only question is when. Was it long-term
pre-planning? Did it emerge after the televised presidential debates propelled
the "green revolution"? Or was it a last-minute, cooked up in minutes, gambit?
As the election approached, an impartial observation of the Iranian
presidential TV debates would signal that Ahmadinejad was virtually freaking
out. The public debate in Iran made clear that what mattered most for voters
was Ahmadinejad's record of economic incompetence, much more than his foreign
In the debates, Ahmadinejad managed to get away with fanciful figures regarding
inflation and unemployment. He went into overdrive on the eve of the election,
virtually accusing his three opponents of being Zionist agents. He may have
calculated that a second round with Mousavi would be too risky. Ahmadinejad
knew Khamenei was on his side. But it's fair to argue neither Ahmadinejad nor
the ultra-right wing spectrum may have evaluated the full implication of a
dubious electoral victory possibly imploding the whole system as they know it.
By the end of May, Mousavi was ahead of Ahmadinejad in Iran's 10 biggest cities
by at least 4%.
Fast forward to this past Friday, when Khamenei met with Rafsanjani, the
powerful, actual number two in the regime, who had warned the Supreme Leader
three days earlier about the serious possibility of election fraud. Khamenei
Mousavi had also warned of fraud after Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's
apocalyptic, Mahdist spiritual mentor, appeared to endorse vote rigging.
Ominous signs were piling up fast. Before the election, the IRGC officially
warned it would not tolerate a "velvet revolution" orchestrated by Mousavi's
urban sea of green. On election day, ballot papers "disappeared" from thousands
of polling places. SMS messages were blocked.
The polls closed at 10pm on Friday, Tehran time. Most main streets then were
fully decked out in green. In an absolutely crucial development, the great
Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Radio Farda how Mousavi's main
campaign office in Tehran received a phone call on Saturday at 1am; the
Interior Ministry was saying "Don't announce Mr Mousavi's victory yet ... We
will gradually prepare the public and then you can proceed." Iranian bloggers
broke down the vote at the time as 19.7 million for Mousavi, between 7 and 8
million for Ahmadinejad, 7 million for Karroubi, and 3 million for Rezai.
Then all hell seemed to break loose. Phones, SMS, text messaging, YouTube,
political blogs, opposition websites, foreign media websites, all communication
networks, in a cascade, were shutting down fast. Military and police forces
started to take over Tehran's streets. The Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of
Interior - doubling as election headquarters - was isolated by concrete
barriers. Iranian TV switched to old Iron Curtain-style "messages of national
unity". And the mind-boggling semi-final numbers of Ahmadinejad's landslide
were announced (Ahmadinejad 64%, Mousavi 32%, Rezai 2% and Karroubi less than
The fact that the electoral commission had less than three hours to hand-count
81% of 39 million votes is positively a "divine assessment".