Page 1 of 2 Khamenei rides a storm in a tea cup
By M K Bhadrakumar
Western capitals must make a difficult choice: how long to pin hopes on the
eruption of a "color" revolution in Tehran? The burden falls almost entirely on
Europe, since Washington has different priorities.
The United States cannot afford to be spotted in the barricades on the
frontline of any attempt to prise open the Iranian regime at this delicate
point in Middle Eastern politics. Tehran will not forgive for another quarter
century at least any such American folly, and the Barack Obama administration
has no intentions of committing hara-kiri, either.
Within Europe, it is unclear who is spearheading the charge of the
light brigade. No country seems to want to be seen up front - except the Czech
Republic, which has no choice, since it currently chairs the rotating European
Union presidency. But then, most European countries would probably seldom fail
the chance to be Tehran's bete noire, but will, true to a pattern, swiftly fall
back the moment they estimate that the law of diminishing returns is at work
and continued tirades might jeopardize lucrative commercial interests in Iran.
Tens of thousands of supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein
Mousavi planned to keep up their street protests in Tehran on Wednesday, even
though the authorities have promised a partial recount of Friday's vote that
saw incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad win another four-year term.
No scope for a color revolution
Europe has no real experience in staging color revolutions. This has been the
forte of the Americans - conceptualized in the post-Soviet space in Eurasia by
the Bill Clinton administration and subsequently grasped by the
neo-conservatives in the George W Bush team. Europeans were curious bystanders
in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. France to some extent might have been on
the inside track over Lebanon, but then the result turned out to be a
At any rate, to borrow Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's famous words in a
philosophical context, staging a color revolution in Tehran is not like
breaking an egg. The signs are that the color revolution struggling to be born
on the streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage. Ahmadinejad's participation at
the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at
Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Tuesday was possible only with the tacit acquiescence
of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was an important decision to take at a
critical juncture. Earlier reports in the Western media speculated that
Ahmadinejad might stand down in view of the developing political situation.
Evidently, the regime decided that Tehran should not in any way project an
atmosphere of crisis as that would only play into the hands of the proponents
of a color revolution within Iran and abroad. To quote well-known Iranian
dissident Ibrahim Yazdi, "Certainly, the gap inside Iran, politically, will be
widened. Our main concern is how to keep the enthusiasm that was created for
the election alive, in order to monitor and constrain the power of the
government. The only way to counter it is the power of the people. We need to
How is the regime coping? Clearly, Khamenei is in the driving seat and is in
control of the state apparatus. He is skillfully navigating the regime through
the choppy waters. Khamenei's meeting with the principal opposition candidate
in the election, Mousavi, merits attention. The official statement makes out
certain key points. First, Khamenei indicated unambiguously to Mousavi that the
regime would not tolerate any street protests and he must therefore "channel
protests through legal bodies". It now becomes extremely difficult for Mousavi
to be seen as defying the Supreme Leader's diktat.
Second, Khamenei suggested that there was nothing extraordinary about the
present situation, insofar as "in previous elections also, there were some
people and candidates who had some problems". But they pursued the matter
through the Guardians Council, which in any case has to approve the conduct of
the presidential election in Iran.
Mousavi's existential choice
However, it is the third point made by Khamenei that is most crucial. He
pointed a finger at the "enemies' provocative actions" as well as "certain
behind-the-stage plots" which aimed to "create chaos in Iran". Khamenei then
went on most meaningfully to remind Mousavi that "your [Mousavi's] character is
different from such people and it is necessary that you pursue the problems
The highly personal remark had a touch of admonition, but also the hint of a
fulsome invitation to reasoning that could open up doors leading into pleasant
pathways along which the two interlocutors known to each other for long, after
all, could take a stroll. It was a very Persian remark.
Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of their old association, when the latter
served as Iran's prime minister under him and the two were not only close
comrades-in-arms for the preservation of the Iranian revolution through the
critical years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but also worked together to
frustrate the cunning ploys of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as the
powerful speaker of the Majlis (parliament) constantly conspired to arrogate
During that period, Rafsanjani constantly sniped at Mousavi and tried to
undercut him, although he enjoyed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's endorsement. On
numerous occasions, Rafsanjani gave him hell on the floor of the Majlis,
embarrassing him when he sought parliamentary approval for his moves, whittling
down his authority to execute his policy and systematically undermining his
political standing in public opinion.
Rafsanjani had already begun jockeying for position in expectation of the
post-Khomeini era. As Khomeini fell ill, Rafsanjani became more assertive.
Mousavi, in fact, found himself identifying with the Iranian revolutionaries
(like Ahmadinejad), who were appalled by Rafsanjani's suggestion to Khomeini to
"drink from the chalice of poison" and order a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq
war that effectively meant allowing Saddam Hussein the escape route. Those were
tumultuous times when the fate of the Iranian revolution of 1979 hung by a
The main sticking point was the economic policy of the Mousavi government.
Rafsanjani sought a policy that catered to the Tehran bazaar, which would
benefit his family members as well as large sections of the corrupt clergy, who
were aligned with him. But Mousavi opted for state control of the economy and
insisted he was acting in accordance with the ideals of the revolution and
Khomeini's wishes. What Rafsanjani proposed during those difficult years was to
have the latitude for his clan and other hangers-on to do some war
profiteering. Mousavi's answer was a firm "no", and he stuck to the austere
When the eight-year war with Iraq ended in August 1988, Rafsanjani proposed
that Iran should dilute its revolutionary ideals and take Western help for
reconstruction. (The Rafsanjani family initially made its fortune by exporting
Iranian products such as pistachio nuts and carpets to the US.) But Mousavi
firmly disagreed and refused to go against the grain of the revolution.
Finally, when the levers of power were passed into his hands as president,
Rafsanjani's wrath knew no bounds. Vindictive by nature, he literally drove
Mousavi into political exile. The ex-prime minister summarily abandoned
politics and returned to his profession of architecture and teaching.
Thus, Khamenei all but jogged Mousavi's memory at their meeting in Tehran by
suggesting that the latter should not join hands with Rafsanjani against him.
He suggested that Rafsanjani and his circles are simply using him as a
political ladder. Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of his old constituency.
Indeed, as prime minister (1981-89), Mousavi had an impeccable reputation as a
hardliner - every bit as much as the "international community" regards
Ahmadinejad today. In a memorable article penned in 1988, the Economist
magazine described him as a "firm radical".
Khamenei folded up his conversation with Mousavi by "admiring" the massive
turnout in Friday's election and "once again underlining its healthy and calm
nature". In a subtle way, he allowed Mousavi to have a peep into his thought
processes about the current situation.