'Color' revolution fizzles in Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar
Israelis are realists par excellence. This is why it is always gainful to
buttonhole an Israeli counterpart over a single-malt on the diplomatic circuit.
He will invariably weave into the tapestry of the plain tale a nylon thread
until then obscure to the naked eye.
Thus, the first warning that the adventurous project to mount a "Twitter
revolution" in Iran was doomed to fail had to come from the Israelis. It meshes
well with the indications that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's capacity to
command the seemingly explosive political situation was never really been in
doubt, no matter the hype in the Western media that Tehran was on the 'knife's
If any doubt lingers, that also is dispelled by the fury in the
state-controlled Saudi Arabian media's unprecedented, vicious personal
attack on both Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad - of a kind alien to
the culture of ta'arof (politesse) or even taqiyah (dissimulation)
in that part of the world. Riyadh's fond hopes of witnessing the Iranian regime
debilitated by a protracted crisis have been dashed. Its principal
interlocutor, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has vanished
from the chessboard. Riyadh seems bracing for Tehran's wrath.
Israel's faultless prognosis
In an extraordinary media leak at the weekend, just as Khamenei's historic
speech at the Friday prayer meeting in Tehran ended, Meir Dagan, head of
Israel's Mossad, let it be known that a win by Iranian opposition candidate Mir
Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election on June 12 would have spelled "big
problems" for Israel.
Israelis have a way of saying things. It was a subtle acknowledgement of
political realities in Tehran. Speaking to the Foreign Affairs and Defense
Committee of the Knesset (parliament) last Tuesday, Israel's spymaster could
foresee that the protests in Iran would run out of steam. According to Ha'aretz
newspaper, Dagan said: "Election fraud in Iran is no different than what
happens in liberal states during elections. The struggle over the election
results in Iran is internal and is unconnected to its strategic aspirations,
including its nuclear program."
He explained: "The world, and we, already know Ahmadinejad. If the reformist
candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem,
because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat,
since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element. It
is important to remember that he is the one who began Iran's nuclear program
when he was prime minister."
The assessment is faultless, perfect. By a masterstroke in "back-channel"
diplomacy, Israel signaled to Tehran it had nothing to do with any "color"
revolution. It was a timely signal. Indeed, divisions have come to surface that
have existed for years within the Iranian regime. But it is very obvious that
there is no scope for a "color" revolution in today's Iran. Even a trenchant,
relentless critic of the regime like veteran author Amir Taheri admits:
regime's base has benefited from Ahmadinejad's largesse, and the rest of
Iranian society is not sure anyone could do better. Ahmadinejad's principal
weakness is his failure to bring the rich and corrupt mullahs to justice, as he
had promised. His supporters say that would be the priority in his second term.
... Today, he is the authentic leader of the Khomeinist movement in a way that
Mousavi, or [former President Mohammad] Khatami, or any of the other
half-way-house Khomeinists could never be.
Nonetheless, Mousavi kindled hopes in the West - notably London, Paris and
Berlin - and some "pro-West" Arab capitals. But then, that was because he was a
known factor as foreign minister and then prime minister during 1981-89. The
issue was never that he was a modernist or reformer. To quote Taheri, the
well-informed chronicler of the Middle East, Mousavi when he was in power,
"developed a wide network of contacts in the US, Europe and the Arab
Taheri, who rubs shoulders with the Arab and Western political elites with
elan, offers insights into the Mousavi camp. He recalls that the man who led
the lengthy Algiers talks, which resulted in the release of the American
hostages in 1981, Behzad Nabvi, is still assisting Mousavi. So is Abbas
Kangarioo who held secret negotiations with the Ronald Reagan administration in
what came to be known as the Iran-Contra deal. Kangarioo, a key advisor and
friend of Mousavi, also has the distinction of having "developed a network of
contacts in intelligence and diplomatic circles in Europe and the US".
Unsurprisingly, Taheri estimates that while Mousavi's fame might have spread
far and wide in the Western intelligence circles, his principal appeal at home
is confined to the urban middle classes who wish the "Khomeinist revolution
would just fade away ... People like Mousavi and former presidents Mohammad
Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani have long ceased to be regarded as genuine
From another direction, Taheri came to virtually the same definitive conclusion
as the Israeli intelligence chief reached. Namely, that a weak interlocutor
without a "Khomeinist base" like Mousavi could never make concessions that the
US, the Europeans and the Arabs demanded, whereas Ahmadinejad can afford a
softening of position as it will only seem a clever maneuver. Paradoxically,
negotiating with Ahmadinejad might prove easier for the West, as he has a
Looking back at the past four years, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad restored
the connectivity of the regime with the radical populist discourse. "Four years
ago", Taheri writes, "the image of the regime was one of a clique of
mid-ranking mullahs and their business associates running the country as a
private company in their own interest. The regime's 'downtrodden' base saw
itself as the victim of a great historic swindle. Under Ahmadinejad, a new
generation of revolutionaries has come to the fore, projecting an image of
piety and probity, reassuring the 'downtrodden' that all is not lost."
Ahmadinejad's populism is a double-edged sword. If carried too far, it may
undermine the legitimacy of the regime, which included corrupt sections of the
clerical establishment. But Ahmadinejad is a clever politician. He has
certainly grown while on the job these past four years. Although he
self-portrayed with gusto as a locomotive that charges ahead without brakes or
reverse gear, he knew where to stop and when to glance over his shoulder. Thus,
he hit at many corrupt practices and threatened to bring key figures to
justice, but stopped short of landing the big catch. The big question is
whether Ahmadinejad will cast his net wide in his second term.
However, Khamenei remains the ultimate arbiter. Ahmadinejad publicly
acknowledged the locus of power by expressing in a formal letter "his
gratitude" to Khamenei for his "helpful remarks" at the Friday prayers. Last
week's power-play showed that Khamenei effectively thwarted Rafsanjani's
attempt to rally the clerical establishment in Qom. The turning point was
reached on Thursday when the majority of the 86 members of the powerful
Assembly of Experts (which Rafsanjani headed) openly rallied behind Khamenei.
The Assembly of Experts is the most powerful organ of the regime, invested with
the authority to elect and dismiss the supreme leader and to supervise his
functioning. Around 50 members of the Assembly of Experts said in a statement
that "enemies of Iran" were masterminding the "unrest and riots" over the
presidential vote through its "hired elements". Rafsanjani conclusively lost
the war when the majority of the members of the Assembly of Experts expressed
confidence that with the "sagacious directions of the [Supreme] Leader", the
machinations of Iran's enemies will be defeated.
Armed with this decisive support, Khamenei came to deliver his historic Friday
prayer speech where he ruled out any rethink about the election result.
Rafsanjani failed to show up at the prayer meeting, even as Khamenei made clear
his support for Ahmadinejad, stressing how closely their viewpoints coincided.
Significantly, Khamenei referred to Rafsanjani by name even in his absence. The
message was loud and clear: Khamenei's supremacy is unchallengeable. Most
ominously, while Khamenei graciously absolved Rafsanjani of any personal
corruption, he left open the possibility of legal proceedings being initiated
against his family members. Rafsanjani will now need to weigh his options very
carefully. He cannot but factor in the Sword of Damocles hanging over his
family members who have allegedly amassed huge wealth through corrupt
Also, Khamenei made no effort to specifically contradict the grave charge
leveled by Ahmadinejad during the election campaign that Rafsanjani conspired
with the Saudi regime to overthrow his government - an allegation that the
president couldn't have made without input from Iranian intelligence, which
comes under the supervision of the supreme leader.
On Saturday, the Assembly of Experts went a step further by expressing its
"strong support" for Khamenei's speech. It called on the nation to obey
Khamenei's guidelines. Also on Saturday, the Iranian armed forces headquarters
and the Qom Seminary Teachers Society and several influential voices in the
regime publicly rallied behind Khamenei. The so-called reformist clergy aligned
with Khatami changed their mind and called off their planned demonstration on
The hard reality, therefore, is that Khamenei's awesome powers are in no way
under challenge. He can afford to let demonstrations by Mousavi's middle-class
followers continue to let off steam, as he has the authority to command the
situation in a holistic way. That is to say, even if protests may continue for
a while - which seems improbable as Mousavi finds himself in a tight spot -
that does not erode state power.
As Taheri put it, "So-called 'Iran experts' did not realize that Mousavi was a
balloon that a section of the Iranian middle class inflated to show its anger
not only at Ahmadinejad but also at the entire Khomeinist regime. Otherwise,
there is nothing in Mousavi's record ... to make him more attractive than
At the end of it all, the international community can only heave a sigh of
relief that while this complex and extremely confusing political drama
unfolded, George W Bush was no more in the White House in Washington. United
States President Barack Obama could grasp the subtleties of the situation and
adopted a well-thought-out, measured policy and broadly stuck to it despite
apparent pressure from conservatives.
His remarks have not even remotely called into question Ahmadinejad's locus
standii, let alone Khamenei's, to lead the country. Nor has Obama
identified himself with Mousavi's call for a new poll. If anything, he
ostentatiously distanced himself from Mousavi. Certainly, not once did Obama
threaten to go back on his offer to directly engage Iran in the near future.
Meanwhile, Obama has just done some thoughtful fine-tuning in the lineup of the
Iran hands in his administration, as the countdown begins for the commencement
of direct talks. He shifted Dennis Ross to the National Security Council as
special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia instead of appointing
him as the special envoy to Iran on the lines of George Mitchell's portfolio
covering the Palestinians and Israel. Tehran will no doubt welcome the shift,
given Ross' hawkish views. Now, it will be the right thing to do if Obama asks
Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to hold
additional charge of Iran.
Clearly, the Iranians took note that Obama's statements remained carefully
modulated, although Voice of America might have meddled in the turmoil, as
Tehran alleges. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's broadside on Saturday in
Tehran singled out Britain, France and Germany, but omitted any reference to
the US (or Israel). Among European countries, Tehran trained its guns on
Mottaki said British forces in Iraq trained saboteurs and infiltrated them into
Iran. But even then, it is a measure of Tehran's self-confidence that he
elected to mock, saying it's time London forgot the adage that the "sun never
sets on the British Empire".
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.