Page 1 of 2 A leaner, meaner Iranian regime By Mahan Abedin
Briefly, it looked like 1978-1979 all over again. The riots that engulfed
Tehran - and to a much lesser extent a few other major cities - were ostensibly
a protest at what the demonstrators (and their purported political leaders)
considered to be "rigged" elections. They were quickly suppressed or fizzled
out because they were directionless and failed to articulate any coherent or
While the election results were indeed surprising and raised eyebrows
everywhere - not least in the inner sanctums of the Islamic Republic -
allegations of massive fraud are to this point unproven. While some tinkering
may have occurred, fraud on the scale that is being alleged by two of the
would have elicited a considerably greater amount of protest and resistance
from within the system.
While many seasoned Iran observers - including the country's best-placed
journalists - were predicting a close race that would be won by Mir Hossein
Mousavi, this author cautioned before the elections that it is entirely
possible that incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad could win again, and not necessarily
by a narrow margin (A
bigger struggle lies ahead, Asia Times Online, June 13, 2009).
But the current issues are no longer about an allegedly rigged election. The
focus once again is about the type and extent of reforms needed to tailor
Iran's institutions and politics for the 21st century.
The election outcome - and the resultant riots and the violence used to
suppress the rioters - have produced an unequivocal victory for the ideological
Islamic right. For the first time in the 30-year history of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, one faction is completely dominant and the other factions are
in complete disarray. This is uncharted territory and a great deal of planning,
positioning and manipulation are needed to steer the right course, especially
in the next four years.
While the ascendancy of the Islamic right will doubtless enhance the cohesion
and maneuverability of the Islamic Republic, it remains to be seen whether this
cohesion has been purchased at an unacceptably high price, in terms of dissent
and long-term prospects for political stability.
The rise and rise of Ahmadinejad
The events of the past three weeks have had a depressing effect on supporters
of the Islamic Republic around the world. The sight of large riots and street
protests followed by the inevitable violence needed to restore public order and
deter future rioters have inflicted considerable damage on the prestige and
self-perception of the core supporters of the Islamic Revolution.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 triumphed on the back of unprecedented street
protests and widespread popular legitimacy. For the past 30 years Iran's rulers
have consistently tried to maintain and harness this popular legitimacy to push
through a series of massive reforms and fundamental changes that has
transformed the country beyond recognition. Any hint that this popular
legitimacy may be waning inevitably undermines the ideological and
institutional basis of the post-revolutionary order.
The disaster that engulfed the country in the immediate aftermath of the
presidential elections is largely due to the leadership and management style of
Ahmadinejad. A seasoned populist and an instinctive street fighter, Ahmadinejad
is certainly the most remarkable product of the Iranian revolution.
Those who have consistently underestimated him in the past four years, were
surprised by his remarkable political skills and a seemingly invincible will to
power. During the election campaign (and especially during the unprecedented
televised debates with the other contenders) Ahmadinejad took on the giants of
the Iranian establishment and demolished them with seemingly effortless ease.
While he has broken every rule that governs the art of politics in the Islamic
Republic, Ahmadinejad gained much sympathy in the country by attacking the
corrupt oligarchs of the country, in particular former president Hashemi
Rafsanjani and former speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri.
Yet despite his stunning election victory (and leaving aside unproven
allegations of election rigging) Ahmadinejad remains an intensely divisive
figure. What really matters at this stage is not whether the elections were
rigged in his favor, but that a considerable number of Iranians refuse to
acknowledge him as their president. This lack of legitimacy amongst certain
strata of Iranian society will undoubtedly cause a considerable number of
problems in the next four years (and possibly beyond), and it remains to be
seen whether the damage can be incrementally repaired.
Beyond popular legitimacy, Ahmadinejad's effect on the Islamic Republic (both
as a cause and a state) has been unprecedented. Apart from the late Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini, no single person has had so much influence on the evolution
of the regime.
Immediately after Ahmadinejad's first election victory in June 2005 this author
wrote an opinion piece for the Beirut-based Daily Star (www.dailystar.com.lb)
entitled "Ahmadinejad may end up being the clerics' bane", in which many of the
events of the past four years were predicted.
It was not difficult to predict that Ahmadinejad would have a profound (and
largely negative) effect on the Islamic Republic. He is the most formidable
representative of the so-called second-generation revolutionaries, who form
much of his political base. In some important respects he belongs to the
extreme right-wing of the regime and espouses a vision and a set of policies
that if taken to their logical conclusion - as they now have been - inevitably
overturn the factional checks and balances of the regime. Coupled with his
independent and eccentric personality, this political base and vision was
likely to cause a breaking point some day. This occurred three weeks ago.
There has been a great amount of amateur analysis and lazy journalism about
Ahmadinejad's background and support base. The embattled president has at one
time or another been accused of taking part in the US hostage crisis of
1979-1981; having murdered exiled dissidents; being supported by the powerful
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); and being a lackey of supreme leader
Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. All of this is untrue.
Ahmadinejad is exactly what he appears to be; namely the most formidable leader
of a faction that has incrementally broadened and deepened the scope of its
reach and influence within the regime to the point where it is now completely
dominant. Factional politics in the Islamic Republic - as we know it - has
Remaking the Islamic Republic
The intervention of Khamenei in the political crisis that engulfed the country
was a pointed reminder to the extreme right that it may have overturned
factional politics, but it cannot ignore the mass ideological base of the
Indeed, Khamenei's impassioned Friday prayer's speech on June 19 was directed
largely to the ideological base of the regime. That is the several million
mostly young men and women whose ultimate loyalty is not to any faction or
political tendency but to the Islamic Republic as a whole. As far as this
constituency is concerned, the cohesion, security and long-term viability of
the Islamic regime are worth a million rigged elections. While Khamenei was
forced to acknowledge Ahmadinejad (if only to make clear that the election
result would stand) he was careful to rally the base of the regime along
familiar ideological and emotional themes.
Khamenei's message to the world was clear: the Islamic Republic may have
changed at the top but its base remains unchanged. This was a message intended
first and foremost to Ahmadinejad and his inner circle. They may have removed
key establishment figures from center-stage but in the long-term they have no
option but to employ the same type of consensual politics that has ensured the
survival of the Islamic Republic for the past thirty years.
There is much confusion about the role of Khamenei in the Islamic Republic. His
official title is "leader of the Islamic Revolution" which many commentators
have skewed into the half-correct term "supreme leader". While Khamenei plays
an important coordination role at the top, his preferred method of intervention
is by rallying the grassroots, with which he has a deep and symbiotic
Apart from his obvious supreme political and ideological role, his authority
stems from the grassroots' belief that he has a special insight and wisdom and
that his every word and action is designed to secure the interests of the
system as a whole. This - rather than abstract ideological beliefs - is why his
word is often considered as final.
The fact that key establishment figures - not least two of the losing
presidential candidates - chose to ignore his final word by inciting their
followers to continue with their protest, is more a symptom of the factional
collapse discussed earlier than any disrespect per se for Khamenei.