Farhang Jahanpour, Oxford
June 21, 2009
The events of the past week in Iran after the disputed presidential election on 12th June have posed the greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic since its formation over 30 years ago. Although the outcome of these events is not yet clear, it is safe to say that the Islamic Republic will not be the same in the future. The authorities have either to resort to a massive crackdown and unprecedented repression, or they have to give in to the just demands of the reformist opposition, which would have enormous impact both on the domestic scene, as well on Iran's foreign policy.
A stolen election
A great deal has been written about the nature of the election. However, there is little doubt that there has been massive fraud in the counting of the votes.(1) All three opposition candidates have protested against what they consider the rigged election, but so far their demands have gone unheeded. As the result, people have had no option but to take part in multi-million peaceful demonstrations that have been unprecedented since the Iranian revolution. On 19th June, a week after the rigged election, the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i spoke to thousands of hard-line supporters of the regime who had been bussed in from various parts of Tehran and neighbouring towns. The speech of the Ayatollah was amazingly carried live not only on Iranian domestic and foreign television stations, but also on CNN, the BBC, Sky, Aljazeera and many other international networks. This shows the importance that the world attaches to the epoch-making events in Iran.
The background to the election
In order to understand the background to the demands of the demonstrators it is necessary to look briefly at the major developments in Iran prior to and since the Islamic revolution. Iran is a country with one of the oldest democratic systems in the Middle East. Over one hundred years ago, the Iranian people staged the "Constitutional Revolution" (1905-11) against the power of despotic kings, and wrote a constitution that transferred power to the people's representatives in the Majlis (Parliament). Throughout the past century, even at the worst of times, different governments have found it expedient to hold elections, even if they were not completely free and fair.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 was essentially a democratic revolution aimed at extending people's freedoms and establishing a truly democratic state. Although Iran had made great material progress under the Shah, the brutality of the Shah's secret police, the SAVAK and the lack of political freedom, forced people to rise up to achieve greater freedom and democracy. Sadly, as the result of infighting among various democratic forces and as the result of the stature that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had gained as the leader of the revolution, the mullahs ended up controlling all levers of power. Instead of laying the foundations of a more democratic state, Ayatollah Khomeini established an Assembly of Experts (dominated by clerics who were allegedly experts in Islamic law) and the novel concept of the Velayat-e Faqih, or the rule of the chief jurisconsult, emerged as the basis of the new constitution. This concept which had no precedent in the history of Islam enshrined the power of the clergy over the state and resulted in the creation of a theocracy.
With the initial upheaval after the revolution and the disastrous Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian people had to divert their attention to more urgent tasks and to defend the territorial integrity of their country. By the end of the war, the power of the clergy over the parliament, the presidency, the judiciary, intelligence services and the new revolutionary militia known as revolutionary guards became an established fact. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that colonialism went to Africa with the Bible in one hand and the gun in the other. It taught the people to pray and sent them to sleep. When they woke up they realised that they had got the Bible but had lost their country. The same can be said about the Iranian revolution. With the start of the Iran-Iraq War and the emphasis on religion, the regime managed to get the people preoccupied and when they looked round they noticed that their country had been stolen by the clerics.
Ever since the beginning of the revolution, the Iranian people have tried to gradually reduce the power of the clergy over politics and to bring about a separation between religion and state. Initially, some supporters of Ayatollah Khomeyni were opposed to the term 'republic', as they believed that it made too strong a concession to Western democratic principles. On the other hand, many liberal and leftist forces were opposed to the prefix 'Islamic' and preferred the term 'Democratic Republic of Iran' instead. They believed in the separation between religion and state. This dichotomy has not been resolved yet. During the first post-revolutionary 'Provisional Government' of Mehdi Bazargan, a French educated engineer and university professor, the government tried to steer the country in a democratic direction. However, with the domination of the mullahs during and after the war, the Islamism of the system dominated over its republicanism.
The reformist government
The unexpected election of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 election, with the votes of over seventy percent of the eligible voters with 80% turnout, opened a new chapter in the post-revolutionary history of Iran and provided the possibility of reform from within. However, his efforts were at every step blocked by the rightwing clergy and their agents in the judiciary and especially in the Guardian Council whose clerical members are appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. This body supervises the elections and approves the credentials of the candidates that can run for high office. So, even in the best of times, only the candidates that are approved by the regime can run in the elections. The nation-wide student uprising in June 1999 was brutally crushed, with a number of students killed or injured. The reformers, and especially the young people, lost faith in the system and adopted a negative and detached stance towards the regime.
President Khatami's rather ineffectual second term, combined with President Bush's speech declaring Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil and threats against the country, weakened the reformers and paved the way for the election of a hard-line president who was supported by the members of the revolutionary guards and the Basij militia. At that time, other reformist candidates protested against the results of the election and provided proof of massive intimidation and the intervention of revolutionary militia in the election, but to no avail. His government was described as 'the government of the barracks' as most members of his cabinet had been former members of the revolutionary guards or intelligence services.
However, the four-year term of hard-line president Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, who came to power as the result of a lacklustre election that was boycotted by many disenchanted voters, has taught the reformers that their absence from the electoral process can have disastrous consequences. Despite unprecedented oil income during the past four years, the Iranian economy has suffered from high unemployment (especially among educated young people), high inflation, corruption and mismanagement. Ahmadinezhad's provocative foreign policy, especially his unacceptable remarks about the Holocaust and Israel, and his uncompromising stance on Iran's nuclear programme, further isolated Iran in the world, even among her neighbours, and added to Iran's domestic woes.
Desire for change
In the recent election, the four presidential candidates - Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (former speaker of the Majlis) from the reformist camp, and Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and Mohsen Rezaei (former head of the Revolutionary Guards) from the conservative camp took part in a series of live televised debates. In his debate with Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, Moussavi accused the president of incompetence and corruption in his domestic policies and of "adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism and superficiality" in his foreign policy. He said that it was his sense of danger for the fate of the country created by Ahmadinezhad's policies that had forced him to declare his candidacy.
These debates, coupled by reformist slogans of Mousavi, appearing for the first time hand-in-hand with his wife Zahra Rahvevard who is an artist and a university professor, created a new sense of purpose and enthusiasm among the reform-minded Iranian voters. His conciliatory remarks about Iran's relations with the West and emphatic statements about his wish to restore relations with the United States provided a ray of hope to many educated Iranians who wish to have a more active encounter with the outside world.
Indeed, international developments also had a major impact on the change of attitude among Iranian voters. While President George Bush's threatening posture and his provocative speech placing Iran in an 'Axis of Evil' infuriated the moderates and paved the way for the election of Ahmadinezhad, the more conciliatory stance of President Barack Obama encouraged the people to challenge their oppressive government. When people felt that their uprising against their government would not result in foreign invasion or mischief, they mustered the courage to declare their reformist and democratic demands.
As a result, with the candidacy of former Prime Minister Mirhoseyn Mousavi, who had the backing of the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and other reformist leaders, once again people saw a ray of hope and took part in the election as never before. The figures provided by the Ministry of Interior show that over 42 million people, or nearly 85 per cent of the eligible voters, took part in the election. This is the highest participation figure in any election since the referendum for the establishment of the Islamic Republic shortly after the victory of the revolution.
Ayatollah Khamene'i's uncompromising stance
However, Ayatollah Khamene'i sanctioned massive vote rigging, thus insulting the majority of the people who had voted for a different candidate. With his threatening and uncompromising speech, Khamene'i has created a situation that has only two possible outcomes, either the total surrender of the people to a great lie, or brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators. Instead of meeting the opposition halfway, he accused the demonstrators of being foreign agents and enemies of the state, intent on causing violence.
In a bold letter that Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, wrote to the Guardian Council, he reminded them: "You no doubt remember that on the eve of the Islamic revolution Mohammad Reza Pahlavi described the uprising of the people in Tabriz as a conspiracy by outsiders. He called his opponents, namely you and me, red and black reactionaries and accused the BBC of being behind the Islamic revolution."
This is exactly what Khamene'i has done in his speech, with one major difference, that those who are demanding the reversal of the electoral fraud are some of the leading figures in the country and the children of the revolution. It is ironic that Khamene'i criticises the people for taking part in street demonstrations, which were indeed the basis of the revolution that brought him to power, except that the revolution was accompanied by much greater violence, such as the cinema fire in Abadan which killed more than 500 people.
Some foreign commentators have described the present confrontation in Iran as one between the less educated lower classes in downtown Tehran and the more educated and affluent people in northern parts of the city. This is a crude oversimplification. The real battle is between a small clerical elite that has grown fat on the wealth of the country and their violent militia, and the majority of people who are demanding their rights. It is a battle between theocracy and democracy. It is a battle between justice and electoral fraud.
With his unwise siding with the fraudulent election, Khamene'i has placed himself in direct opposition to the people. However, despite his threatening language, people have not been cowed. Mirhoseyn Musavi issued a defiant statement on Saturday evening, in which he said that those threats would not silence the people and that he alongside them would continue in their struggle until the election is declared null and void and new elections are held. He has openly accused Khamene'i with siding with those who had engaged in lies and cheating, and has said that the aim of the uprising of the Iranian people is to restore the genuine values of the revolution, namely freedom and human rights.
This sets the scene either for a major climb-down by Khamene'i and Ahmadinezhad, or for terrible bloodshed in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, some of which we have already witnessed.
The democratic West has no option but to side with those who are calling for greater freedom and democracy, especially if the current stand-off ends in the use of greater violence by pro-Khamene'i militia and the revolutionary guards. Meanwhile, a number of neoconservatives in the United States and Israel have already started a campaign calling for foreign intervention in Iran. US Congress has criticised President Obama's muted reaction to the events of Iran. However, the tone that has been adopted by President Obama is absolutely right. He has shown his support for freedom and for peaceful resistance, but without meddling in Iranian affairs.
Any foreign involvement in what is a national uprising would backfire and would rob the Iranian people of the victory which they so justly deserve. The best way that the outside world can help the Iranian people is by providing them with moral support, and by not recognising the illegitimate government of Mahmud Ahmadinezhad that has emerged out of a coup.