Juan Cole: Crunch Time in Tehran





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

Reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi said Saturday morning that the 4 pm GMT rally on Saturday against the alleged stealing of the presidential election in Iran would go ahead. This despite the threats made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in his Friday prayer sermon to crack down on" chaos." Karroubi, a cleric, is not a wild man and his determination to forge on shows that Khamenei did not succeed in laying the issue to rest. Moroever, there are popular constituencies with genuine grievances who are doing grassroots organizing. (For the role of women in the protests, see here.

Khamenei's speech on Friday underlined that Iran was under siege from abroad. He implied that Britain and the United States were sponsoring counter-revolutionary fifth columns aimed at overthrowing the regime. He said that Israel and its supporters were plotting against Iran. He depicted the righteous, pious, just and upright Islamic Republic of Iran as virtually alone in the world, at risk of being toppled by the wicked, oppressive global powers dedicated to the iniquitous hegemony of consumer capitalism, which corrupts morals and punishes the poor.

It is for this reason, he said, that everyone must pull together. He was careful to depict the crisis as a split among old comrades in arms. He acknowledged that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had gone too far in his television debates with rivals, having impugned the integrity of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s through the present, having accused members of the Hashemi Rafsanjani family of getting rich from corrupt dealings with the government, and having slammed the son of Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri (former speaker of the house and failed presidential aspirant in 1997) for embezzlement from state coffers. Khamenei praised the frankness and openness of the televised presidential debates but warned that if they descended too far into personal accusations and bickering they would become counter-productive.

Khamenei praised the contributions to the revolution of Mir Hosain Mousavi, whom he depicts as the runner-up in a fair election, and of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karoubi and Mohsen Rezaie, the latter two candidates having been awarded only a few hundred thousand votes each by the electoral commission. But, he said, given the severe menaces to Iran from abroad, they must bury the hatchet with Ahmadinejad and move on.

Khamenei seemed to me to explain one thing I had not understood, which is why the regime felt compelled to allege that Ahmadinejad had won in such a landslide, of 63% to Mousavi's 32%. I still don't find that assertion plausible. But Khamenei gave as one reason for which there could be no challenge to Ahmadinejad's victory that a margin of 11 million votes was unassailable. It would have been more plausible if Ahmadinejad had squeaked out a victory, but I now see that the down side for the regime would have been that a narrow win for the incumbent, despite being more believable, would have emboldened the challengers and put pressure on the supreme leader for a genuine recount. This way, Khamenei can just shoot down such demands. But what he does not realize is that although he has made it easier to resist a recount, he has completely undermined faith in the system on the part of millions of Iranians, who, as he said, were system insiders, not outsiders. Whether or not Khamenei succeeds in quelling the current unrest, I don't think the regime will be left untouched by this debacle in the future.

Khamenei dismissed carping from the US and the UK about Iran's authoritarian system as mere hypocrisy. The US, he said, has killed thousands in an illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, and is bombing people in Afghanistan. Even domestically, he alleged, the US does not permit freedom of dissent, as shown by the Clinton administration's siege of the Branch Davidian sect at Waco, Tx., which ended with large numbers of people being immolated. [Khamenei conveniently leaves out that this was an armed group engaged in firearms violations and child abuse; as if such an armed cult would be tolerated by his government in Iran! Though it is true that many religion specialists believe the Reno approach was heavy-handed and counter-productive.] He also found laughable British protestations against Iran's system in light of the current scandal in the UK over the members of parliament using public funds to fix up their houses, buy houses, or pay mortgages on alleged houses that did not actually exist. (This scandal has angered the British public like nothing I've seen in 40 years of visiting the UK, and has profoundly undermined public trust in government; I doubt most Americans, who mainly get their news from television, even know about it, since corporate mass media in the US encourages the public to cocoon and ignore the rest of the world where possible. But Khamenei's point may resonate with some Britons.)

The tropes of British and American conspiracies against Iranian sovereignty are so well ingrained in Iranian consciousness that Khamenei only had to allude to them. There are odd idees fixes in the Iranian public about British power in Iran that go back to the Victorian age when British India neighbored the Qajar empire and asserted its south as a British sphere of influence during the Great Game with tsarist Russia over Central Asia. Me, I wonder if MI6 even has more than a handful of field officers and local agents in Iran.

This paranoid style in Iranian political discourse (which has its counterparts in the US) was being deployed to damn the protesters as witting or unwitting tools of nefarious imperial designs on the Iranian state. Khamenei heavily implied that the protesters would be cracked down on brutally if they continued, and would be depicted and treated as traitors.

At the end of the sermon, Khamenei prayed to the hidden Twelfth Imam, the Shiite messiah, to whom, he said, true sovereignty over Iran belonged. This way of speaking seemed to me to be a concession to Ahmadinejad, who sees the Islamic Republic as the manifestation of the will of the hidden Imam, a view mainstream Shiite clerics find blasphemous. Shiites believe that after the Prophet Muhammad's death, he was succeeded by his son-in-law and cousin Ali, and then the latter's descendants (also the Prophet's descendants through his daughter Fatimah, Ali's wife). The Twelver branch of Shiism in Iran and Iraq believes that the Twelfth Imam disappeared as a small child into a supernatural, immortal dimension. Some sayings have him walking hidden among us, others speak of his location in a distant mystical geography (the mountain of Jabulsa' e.g.) But Shiites believe he will one day reveal himself, or return. In his absence, there can be no truly legitimate government, since the descendant of the Prophet or Imam should rule by secret divine knowledge. Khomeini alleged that in the Imam's absence, the seminary-trained clergy could rule in his stead, though Khomeini did not maintain that the clergy had certain knowledge of the Imam's will; the best they could do was an educated conjecture (zann) based on scripture and holy sayings, but since that was the best they could do, they would be forgiven if they got anything wrong. That is a different stance from Ahmadinejad's which sees the hidden hand of the Imam working through the theocratic state. Khamenei did not endorse the latter view explicitly, but he did seem to me to imply that the protesters were rebelling not just against a mortal government but against the will of the Hidden Imam himself.

It now seems only a matter of time until there are high-level arrests and then an intervention against the protesters by the security forces of a quite brutal sort. Only if Mousavi backs down (and thus possibly demoralizes the crowds) can this outcome now be averted.

The real question is whether this is 1963, when the shah managed to put down a rebellion led by Ruhollah Khomeini, or whether it is 1978-79, when he failed to do so. The answer lies in the depth of support for the protests among the population, and in the stance of the various armed forces toward the latter. In 1963 the military was willing to crack down hard on the protesters. In 1978, they started refusing to fire on them. The air force officers actually went over to Khomeini, which was decisive. Precisely because the opposition is from within the ruling circle, we cannot know what the Revolutionary Guards and the regular armed forces are thinking. Mousavi helped get Iran's military act together during the Iran-Iraq War. Rezaie is a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's national guard. If the armed forces hesitate or split, Khamenei could be in real trouble. If not, the protesters could end up being crushed. (See also here on the military dynamics.


See also Gary Sick's reaction.



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