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Iran’s Tumultuous Revolution: 35 Years Later

            The following article was originally published as Viewpoints No. 52 by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
 
Shaul Bakhash
      The Iranian revolution, resulting in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Islamic Republic 35 years ago, underwent a long gestation. The first major protests began in January 1978 and continued for an entire year until the collapse of the monarchy in January 1979. The contrast with Egypt during the Arab Spring is striking. A mere 18 days passed between the first large-scale Egyptian protests and the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Iran witnessed an entire year of almost uninterrupted protests and demonstrations, strikes, pamphleteering, and sermonizing. Moreover, in Iran the protests were not confined to Tehran. They were a multi-urban phenomenon. By the late summer and early fall of 1978, almost all Iran’s major cities and dozens of smaller towns were in upheaval. This translated into an extraordinarily wide mobilization as more and more elements of the population and from all social strata were drawn into the opposition movement. This lengthy struggle also allowed the opposition, especially the men around Ayatollah Khomeini (left), to sharpen their message, to expand their networks, and to create—here I use the term with caution—the embryos of a parallel state. Moreover, this lengthy struggle radicalized and hardened the opposition, particularly the men around Khomeini. It inculcated in them habits of violence and a desire to inflict vengeance on those who had oppressed them. Once they seized power, these men were fierce in their determination to completely do away with the old order. To hold on to power they were willing to purge, imprison, and execute large numbers if necessary. They proved prime exemplars of Mao’s reminder that revolution is not a dinner party.  
 
            Equally important, this continuous, day-after-day confrontation between the state and the people during the year of protests in 1978 gradually wore down the regime itself. Months of daily clashes between the protesters and the army led to widespread desertions among the ordinary rank and file. By the fall of 1978, except at the senior levels, the civil service itself had joined the ranks of the opposition. Much of the civil service went on strike. The mail was not being delivered; goods could not be released from customs; the garbage was not being collected; the banking system was paralyzed; industry was at a standstill; oil production was reduced to a trickle. In brief, the state administration had been brought down to its knees; and the very will of the ruling elites to retain power had been gravely eroded.
 
      Equally important was the role of the army. In Egypt, army commanders fairly quickly withdrew any loyalty they believed they owed to Mubarak. In Iran, the officer corps remained loyal to the Shah to the very end. True, after the departure of the Shah (left) from Iran on January 16, 1979 and a couple of days before the final collapse of the old regime, the senior military commanders, in desperation as to how to deal with the continuing demonstrations, announced they would adopt a position of “neutrality” between the people and the regime—an announcement that led to the general uprising that brought the monarchy to an end. Still, in their hearts the senior commanders remained loyal to the king. So loyal that, according to a knowledgeable source, when the Shah was in exile in Morocco just after his departure from Iran, the senior military commanders telephoned him to secure his permission to stage a coup. The Shah refused to take their call.
 
            In the eyes of the opposition, the army was deeply identified with the Shah. It was the army that had sought to suppress the anti-Shah protests and was held responsible for the deaths of demonstrators. Once the monarchy was overthrown, fear of a counter-revolution was pervasive. As a consequence, dozens of senior military commanders were executed. Very widespread purges of the officer class took place. Unlike the Arab Spring in Egypt, where the Egyptian army remained intact, ready to seize the opportunity offered by the anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests, to take power again, in Iran the army was denuded of its officer corps; it was disarmed and defanged. The revolutionaries succeeded in ensuring the army would be in no position to stage a counter-coup. Ironically, they also left Iran virtually defenseless, opening the door open for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980; but that is another story.
 
            Khomeini’s leadership was also important, even crucial. The protests in Egypt and other countries of the Arab Spring produced leaders, of course. But Khomeini in Iran stands in a class by himself. I think one could argue that, the widespread protests in Iran notwithstanding, without Khomeini, there might have been change but there would not have been a revolution. He enjoyed enormous prestige because of his religious office, reputation for incorruptibility and long resistance to the Shah’s rule. He was a very powerful speaker; he had great charisma. His millions of devoted followers attributed to him legendary status, touched even by divinity. At the height of the revolutionary turmoil, it was put about and widely believed that his face had miraculously appeared on the moon. He remained steadfast in refusing any form of compromise and in his insistence that the Shah must go.
 
            Khomeini also had a central idea—of Islamic government—that captured the imagination of a large swath of the Iranian protest movement. On examination, Khomeini’s treatise on Islamic government suggests only the vaguest notion of how such a government would be organized or how it would work. But the central notion of his treatise—that leadership in government belongs to the community of Islamic jurists as heirs to the mantle of the Prophet—became the basic pillar of the constitution of the Islamic Republic and remains so today. While much has changed in the composition of the ruling elites in Iran since the revolution, with men of secular backgrounds running the technical ministries and government departments, the commanding heights of power and the most sensitive positions in the state are still controlled by clerics—in alliance, of course, with the Revolutionary Guards. Indeed, if President Dwight Eisenhower were delivering a farewell address in Iran today, he would warn against the rise of a military-clerical complex.
 
            It is true that a very broad coalition of forces made the Iranian Revolution. We like to believe that in Iran, as in the countries of the Arab Spring, a united people rose up in a demand for democracy and good government. But this should not obscure the fact that the Iranian Revolution was also a revolution of classes: of the underprivileged against the privileged; the poor against the rich and even the moderately well-off; those excluded from power against the ruling elites in the broadest sense; the upwardly mobile against those already part of the comfortable bourgeoisie.
 
            Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, writes that when he was offered the position of prime minister, he described to the Revolutionary Council (RC) his criteria for choosing his cabinet. His cabinet officers, he told the members of the Revolutionary Council, would of course have to be men with a reputation for piety and oppositional activism, but they would also have to be men with the proper education, professional qualifications, and experience. Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, Khomeini’s principal representative on the RC, responded with a firm “no” to these criteria, Bazargan writes. Men of experience and education, Beheshti told Bazargan, (and I am paraphrasing) means “you people will hold office again. We have our people too. They may have no education or experience, but they also expect jobs and positions and they should get them. If necessary, we will assign them deputies with the proper qualifications.”
 
            Like Bazargan, many of the middle-class professionals, members of the intelligentsia, university professors, economists, engineers, and mid-rank government officials did not understand that while they regarded themselves as revolutionaries and part of the opposition against the monarchy, the less privileged saw them as members of the privileged elite who had benefited from the old regime and who deserved to be driven out to make way for the newcomers. Ayatollah Beheshti also told an industrialist who came to see him after his factory had been expropriated: “For decades you people have enjoyed privilege, money and position. Now it is our turn.”
 
            As a consequence, the revolution resulted in a sweeping transformation of elites. In the civil service, the top ranks, down to three or four levels, were eliminated through dismissal, purge, arrest, and flight. Like the army, the police forces were purged of their senior officers. The business elite—industrialists, contractors, bankers—were expropriated and a great deal of private wealth was taken over by the state. Similar transformations of elites took place virtually everywhere—in universities, in banks, in hospital administrations. Even in the clerical community, many of the highly respected members of the older clerical establishment were gradually marginalized to be replaced by middle-rank clerics identified with the Khomeini revolutionaries.
 
            It is possible to argue that the electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the Arab Spring also represented a reach for a share in power, privilege, and material reward by the underprivileged whom the Brotherhood represented. But in Egypt the old ruling elites remained in place; and the new claimants to power were soon ousted.
 
            From its very beginnings, post-revolution politics in Iran has been characterized by deep divisions and fierce power struggles both among the wide range of groups that formed the original revolutionary coalition and among the men most closely identified with Khomeini himself. The radical students who seized the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 brought down the moderate Islamist government of Mehdi Bazargan. Iran’s first president, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, who in his own disorganized way sought to tame the powerful currents and radicalism released by the revolution, was impeached by the clerical radicals in the second year of his presidency. After the ouster of Bani-Sadr, the men around Khomeini turned on the left-wing guerrilla organizations that had played a role in bringing down the Shah and in support of Khomeini. In the worst period of revolutionary terror witnessed since the revolution, thousands of members of these organizations were executed, sometimes in broad daylight on the streets of the capital. Arrests and repression gradually eliminated or neutralized members of the Tudeh (Iranian Communist) Party, elements of the old National Front, and other fringe groups.  
 
            By mid-1985, the men around Khomeini had eliminated most of the rival claimants to power. But this inner circle, it turned out, was not united; and while deep differences over policy and purpose remained muted due to the exigencies of the Iran-Iraq War, they emerged in force at the end of the war and with the death of Khomeini in 1989. Over the last two decades and more, conservatives of various stripes insisted on the enforcement of Islamic laws and principles, resisted any deviation from what they regarded as revolutionary ideals, and emphasized loyalty to the revolutionary organizations and the principle of concentration of power in the supreme leader’s hands. They competed for political primacy with the pragmatic domestic and foreign policies championed by President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997), the sweeping and ultimately unsuccessful reformist policies of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and the populism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). These competing strands in the politics of the Iranian ruling elite reflected the unresolved political legacy—the unresolved political issues—generated by the 1979 revolution. Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 on a platform of moderate, cautious reform represents the latest attempt to address them.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.
 
This paper was presented at the Middle East Program meeting, “Iran’s Tumultuous Revolution: 35 Years Later” on February 10, 2014.
 
 
Photo credit: Imam Khomeini via Instagram, Reza Shah Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Iran at the UN: Khamenei to Rouhani

Shaul Bakhash

            On September 24, Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani will make his debut at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He is far from the first Iranian president to make this appearance. For a quarter century, Iran’s top elected leaders have all used the green marble dais in the cavernous General Assembly to lay out Iran’s vision for the Islamic Republic, the Middle East, and the world. Indeed, before becoming the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even then-President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei traveled to New York for the opening of the United Nations in 1987.
      Rouhani’s appearance this year may be particularly momentous. For the first time, both Iran and the United States are in sync about serious diplomacy -- and the bargaining may well begin in public but even more behind-the-scenes in New York. Rouhani has made clear that he will use the gathering of heads of state to announce a new era in Iran’s relations with the outside word, especially with the United States and Europe. In his brief six weeks in office, the president has already talked extensively about moderation and “constructive engagement” on international disputes.
 
 
            The Scottish-educated cleric has openly talked about a “win-win” deal to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. He has vigorously defended Tehran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, while denying that the Islamic Republic is developing the world’s deadliest weapon. But he has also pledged greater transparency to address unanswered questions about Iran’s program. With Iran’s economy in shambles, he is also looking for relief from punitive international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s failure to comply with a series of U.N. resolutions.
            Rouhani will also be pressing for what amounts to a win-win compromise on Syria, Tehran’s closest ally in the Arab world. The new president has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, without blaming the government outright. The use of chemical weapons is particularly sensitive in Iran because it suffered tens of thousands of casualties from Iraq’s repeated use of several forms of chemical weapons during their eight-year war in the 1980s. But Iran has reportedly provided significant aid to the embattled regime of President Bashar al Assad. The Islamic Republic has also supported Russia’s effort to find a diplomatic outcome that will keep Assad in power. And Tehran has been outspoken in condemning a possible U.S. military strike.
            Rouhani’s appearance should be placed in the context of long years of experience with Iranian engagement at the United Nations. The UNGA openings have been a forum for some of the most dramatic exchanges between Iran and the international community.
 
 President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            “The foundations of the security supported by such a Security Council is nothing but a nice-looking house of cards... A big chapter of our history, a very bitter, bloody and evil chapter, is saturated with American enmities and grudging hostilities toward our nation... The system of world domination makes decisions for the whole world ... yesterday it was Hiroshima and today the president of the United States is proud of the horrendous behavior of his predecessors.”
            President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 1987
 
            Khamenei’s attendance at the 1987 General Assembly marked the first visit by a senior Iranian official to the United Nations. Khamenei addressed fellow heads of state in the midst of the devastating Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military had invaded Iran in 1980 to overthrow the fledgling Islamic Republic. Iran was isolated and resented the U.N. Security Council’s apathy toward the war. Khamenei had an opportunity to present Iran’s case.
 
      On the day before Khamenei’s address, U.S. forces attacked the Iran-Ajr, an Iranian vessel caught dropping mines in the Persian Gulf. Five Iranians were killed and 26 crewmen were seized, four of whom were injured. Khamenei lashed out at the United States in his speech and claimed the Iran-Ajr was a merchant vessel, not a military speedboat. The incident derailed what might have been Tehran’s moment of engagement with the outside world.
            Khamenei’s words, however, reflected more than his immediate anger about the attack of the ship. Khamenei outlined his broader worldview, which centered on criticizing the prevailing international order since World War II. Khamenei begrudged the status of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia -- and their ability to veto resolutions. Khamenei went on to repeat his call for a change in world order as president and later as supreme leader. Rouhani’s posture will likely starkly contrast with Khamenei’s only address to the general assembly.
 
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati
            “The failure of the Security Council squarely to face the Palestinian crisis and the constant aggressions against the Palestinian people, Lebanon and Syria, not to mention its intentional failure to enforce its own resolutions, are a sad illustration of the prevailing preference of political interests over peace, security, international law and equity.”
            Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, 1993
 
      For the next decade, no Iranian president traveled to New York to deliver a U.N. address. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati spoke for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997. Velayati served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997 and still holds considerable influence as chief foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei. In his addresses, Velayati repeatedly criticized the international order and accused the U.N. Security Council of maintaining double standards. In 1992, he condemned minimal international reactions to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, “decades-old aggression” by Israel against Palestinians, and Serbia’s move against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1996, Velayati accused the U.S. Congress of allocating money for terrorist activities against the Islamic Republic.
           But President Rafsanjani was more than likely using Velayati’s addresses to exhibit strength and independence to please the Iranian public. Back in Tehran, Rafsanjani quietly enacted pragmatic policies aimed at improving Iran’s relations with the outside world. Early into presidency, Rafsanjani repaired relations with Saudi Arabia and reestablished relations with several Middle Eastern and North African monarchies. He in effect sided with the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait. And he helped win freedom for American hostages held by Lebanese allies. Rafsanjani also reached out Egypt and signed a $1 billion agreement with the U.S. oil company Conoco to develop Iranian offshore fields. But former President Bill Clinton killed the deal with an executive order that barred U.S. investment in Iran’s oil sector.
 
President Mohammad Khatami
            “If humanity at the threshold of the new century and millennium devotes all efforts to institutionalize dialogue, replacing hostility and confrontation with discourse and understanding, it would leave an invaluable legacy for the benefit of the future generations.”
            President Mohammad Khatami, 1998
 
            When President Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, he sincerely thought he could inaugurate a new era in Iran’s relations with the international community. In a January 1998 interview, he first outlined his idea to have a “dialogue among the nations” to promote international cooperation and understanding. He acknowledged the “bulky wall of mistrust” that had gone up between Iran and the United States since the 1979 revolution. “There must first be a crack in this wall of mistrust to prepare for a change and create an opportunity to study a new situation,” Khatami told CNN.
      In September 1998, Khatami spoke at the U.N. General Assembly opening and became the first Iranian president to visit the United States in a decade. The reformist president was Iran’s one hope for better relations with the international community. Khatami’s address defied Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, which argued that culture would be the primary source of conflict in the future. But Khatami’s plans did not work out the way he intended, mostly due to domestic pressure. Hardliners did their best to disrupt and sabotage Khatami’s efforts to reach out. U.S. outreach to Khatami was too cautious. And the international community did not reciprocate the way Khatami had hoped.
            Khatami, however, did achieve some success in foreign relations. He nullified Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death decree against British writer Salman Rushdie, which had severely aggravated Iran’s relations with Europe and even led to the withdrawal of ambassadors. Khatami agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment program to allow negotiations with the Europeans to go forward under Rouhani, then-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.
 
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
            “Today, the Zionist regime is on a definite slope to collapse, and there is no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters… American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders… With the grace of God Almighty, the existing pillars of the oppressive system are crumbling.”
            President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2008
 
            Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, took a new approach to speaking in front of the U.N. General Assembly. The hardliner treated his appearances as an opportunity to play his preferred role as international bad boy, willing to challenge the West on almost any issue. Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric prompted many walkouts by Western countries each year. He predicted the collapse of American power, capitalism, and Israel. In 2010, Ahmadinejad suggested that the United States orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in order to “reverse the declining American economy” and “save the Zionist regime.” In 2011, he claimed, “European countries still use the Holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay (a) fine or ransom to the Zionists.”
      Ahmadinejad also treated his U.N. audience to his bizarre religious views. He once predicted an early second coming of Jesus Christ side-by-side with the Shiite savior, the Mahdi.
      Ahmadinejad’s performances were aimed at a domestic audience to an extent, but more importantly to a third-world one. He tried to emulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and cultivate influence in developing countries. But in reality, Ahmadinejad did serious damage to Iran’s credibility and international standing with his U.N. speeches.
            After eight years of Ahmadinejad’s confrontational leadership, Iran seems ready for a change in 2013. In the run-up to Rouhani’s speech, the new president has already signaled his desire to chart a new, more flexible course in dealing with the outside world. “We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region,” he said in a September 18 interview with NBC. Rouhani also mentioned that he had received a “positive and constructive” letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that could be “tiny steps for a very important future.” Rouhani’s address could be the most substantive overture yet delivered by an Iranian leader to the United Nations.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

 

Read Bakhash's chapter on the Six Presidents in "The Iran Primer." 

This piece first appeared on www.foreignpolicy.com

Photo credits: President.ir, C-Span

 

Part IV - Pivotal Election: The Issues

Shaul Bakhash

            Three major issues will dominate Iran’s presidential election in June:
·    A deteriorating economy due to both chronic mismanagement and tough international sanctions,
·    The nuclear stand-off with the West, the flashpoint undermining Iran’s broader foreign policy,
·    And, more indirectly, a divisive political environment that has increasingly narrowed over the past decade.
 
            Like elections elsewhere, Iran’s campaign will almost certainly produce calls for change, mainly on the economic front. Although he is stepping aside after two terms, Ahmadinejad has already become the locus of criticism, which is certain to increase as the election heats up. “It’s the economy stupid” also applies in a country where oil sales have dropped by half and the currency has plummeted by up to 70 percent on the open market over the previous year.
 
            Yet candidates will also have to offer solutions—and address the prickly interrelated issue of international sanctions that have increasingly isolated the Islamic Republic. Two views are already emerging.
 
THE ECONOMY

            In January, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, a presumptive presidential candidate, argued that solving Iran’s problems abroad would not fix economic problems at home. Indeed, he contended, the opposite was true: Fixing domestic economic problems would strengthen Iran and make it less vulnerable to foreign pressures. 
 

      His position reflected the recent call by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) for “an economy of resistance” that preaches defiance of sanctions imposed by the outside world. In January, Khamenei endorsed a plan from the Expediency Council for self-sufficiency in defense, security, industry and agriculture.

      Announced amid much fanfare, the economic program turned out to be a list of high-minded bromides that are unlikely to really solve Iran’s pressing economic problems anytime soon. The multi-page document advocated “expansion and deepening of the culture of self-confidence, self-sufficiency, innovation and creativity in all areas of defense and security.” In the areas of industry and agriculture, it called for “expanding private ownership and management; ending non-essential preferences and monopolies…improving efficiency in water use.”
 
            A second camp is not as ready to overlook the damaging impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy, even if it means striking a different tone from the supreme leader. The minister of industry, mines and commerce recently described sanctions as “crippling” and warned that they were affecting the entire economy. He acknowledged publicly that Iran lacks foreign exchange, that the Central Bank cannot transfer money, that Iranian ships cannot dock at foreign ports, and that Iran cannot secure pharmaceuticals or raw materials for its industries.
 
NUCLEAR PROGRAM

            None of the conservative candidates is likely to challenge Khamenei’s positions on Iran’s nuclear program or negotiations with the United States. As the election approaches, the mood on talks has actually hardened, at least in public. In late 2012, Tehran was abuzz with speculation about direct talks with Washington—beyond recent negotiations with the world’s six major powers. But speculation has recently faded, with Tehran showing no sign of major compromise on terms to reach a meaningful deal.
 
            Yet, again, other politicians have staked out different views. In early January, seven prominent former members of parliament issued an open letter calling for direct negotiations between Iran and the United States. Although they all live abroad, their position echoed sentiments shared by many members of the political class at home.

            Polls indicate that most Iranians believe the Islamic Republic has a right to enrich uranium for its nuclear energy program. But many Iranians also want to end the standoff with the international community that has devastated the economy and isolated Iran.  
 
DOMESTIC POLITICS

            For more than two decades, Iranian political debates have ultimately centered on political liberalization. But every call or campaign for political openings has clashed with the regime’s determination to quash even mild dissent or internal debate.

            In different ways, former President Mohammad Khatami, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have separately appealed for free elections. In January, with the election season about to begin, Khamenei countered by warning that such talk only provides comfort to the “enemy” and weakens public faith in the electoral process. Iran’s elections, he claimed, are the freest in the world.

            Friday prayer leaders in Tehran and other major cities in the country soon echoed his denunciation of free elections. Over 100 members of the Majles voted for a resolution on the same lines.
 
            Iran’s body politic is not totally cowed, however. Six leading politicians identified with the old National Front (now excluded from power) wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader urging him to open up Iran’s political space. From his cell in Evin Prison, Khatami’s former deputy interior minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, not only denounced Khamenei as a creeping dictator but has urged Iranians to continue demanding free elections.

            Although small, these moves are reminders that a wider debate is still taking place even as the regime tries to tighten its hold over political life and control the upcoming elections.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.


Read Part II - Pivotal Election: The Ahmadinejad Camp

Read Part III - Pivotal Election: The Reformists

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Part III - Pivotal Election: The Reformists

Shaul Bakhash

            Iran’s reformers transformed revolutionary politics between 1997 and 2005 under former President Mohammed Khatami. But today, the reformists’ ability to contest the presidential elections in any meaningful way appears slim. Conservatives have even taken to labeling them the “seditionist current,” despite the fact that most were among the original revolutionaries.
 

      As yet, the reformists have a fundamental problem—no viable candidate. Khatami will not run again, even though he technically could. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (left)—a former prime minister and former speaker of parliament—remain under house arrest for their leadership of the opposition Green Movement after the disputed 2009 election. Mohammad Reza Aref, Khatami’s former vice-president, has reportedly considered running. But the obstacles are formidable for reformists.

            The reformist bloc has also issued tough conditions for their participation in the elections—and not to call for a boycott that might discredit the vote both at home and abroad. They demanded release of their leaders and other political prisoners. They also called for guarantees that the poll will be free and transparent. Neither demand is likely to be met.
 
            The main reformist political parties have been proscribed by the ministry of interior, although they continue to have a shadowy existence. A congress of all reformist parties and groups was slated for mid-January to discuss election strategy, but it was called off after the authorities effectively banned the meeting by imposing onerous demands on the organizers. The regime required that they renounce Mousavi, Karroubi and the Green Movement and admit no members of reformist parties to the meeting.  
 
            Leading conservatives—including Majles deputies, senior clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders—have increasingly denounced the reformist movement, its leaders and others who took part in the 2009 protests. Charges against reformists have become so serious that Reza Khatami, the former president’s brother and spokesman for his political party, had to publicly deny that the reformists want to overthrow the regime.
 
            Their aim is to reform, not to “overthrow” the government, the younger Khatami said. If reform proves impossible, he added, the reformists will simply go home and tend to their own business.
 
            Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and grand old man of Iranian politics, had earlier proposed a “coalition government” of all parties to address the country’s problems—a proposal promptly denounced by conservatives. They charged that it provided a back-door for reformers to return to power.
 
            Rafsanjani appears to be quietly urging Khamenei to embrace a compromise solution to Iran’s current political dilemma. He also has not yet ruled out another bid for the presidency himself. Theoretically, he could run. Parliament tried to bar candidates over age 75 from running—a move clearly aimed at Rafsanjani, who is 78—but the Council of Guardians failed to endorse the bill. The council, composed of 12 senior clerics and religious scholars, has veto power over legislative proposals. At a press conference in late January, Rafsanjani denied that he had any intention of running again. (He was president for two terms from 1989 to 1997, then lost to Ahmadinejad in 2009.) But he then added that he “would not hesitate for a second to enter the arena” if he felt he was needed.
 
            A few conservative leaders have also tried to repair the deep divide among factions that emerged from among the original revolutionaries, but so far to no avail. Habibollah Asghar-Owladi, a powerful conservative parliamentarian with close ties to the bazaar and business community, recently said that Mousavi and Karroubi were not leaders of the “seditious current,” even if they had been involved with it. He implied that the two could be returned to the fold.
 
            But within two weeks, Asghar-Owladi was forced to retract his overture. He did not mean to exonerate the two reformists, he insisted. They still had to made amends for their sins.
 
            The Friday prayer leader in Mashhad, who is a Khamenei appointee, also tried to open the door to reconciliation with Mousavi and Karroubi. He was soon pressured into an even more compliant retraction. The two reformist leaders should be put on trial, he said.
 
            Even moderate conservatives now insist that any reformists who want to return to the “embrace” of the revolution must first “apologize” and “ask forgiveness” for their past transgressions. The reformists must also distance themselves from other “seditionists.” A senior Revolutionary Guards commander recently described the 2009 protests as a greater threat to the Islamic Republic than the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.  Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Council of Guardians, has also said that the so-called seditionists “should not even dream” of running for president.
 
            Debate about the detained reformist leaders may not be over, however. In late January 2013, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani repeated Ashgar-Owladi’s formulation that Mousavi and Karroubi could indeed return to the fold if they apologized. The comment from Larijani, a potential presidential candidate, may indicate that moderate conservatives—and perhaps even the supreme leader—hope to avoid another tainted election by freeing the opposition leaders. But any release appears to be conditioned on political submission—and public proof that Mousavi and Karroubi have been tamed and humiliated.
 
            Under these conditions, major politicians from the reformist camp are unlikely to run in the coming elections. Voters are more likely to have to choose from conservative candidates and possibly a candidate from the Ahmadinejad camp, if one is allowed to run. At the same time, little-known dark horses have emerged in past elections—and taken Iran in unexpected directions.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.


Read Part II - Pivotal Election: The Ahmadinejad Camp
 
 
Photo credit: Mir Hossein Mousavi Facebook profile
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Part II - Pivotal Election: The Ahmadinejad Camp

Shaul Bakhash

            Despite their current political dominance, Iran’s conservatives appear inordinately fearful of challenges looming in the June presidential election. Perhaps the most surprising is their concern that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may field a member of his inner circle against his former allies. Just four years ago, conservatives rallied to keep Ahmadinejad in office, despite unprecedented opposition during months of Green Movement protests. Now conservatives are dead-set on preventing the election of one of the president’s lieutenants.
 
            Now in his final five months in office, Ahmadinejad faces a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms as president. But he clearly would like to remain a defining political force from behind the scenes. Iranians often refer to his strategy as the Putin model, after the Russian president’s tactics used to orchestrate the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2008—until Putin could run again in 2012.
 

            Over the past year, political speculation has centered primarily on Esfandiar Mashaie (left), Ahmadinejad’s principal aide, ideas-man and political adviser. He is widely considered to have formidable political skills; he is often credited with Rasputin-like influence over the president. The two men are also in-laws through the marriage of their children.

            Conservatives have countered with a campaign to discredit the Ahmadinejad team as the “deviant current,” trying to push the president and his lieutenants outside the political and religious mainstream. Mashaie is a particular target of the conservatives’ ire.

            Ahmadinejad’s ability to orchestrate a succession now seems extremely limited. He has lost much of his previous power as tensions between conservatives and his camp have escalated. The president fell afoul of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2012 when he tried to name his own candidate to the Intelligence Ministry— long regarded as the Supreme Leader’s prerogative.
 
            The president and the Majles also have daggers drawn over several major issues, most volubly on Iran’s troubled economy. The president barely disguises his contempt for parliament. In turn, the deputies, led by Speaker Ali Larijani, criticize Ahmadinejad’s policies and his ministers daily. They regularly issue dire warnings about the president’s alleged infractions of the law and the constitution.
 
            Ahmadinejad’s support from the Revolutionary Guards has long dissipated, even though he served in the elite military force during the eight-year war with Iraq. Guards commanders are now among his most vocal critics. Ahmadinejad’s vaunted subsidies reform program has cost rather than saved the government money, while the larger economy has suffered from the president’s misguided policies.  The unorthodox religious views of the president and his team have alienated members of the clergy too.
 
            Ultimately, the Supreme Leader seems highly unlikely to acquiesce in the candidacy of Mashaie and, potentially, other Ahmadinejad aides. The Council of Guardians could also disqualify the president’s allies.
 
            Yet the president seems unfazed by his own isolation and the sometimes scathing criticism to which he has been subjected. His populist rhetoric and liberal welfare policies—and his readiness to thumb his nose at the high and mighty—have earned him favor with the rural and urban poor. And he still controls the interior ministry, which plays a role in running the elections.
 
            So a challenge to the conservatives by an Ahmadinejad-backed candidate still seems likely.
 
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

Read Part I - Pivotal Election: The Conservatives.

Read his chapter on the Six Presidents in "The Iran Primer." 

Photo Credit: Russia's Presidential Press and Information Office (www.kremlin.ru)
 
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