Power Struggle in Iran

Tuesday 23 June 2009, by Editorial, EPW

The struggle within the power elite in Iran has spilled over into the streets and now threatens the theocracy.

The statement by Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, soon after the presidential elections, that the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a “divine assessment” summed up the whole campaign and the outcome well. President Ahmadinejad, according to official results, won the elections by capturing 66% of the votes in the first round of the polls, defeating three of his challengers, including his chief opponent and “reformist” Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who, it is said, garnered 33%, enough to rule out further rounds of polling.

Three events on polling day stand out. Less than three hours after voting had ended, more than 80% of the close to 40 million ballots that had been cast were “counted”. The official results showed that Mousavi had trailed not only in Tehran and other cities, but was also way behind Ahmadinejad in his stronghold Azeri areas such as Tabriz. Soon after polling, there was a massive shutdown of communication systems and the military was on the streets, and then Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. Unwilling to accept the results, Ahmadinejad’s opponents cried foul and, following unprecedented protests on the streets of Iran’s biggest cities, a partial recount was ordered by the powerful Guardian Council.

Ahmadinejad was a strong favourite in the run-up to the polls, having established solid support in the rural areas of Iran (which however account for only 30% of Iran’s population) with a mixture of nationalism and populism. But in the run-up to the elections, Mousavi mounted a spirited campaign, recalling his record as the prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and offering criticism of Ahmadinejad’s mishandling of the economy and a confrontationist foreign policy. He promised greater freedom for women, expansion of civil liberties, looser controls over the state economy, and a more conciliatory foreign policy while maintaining Iran’s nuclear programme – all in contrast to Ahmadinejad’s hardline conservative rule. Mousavi gradually built up support, particularly in the urban areas of Iran, among women, university graduates, and the “bazaar merchants” who were worried by inflation. He also drew support from others aligned with the “reformers” such as former president Mohammad Khatami.

If the disputed election results are indeed a consequence of manipulation, the question arises as to why even a moderate conservative such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi, very much part of the ruling elite, is not preferred to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the powers that be in Iran. The explanation must lie in the manner the political system in Iran combines Islamic theocracy with modern aspects of democracy, wherein the Islamic institutions such as the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Assembly of Experts wield great influence. Included in this structure is the military Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran) and its associated Basij voluntary militia, who are tasked with security and ideological protection of the Islamic republic. There is an ongoing power struggle between conservatives and “reformists” within the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, and this has weighed upon the presidential elections. Ahmadinejad derives great support from the Pasdaran, the Basij and among the conservative sections of which Ayatollah Khamenei has been traditionally seen to be part of.

Ahmadinejad’s support base can be attributed to the many radical economic measures he has taken, such as instituting “justice shares” for the poor in Iran’s private sector. A section of the ruling elite, aligned with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is at odds with the populist agenda of Ahmadinejad and there is instead an alignment with the reformists on economic principles. This cohesion between pragmatists such as Rafsanjani and reformists such as Khatami was alluded to by Ahmadinejad in his attack on Mousavi during the election campaign. Ahmadinejad was obliquely preferred over his opponent by Ayatollah Khamenei himself in the run-up to the elections. The power struggle among the conservatives, the reformists and those with business interests such as Rafsanjani could thus possibly explain the alleged fraud that prevented a moderate conservative such as Mousavi from coming to power.

The massive protests in the cities of Iran have been described by the western media as the “green revolution”. The west certainly would like to see the protests as similar to the “colourcoded revolutions” in the former east European countries of the socialist bloc. But this is wishful thinking by the Iran baiters in the west. There remains within Iran a strong nationalist sentiment against the United States and Israel for their threatening postures towards the country. The protestors are only asking for an annulment of the election results and they support reform within the Iranian political framework.

There is little possibility of a radical transformation of Iran’s polity as long as the theocratic structure of Iran’s polity and society remains intact and the democratic contestations are limited to entities within the framework of the velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists). Yet one cannot at the same time downplay the vast scale of urban protests, which have drawn the educated, the women and the traders, all of whom have suffered under the theocracy.

Editorial Economic and Political Weekly

June 20, 2009

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