Thursday, July 2, 2009

Iran's Future Dims

Iranians have evidently fled the streets, and the regime has closed the book on the election dispute, but neither pro-Ahmadinejad extremists out for blood nor Ahmadinejad’s opponents within the elite appear to be getting the message, as rhetoric intensifies. This harms Iranian democracy and makes more dangerous the international situation by complicating Iran’s relations with the U.S. and Israel.

Despite a statement by the Guardian Council that the election issue was resolved, the Islamic Revolution Devotees Society, which had announced support for Ahmadinejad in April, called on June 30 for debates among the presidential candidates to clear up “ambiguities.”Judging from a Western media report, hardliners have little interest in reunifying the fractured revolutionary elite:

  • "Those who asked for the annulment of 10th presidential election are anti-revolutionary and against the regime," hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami told the official news agency IRNA, in an apparent reference to opposition groups led by Mousavi. "If anyone said there was fraud in the election, he has lied and committed a sin," said the cleric.
  • Even more ominously, the Basij militia is overtly interfering in politics, reportedly calling on the regime to investigate Mousavi for sedition. If true, this would add evidence to the argument that the electoral crisis was really about an effort by the military (and perhaps intelligence) forces to take control of Iran away from the old Khomenei-era generation of clergy.

These remarks starkly diverge from Khamenei’s own strong backing for the legitimacy of all four candidates in his June 19 Friday prayer sermon:

The four candidates who entered the presidential race all belonged and still belong to the Islamic establishment. One of these four is the president of our country - a hardworking and trustworthy president. One of them is the two-term prime minister, he served the country when I myself was president. He was my prime minister for eight years. One of them was the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and one of the wartime commanders. One them was two-time head of parliament and Majlis speaker. They are all members of our Islamic establishment.

Despite the dangerous tone of the pro-Ahmadinejad forces, elite rhetoric from the anti-Ahmadinejad camp continues to heat up as well. Former President Khatami had called for the formation of an “impartial” body—implying that the Guardian Council was not impartial to resolve the election dispute.

In a Sunday meeting with members of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Khatami raised the alarm that the breach of public confidence could shake the foundation of the Islamic establishment.
The two-time Reformist president then suggested that the formation of an 'impartial panel' to look into the issue could remove any ambiguities and restore public trust.

On July 1, Khatami went further, denouncing the handling of the protestors by the regime:

If you want to calm the atmosphere, why are you carrying out mass arrests? Oppressing people will not help end the protest.
Karroubi, head of the Etemad Melli (National Confidence) party and former Majlis speaker, has also reportedly become increasingly active, although Iranian media censorship is making it increasingly difficult to track the actions of the losing candidates:

… Karroubi has stepped up his independent criticism of the election and could emerge as a leading dissident voice against Ahmadinejad.

On Tuesday, he issued a harshly worded statement that blasted Ahmadinejad's government and pledged to continue challenging its authority. Karroubi's political group, the National Confidence Party, said the newspaper was shut down in response. "I don't consider this government as legitimate," said the statement posted on Karroubi's Wed site. "I will continue the fight under any circumstances and using every means."

Karroubi had formerly singled out the Interior Ministry as responsible for electoral tensions, in an apparent effort to put the onus on Ahmadinejad rather than Khamenei.

Moussavi issued a statement Wednesday flatly challenging the regime:

From now on we will have a government the legitimacy of which the majority of the people, including me, will not acknowledge.

Khamenei’s thoughtful and conciliatory remarks in his Friday prayer sermon on the 19th indicated his concern over such a split among the elite, but his cautious tone has not been emulated by others in the winning coalition – on the streets, at the legal level, or in recent rhetoric and has thus provoked the very divisiveness it attacked. Heavy-handed regime behavior even after its overwhelming victory seems likely to prevent conciliation among elite factions, not to mention undermining legitimacy among the people. This can be expected to further poison an already harsh political environment characterized by bitter factional competition and institutionalized distrust in which career failure can easily lead to imprisonment or even execution.

Iranian politics has been energized, and to that extent patriotic Americans or Israelis dismayed by the lack of popular commitment to defend democractic principles in the face of leadership abuse may be envious. On the other hand, the handling of the election seems likely to leave behind a population and elite split, embittered, radicalized, and disenchanted. The fact that somewhat analogous processes have weakened the unity of both the Israeli and American populations in recent years will make rational interaction among the three states considerably more difficult in the near future.

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