Iran’s political scene continues to be fluid as the Opposition’s campaign against the results of the June presidential elections is being met with a hard-nosed response from an establishment that is prepared for a long haul.
To its credit, the Opposition has remained well afloat over the past two-and-a-half months. Buoyed by street power, the Opposition camp — rallying under the green banner of Mir Hosain Mousavi, presidential candidate who rejected the results of the elections — has not been put down so far. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing a spirited opposition, which continues to question the legitimacy of his election.
The protests, which snowballed on the streets of Tehran soon after the announcement of the disputed election results, were met with a heavy crackdown. But the clinical use of force failed to quash the protests, which continued to flare up sporadically in the weeks that followed. Meanwhile, custodial deaths in the Kahrizak prison, where several people were detained, gave the protesters their second wind. Three prisoners died in custody amid accusations that many inmates were tortured.
Another Opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, also alleged that some detainees had been sexually assaulted — a charge the government has strongly denied. An ally of Mr. Mousavi claims that 69 people were killed in the post-election protests. The abuse of prisoners in Kahrizak has become an emotive focus of the Opposition protests.
“What is happening in prisons today clearly shows the need for a deep change in the country,” Mr. Mousavi said on his website. Others have compared the Kahrizak abuse to the horrors in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. The pictures of Americans torturing Iraqi prisoners in the prison drew worldwide condemnation.
The reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organisation targeted President Ahmadinejad and his then Interior Minister, Sadeq Mahsouli, calling for legal action against them for “crimes committed at Abu Ghraib Kahrizak.” The call for accountability has also come from Mohsen Rezaei, one of the candidates who was defeated in the June 12 polls. The authorities have responded with some conciliatory gestures, without abandoning their overall approach of crushing the Opposition.
In a damage control exercise, Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi, Prosecutor-General, acknowledged during a press conference that “mistakes” led to a few “painful accidents which cannot be defended, and those who were involved should be punished.” He added the mistakes included the “the Kahrizak incident.” The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally ordered the shutdown of the Kahrizak facility once the prisoner abuse scandal broke out. An attempt is also being made to salvage the judiciary’s image. Its hardline head, Mahmoud Shahroudi, has been replaced by Mohammad Sadeq Larijani, a sibling of the more celebrated and moderate Speaker Ali Larijani.
Nevertheless, the government has put more than a hundred people on trial in a bid to establish that the post-election protests were the result of an attempt to mount an East-European style “velvet revolution” by foreigners and their local accomplices. The outcry against the trial by heavyweight Opposition sympathisers has not made any significant impression on the custodians of power in Tehran. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Nobel laureate and leading legal luminary, called the court proceedings a “show trial.” “The trials show that the administration is weak. These mass trials are not in line with the laws of Islam,” she observed during a recent visit to Seoul.
On his website Ghalamnews, Mr. Mousavi said the continuation of “show trials” of people who protested within the ambit of the Constitution would become counterproductive. Unimpressed, the authorities maintain that the trial will be taken to its logical conclusion.
The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been assigned the lead role in defending the revolution, is threatening to intensify the crackdown. Writing in the Guards’ weekly mouthpiece Sobh-e Sadegh, Yadollah Javani, polit bureau chief of the organisation, asserted that the plot to topple the Islamic revolution through a “velvet revolution” had been exposed. He warned that Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi and the former President Mohammad Khatami should be arrested, put on trial and punished once their role as chief conspirators was established.
The President has also gone ahead by announcing a new Cabinet line-up. Significantly, important IRGC figures have occupied the Interior, Defence and Intelligence Ministries. Manouchehr Mottaki, Mr. Ahamdinejad’s trusted Minister in his first term, continues to retain the Foreign Ministry. The President surprised many by nominating three women — a step without precedence in the history of Islamic revolution.
The Cabinet line-up is a reflection of the IRGC’s growing clout in the Iranian establishment. It has taken forward a process which began during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s first term in office. The President has had a lengthy relationship with the IRGC since the days of Iran-Iraq war, when he was part of the paramilitary Basij. During his first presidency, the Basij was formally brought under the IRGC’s command and control structure.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is also a follower of the Haghani religious school, based in Qom, which is headed by the influential cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. Many influential IRGC personnel belong to this school, apart from several members of Iran’s security apparatus. Their shared ideological and religious ties under a powerful cleric have further cemented the President’s bonds with the IRGC and its affiliates.
Many in Iran are of the view that a combination of the followers of the Haghani School in the IRGC, the President, along with Ayatollah Khamenei, forms the core group of decision-makers. This triad has been responsible for Iran’s defiance on the nuclear issue and for supporting resistance movements such as the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Gaza. The group firmly believes that its policies have paid rich dividends in limiting Israeli and American influence in the region. It counts the Hizbollah’s success against Israel in the 2006 war and the Hamas’ credible response to the Israeli assault in Gaza in January as major successes. The decline of American influence in two neighbouring countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — is seen in Tehran as a golden opportunity for expanding the country’s influence in the region in league with its allies, especially Syria.
During a recent meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Ayatollah Khamenei stressed that in future, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq should play a key role in the region. The Ayatollah’s observation signals the adoption of a proactive disposition by Tehran to challenge the influence of the Americans and their allies in West Asia. Focussed on realising its ambitions in the oil-rich region, Iran’s core leadership is in no mood to relent to the Opposition and risk its larger geopolitical agenda, even if it means taking Iran down the path of totalitarianism.
From the establishment’s standpoint, its unrelenting stance appears to be yielding some significant success. The former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the country’s powerful Expediency Council and who emerged as a key Opposition ally, has apparently fallen in line. In an address to the Expediency Council — a unique conflict-resolution body within the Iranian system — Ayatollah Rafsanjani called upon the people to follow the Supreme Leader’s guidelines. The former President appealed for unity to end the political turmoil and to face challenges that confronted the nation on the international front. He said the authorities must follow Ayatollah Khamenei’s guidelines with regard to the detainees jailed after the elections.
The establishment’s next test lies in getting Parliament’s approval for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet. The relationship between Parliament and the President, a legacy of his first term in office, is frosty. This was visible when nearly 180 out of a total of 300 lawmakers absented themselves from the ceremony marking Mr. Ahmadinejad’s second term. Controversy is already dogging the circumstances under which Heidar Moslehi was nominated as Intelligence Minister. A heated argument during a Cabinet meeting led Mr. Ahmadinejad to sack his previous Intelligence Minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei. Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi also resigned in protest.
There were also some temporary hiccups, now resolved, in the relationship between the President and the Supreme Leader. Mr. Ahmadinejad apparently annoyed Ayatollah Khamenei by resisting his advice to sack Vice-President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mr. Mashaei did finally resign but was promptly re-hired by Mr. Ahmadinejad as his chief of staff. This show of defiance provoked the Supreme Leader’s supporters who went after Mr. Ahmadinejad publicly.
More than two months after the protests began, the tussle between the authorities and the Opposition continues unabated. However, given the establishment’s political compulsions, the resources at its command and the awareness that failure would result in a strategic fallout in the region are likely to sustain its motivation to prevail over the Opposition.
Keywords: Iran, presidential election, protests, Mir Hosain Mousavi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, streets of Tehran, Mehdi Karroubi, Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organisation, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ayatollah Khamenei