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Islam and Politics ( 7 Jul 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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IRAN: Unravelling of a revolution

The very system of an unelected Supreme Leader ruling the country with the help of an elected president of his choice is being challenged.

By Sultan Shahin, Founder-Editor, New Age Islam

23 June 2009

FACES OF REVOLUTION: Objective observers have characterised the election results as nothing short of a coup d'état by Ayatollah Khamenei (right) and Ahmadinejad

It may take weeks or months or even years, but one thing is certain: the unravelling of Iran's Islamic revolution has begun: there will be no return to the status quo. Both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stand diminished and their capacity to deal with the world as much as with their own people inexorably weakened. What began as a protest over suspected rigging of the elections that are supposed to have re-elected Ahmadinejad as president for another term has now metastasized into a challenge to the very system of an unelected Vilayet-i-Faqih (supreme jurist or leader) ruling the country with the help of a president elected by people from among the choices approved by the Supreme Leader himself.

It is difficult to be sure who won in these elections. Ahmadinejad had run a very well-organised campaign and attracted tens of thousands of people wherever he went. In a credible pre-poll survey conducted by an American organisation, he was said to be likely to win a two-third majority. In a Washington Post article Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty of 'Terror Free Tomorrow' wrote: 'The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election. While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran's provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.'

Liberals and moderates are in the majority in Iran

On the other hand, opposition supporters constantly remind sceptics that former reformist president Mohammad Khatami had been elected with 75 per cent of votes in a poll in which over 80 per cent voters had participated. This among other previous poll results show, they argue, that the liberals and moderates are in the majority in Iran, though the hardliners still have considerable power. A very curious claim was made by the renowned Iranian film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who had been asked to act as a spokesman for Mousavi. He said that in the early hours after the elections the interior ministry had called Mousavi's campaign to inform him that he had won the election. The campaign was asked to prepare its victory statement without boasting too much, in order not to upset Ahmadinejad's supporters. But, a few hours later, Mousavi's campaign centre was ransacked by security agents, and everything suddenly changed: Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. This among other instances of clear irregularities that could not be tolerated in any democracy has led several objective observers to conclude that the official election results were fraudulent. Indeed, the outcome has been characterised as 'nothing short of a coup d'état by Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the will of the nation.'

Shariat Madari believed in separating the state and religion

The government may succeed in crushing the protests in a heavy-handed manner. At the time of writing that seems to have already happened. But the aura of invincibility that the revolution and its public face Khamenei and Ahmadinejad evinced cannot be brought back. Even as the movement is busy inflicting punishments and wounding the psyche of the Iranian people, old wounds have opened up. People are being reminded that secular, leftist, progressive and liberals had played as much role in bringing about the revolution and fighting the dictatorship of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi 30 years ago as had the clerics. But like all revolutions, this one too first devoured its own allies. Tudeh Communists of Iran, in fact, had found themselves outlawed after the revolution for which they had worked so relentlessly and sacrificed so enormously.

Most of the Iranian voters today, particularly the young supporters of the 'defeated' candidate Mousavi, were not a part of that revolution, but they have heard stories and they know of the brutality with which the Vilayat-e-Faqih liquidated all his secular foes and friends alike. Even the grand ayatollah of Iran at the time of revolution in 1979, Shariat Madari, who had saved Khomeini from the wrath of the Shah in 1963 by naming him a grand ayatollah, was not only sidelined but virtually put under house arrest on charges of being pro-American. His crime: he wanted to reform the system gradually and not overturn it under a dictatorial mullah. Madari believed in separating the state and religion, while Khomeini wanted to make the clergy an essential part of government. 

 Cracks within the clerical establishment

Most ominously for the regime there are apparent cracks within the clerical establishment now. Dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, for instance, has started acquiring a higher profile. Involved in drafting the 1979 constitution, he was once the heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini. But for his rejection of such indiscriminate violence as was practised by the Khomeini regime, he would have been the Supreme Leader today. He opposed the large-scale killing of Iraqi prisoners of war. In a letter to Khomeini on the issue of violence he is said to have written: 'I surely would follow you up to the entrance of Hell, but I am not ready to follow you in.' One of the most vociferous critics of the regime since the elevation of Khamenei, he now supports Mousavi and the young protestors, saying 'no one in their right mind can believe' the official results. Like Mousavi, he too has asked them to continue their protest in a peaceful manner. He thinks that the ruler should be guided by people and not be an autocrat as in the Khomeini-inspired system of Vilayet-i-Faqih. 

Indeed among many of those who are protesting against the election outcome are some of the leading figures of the clerical establishment. They include two former presidents; a former prime minister; two former majlis speakers; the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Hashemi Rafsanjani is the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts that appoints the leader and can theoretically remove the leader, as well as the Chairman of the Expediency Council that can overrule the Guardian Council and arbitrate between the Guardian Council and the majlis in cases of disagreements between them. No one knows at this point about Rafsanjani's whereabouts since he wrote his open letter to Khamenei. Of course, Khamenei has not answered the letter. Some reports suggest that he has gone to Qom to convene an extraordinary session of the Expediency Council. If true, this could signal major upheavals in the system.

 Foreign (read American) hand

Predictably, Tehran sees a foreign (read American) hand guiding the 'spontaneous' uprising protesting the election outcome. Despite vociferous demands in Washington from the former 'Bomb, Bomb, Iran' group, which has now suddenly developed a lot of sympathy for the 'Iranian people' that it wanted to bomb earlier, President Barack Obama has been very careful to not go beyond condemning the beatings and killings of protesters in Tehran and asking Iran to show restraint, while always emphasising that the U.S. does not want to interfere in Iran's internal affairs. This has heartened Iranian opposition too, as any strident support from Washington would have made their task even more difficult.

But there are reports from credible American sources that 'the CIA has been working for two years to destabilize the Iranian government.' Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, marshals a lot of evidence to conclude: 'The protests in Tehran no doubt have many sincere participants. The protests also have the hallmarks of the CIA orchestrated protests in Georgia and Ukraine. It requires total blindness not to see this.' On June 29, 2008, for instance, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker: 'Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country's religious leadership.'

 Fed up with the tyrannical ways of the Iranian mullahs

Paul Craig Roberts also quotes Daniel McAdams as having made some telling points. For example, neo-conservative Kenneth Timmerman wrote the day before the election that 'there's talk of a 'green revolution' in Tehran.' How would Timmerman know that unless it was an orchestrated plan? Why would there be a 'green revolution' prepared prior to the vote, especially if Mousavi and his supporters were as confident of victory as they claim? This looks like definite evidence that the U.S. is involved in the election protests. Timmerman goes on to write that 'the National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars promoting 'colour' revolutions. Some of that money appears to have made it into the hands of pro-Mousavi groups, who have ties to non-governmental organizations outside Iran that the National Endowment for Democracy funds.' Timmerman's own neo-con Foundation for Democracy is 'a private, non-profit organization established in 1995 with grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to promote democracy and internationally-recognized standards of human rights in Iran.'

Despite all these claims and counter-claims, however, it cannot be denied that a large percentage of Iranian population, including significant portions of the clerical establishment itself, is now fed up with the tyrannical ways of the Iranian mullahs. The educated youth and professionals are far ahead of the general society and thus have particular reasons to be disenchanted with their life under the revolutionary regime. They want much more freedom than is on offer even by the likes of Mousavi or Montazeri.

One example could illustrate this. Iran's state-run body for youth affairs said recently that rising numbers of Iranians are spurning marriage and having sex illegally outside wedlock.

'Unpleasant and dangerous social side effects' of premarital sex

A survey by the national youth organisation found that more than one in four men aged 19 to 29 had experienced sex before marriage. About 13 per cent of such cases resulted in unwanted pregnancies that led to abortions. Sex outside marriage and abortion are, of course, outlawed under Iran's Islamic legal code. The survey also revealed that the average marrying age had risen to 40 for men and 35 for women, a blow to the government's goal of promoting marriage to shore up society's Islamic foundations. Iran had around 15 million single young people and that 1.5 million more were becoming eligible for marriage each year. Seven million were already past the government's recommended marrying guideline age of 29. The trend was producing the 'unpleasant and dangerous social side effects' of premarital sex, an official said.

So it's not just democracy that Iran's youth are fighting for. They want drastic changes in societal mores. Similarly, with the growth in unemployment and general worsening of economic conditions, despite the oil wealth, a lot of people in the working class are disillusioned. With limited trading opportunities because of bad relations with the West and sanctions on account of the continuing fracas over the nuclear issue, the bazaris (business community) too are angry and disappointed, desperately wanting a change.

Clearly, even if the protests are suppressed now Iran will continue to boil, probably creating new and unforeseeable problems for the region and the world for some time to come. Revolutions don't let go of power easily. But since Iranian clerics are not willing to share power even with other clerics with slightly different views and want to run the country as an autocracy, the revolution appears bound to unravel sooner or later. The process may have just begun.

— The writer is editor of