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Losing an Election in Iran: The End of the Islamic Republic

For the last few days, much of the world’s attention has been rightly focused on the political coup that has recently occurred in Iran.  Having returned from Iran a few weeks ago, I wanted to take the opportunity to offer some of my insights into what is going on at the moment.  Shortly, I will write another post giving a more global picture of what I learned in Iran so for the sake of speed I’ll just stick to matters as they relate to the political situation in this post.

Whether it’s one week or five years from now, the significance of the events of the last week will be  a critical loss of confidence in the Islamic Republic of Iran by its citizens.  There are four key factors contributing to the changes  taking place in the Iranian political landscape: the rigging of the elections in itself, the blatancy of the rigging, the outcome of both of those events amongst the political elite and the clergy, and the loss of trust.

Rigging the election

The massive voter turnout seen on Friday in Iran (and around the world) was not fake; it was an expression of hopes for peaceful change and reform.  People were not simply naïve about holding such hopes.  Previous elections had not been rigged, and, even if the candidate selection had been limited, there was  enough difference of opinions that it was worthwhile and certainly comparable to what most Americans enjoy during their perfectly open process.  Moreover, different presidents had produced changes in policy and the legislature had not been a rubber stamp, even if the power of both of these was uncomfortably and unpredictably circumscribed by the Supreme Leader Khamenei.  Yes, there always was the possibility that this election would be stolen, but there was also reason to give the process a try before giving into cynicism.  Although many voters were born after the great terror of the early days of the revolution, their parents and Iranian society as a whole still carry the memory that  violent change is hard to control and produces unpredictable results.

Voting, then, was not just a matter of supporting the regime but also of supporting Iran and making sure that the progress it has made since the revolution, in areas such as infrastructure and human development, was not lost.  Iran is no third-world country and the Islamic Republic is  no tin pot dictatorship.  For many years, it has cleverly balanced a set of uneasy demands from various sectors of society and focused its energies rather narrowly on keeping the current system going and avoiding a violent crack up.  Iranians, for their part, are generally politically astute enough to realize that not everybody agrees with one individual's point of view.  The urban elites knew that the poor rural masses could be satisfied by the government sanction of public piety and those same rural masses knew that the urban elites  would continue to enjoy alcohol and such in their gardens, which was fine as long as they didn’t have to see it.

The system was an equilibrium of bullshit but as one interlocutor put it to me, “This is a necessary and comfortable amount of bullshit, so we go with it.”  Intrinsic to the situation, and often pointed out ot me, was also  that the revolution systematically de-conservatised the most conservative elements of society by making a comfortable public space for them and giving them access to all sorts of information they had not previously had, from literacy to political philosophy.  There’s few people too uninformed to understand what’s going on now as compared to  1978/79 (1357/58), and thus, many of the people who would otherwise have blown with the wind now have their own forceful opinions.  The attempt to restrict information to a politically savvy society only served the function of arousing people’s suspicion in the late hours on Friday.

The slip up: blatant fraud

That the election was rigged should be beyond any doubt (see Juan Cole’s comments for a basic explanation of how), but the obviousness of that rigging has played a large part in making the situation irredeemable for the coup plotters and politically pushing them into a corner.  It has also put outside politicians and the press in a quandary about how to report and how to proceed.

On Saturday morning, after the “results” had been released, people I talked to were just devastated.  One friend told me that she thought maybe she got it wrong, that the  Iranian masses were really insane and that this was the result.  But something was wrong and we both realized that even in a large, conservative country like the US only 51%-52% of the people “get it wrong” on this magnitude.  The next emotion was shock at the insult, i.e.; how dumb did the plotters think Iranians are, especially when spectacularly quickly assembled polling data were released.  One of the great historical debates about this day will center on the extent of premeditation of election fraud.  Did Khamenei freak out when he realized that Ahmadinezhad had lost so badly?  Or were the veiled threats made by Rafsanjani and other political leaders in the run-up to the polling indicative of precooked plans for how to steal an election?

At this point the plotters had a few options, either rescind the results immediately and make someone take the fall or keep marching ahead with their plans.  They kept marching into the corner, now reliant on the significant chunk of the security forces under Khamenei’s remit while politicians were placed in the difficult position of whether to support or speak out.  The authorities who had previously been so adept at suspending disbelief or applying acute unseen pressure at key nodes suddenly made a gaffe  so large there was no turning back.

Lack of support for Ahmadinezhad was not something that could have been  missed by hidebound Western media standing behind interpreters in North Tehran cafes asit was truly massive in scope.  As a foreigner traveling around Iran during the campaign without the need for an interpreter, I was hard-pressed to find any support for Ahmadinezhad (I did once from a cab-driver in North Tehran!) and people were not in the least shy or hesitant about expressing their political beliefs.  What really struck me, though, was the utter dismissiveness from  people towards the president.  Sitting at freeway truck stops, I could eavesdrop on conversations by Arab truckers and lower class farmers making fun of the “national pet monkey.”  It is true that Western powers have frequently shaped the Middle East in ways that they should not have and that people did not want, and it’s equally clear that countries like the US further their goals with terrorism and refuse to accept election outcomes they don’t like.  But Iran today is a separate issue.  One of the results of being relatively isolated and insulated from international politics for so long is that Iranians had come to view this state as their own and from what I heard, few people were directly concerned with the reactions of other countries in their choice of candidates.

The Iranian political consensus shattered

By alienating such a large section of the political elite, the coup plotters seem to have created in a few days what 30 years of painstakingly built consensus had obviated--a weighty opposition.  The 1999 (1378) demonstrations posited students against a unified government and as a result, never gained much traction.  What we see now is a breakdown amongst the political elite that has more or less held together since the revolution congealed in the early 80s (60s).  This schism has exposed other areas vulnerable to opposition, such as the bazaris and clergy, but, hearkening back to the trust issue, it has eliminated the element of trust that kept the security forces working.

The bazaris are an important and significant, if somewhat anachronistic, fixture in Iran's political order.  Commanding many key nodes in the national economy, they were instrumental in the collapse of the previous regime with a succession of general strikes that brought the economy to a halt throughout much of 1978 (1357).  Last month, before the campaign even got into full swing, they were vocal in support of Mousavi, hanging posters in the bazaars and in store windows.  The reason was simple, while not all bazaris are rich or even adverse to redistributionary justice, Ahmadinezhad’s policies were making their economic position untenable.

The clergy has long been unsatisfied with the current state of affairs and is both a very close-knit and argumentative group. The clerical consensus was never behind Khomeini’s odd fusion of church and state (velayate faqih), but most clerics were willing to give it a try.  From the mid-nineties(late seventies), a growing number of clerics have voiced their opinions against the base of the Islamic Republic.  Because these were politely and densely worded statements within risalas (collections of fatwas) in Persian, they were generally not picked up by observers in the West.  And they were meant to be mostly for internal debate, anyhow; being a cleric in a cleric regime might suggest that one doesn’t want to rock the boat too much.  Some figures did come out loudly however.  Ayatollah Montazeri, widely acclaimed to be one of the most followed and respected leaders in Twelver Shiism (marja’e taqlid) was originally Khomeini’s chosen successor but eventually, his criticism led to his being put under house arrest.  Montazeri might issue a statement soon that will have dramatic implications, whatever its content.  Similarly, I noticed in Iran the passing of Ayatollah Behjat, whose portrait was hung far and wide by the government during and after the official three-day mourning period.  I asked a number of people what they thought about Behjat, whose work I was not familiar with myself.  The two responses I received were that “‘the government needs to take care of one of its own in mourning him” and that ”they’re happy to see him off” because of his simple lifestyle and widely perceived opposition to velayate faqih.

Now that the political establishment is split, clerics have to decide which side of the fence to get on.  Inevitably, many have political views and the minute they get out on the streets, the government is faced with the grim prospect of shooting a member of the group it claims to represent.  Preliminary reports (once again, this may turn out to be true…I won’t claim to have perfect information) indicate that this is happening already.  Such accounts coexist alongside reports that Rafsanjani has gone to Qom to gather support, assuming he’s not under house-arrest.  The telling and retelling of such rumours is important because it both reflects and lends credit to a belief that at least some of the clergy are willing and capable of a revolt.  Additionally the deaths of protesters who will certainly be hailed as martyrs, will be mourned forty days after their passing which has historically always proved a venue for reigniting protests.

Breaching the social contract

The most important remaining logistical asset for coup plotters are the security services, which are necessary for controlling popular discontent.  The long hand of the Iranian security state was in evidence everywhere I traveled with a mix of carrots, sticks, and controls at key nodes in the network of the state.  What made it so effective was the lack of direct security presence, e.g.; big thugs with guns.  One the one hand, I had to stay every night more or less where I had told the foreign ministry, and by extension, the information ministry, where I would be, but on the other I could buy and top up a mobile simcard without showing the slightest bit of identification.  As brutal as it could be to those who crossed it, the Iranian security state ran on trust.  The trust was between its own members, it and Iranian citizens, and between itself and outsiders.  Security forces ran the gamut of organization from highly trained elite special forces to the police officer who decided not to issue my guide a ticket because he was so happy to have a chat with an American.  I was keen to accommodate them and let them do their job for my part. After all, the Iranian state was seriously vulnerable to external threats and we could all agree that, wherever we stood politically, outside interference was not of help.  Now that’s all gone.  The bystander who might have reported something is much less likely now to tell “them.”  The lowpaid policeman or riot cop has to decide how strictly to carry out orders and whether it’s worth it at all.  The notion that, despite obvious faults, the state is somehow on my side is much less tenable.


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