Tehran, June 2009
For background on Mousavi and his “green wave,” see Shiva Balaghi, “An Artist as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran?” Middle East Report Online, June 11, 2009.
For more on privatization and the state of the Iranian economy under Ahmadinejad, see Kaveh Ehsani, “Survival Through Dispossession: Privatization of Public Goods in the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).
For background on Ahmadinejad’s right populism, see Kaveh Ehsani, “The Populist Threat to Democracy,” Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).
For background on Ahmadinejad’s cultural rollback, see Azam Khatam, “The Islamic Republic’s Failed Quest for the Spotless City,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).
See also Fatemeh Sadeghi, “Foot Soldiers of the Islamic Republic’s ‘Culture of Modesty,’” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).
Order Middle East Report 250 online.
The morning after Iran’s June 12 presidential election, Iranians booted up their computers to find Fars News, the online mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus, heralding the dawn of a “third revolution.” Many an ordinary Iranian, and many a Western pundit, had already adopted such dramatic language to describe the burgeoning street demonstrations against the declaration by the Ministry of Interior that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sitting president, had received 64 percent of the vote to 34 percent for his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. But the editors of Fars News were referring neither to the protests, as were the people in the streets, nor to the prospect that the unrest might topple the Islamic Republic, as were some of the more wistful commentators. Rather, the editors were labeling the radical realignment of Iranian politics that they wish for. This realignment would complete the removal of the old guard, as did the “first” revolution of 1978-1979, and consolidate the rule of inflexible hardliners, as did the “second revolution” symbolized by the US Embassy takeover of 1979.
Whatever history’s verdict on the desiderata of Fars News, neither the institutional structure nor the political culture of the Islamic Republic will emerge unchanged from the crisis following the 2009 election. The stakes are nothing less than these: Should the protesters persevere, the limited traditions of political and civil rights and citizen participation in the Islamic Republic may be considerably strengthened. Should Ahmadinejad and his supporters prevail instead, the political system in Iran may lose all remaining meaningful traits of a republic.
As in 1979, or in 1997, when the “reformist” cleric Mohammad Khatami captured the presidency, or in 2005, when Ahmadinejad won his own (highly contested) landslide victory, the Western media has been caught off guard by events on the Iranian stage. The crudest analysts insist upon seeing an epic battle between the government and “the people”—but neither of these actors is unitary. Others, writing from left, right and center, extrapolate theories from the supposed characteristics of the dramatis personae. Hence “the opposition,” urban, educated, technologically savvy and broadly supportive of Mousavi, is said to be arrayed against the poor, exaggeratedly pious peasants and plebeians who back Ahmadinejad. Such interpretations are also far too simple. They fail to explain why the election campaign was so competitive and why the popular reaction became so virulent once the scale of the fraud employed by the regime to fix the election for Ahmadinejad became evident.
The conflict over the 2009 election has sent multiple, cross-cutting fracture lines both through the core of the regime and through Iranian society.
The Expectations Game
Many inside and outside Iran expected that the June 12 election would be a yawner. After all, previous incumbents had been comfortably reelected, and the assumption was that Ahmadinejad would be as well. He had the full resources of the state at his disposal. The global economic downturn notwithstanding, the state was flush with revenue accrued during the 2003-2008 oil boom. The president had the clear backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian military and the Guardian Council, the unelected panel of senior clerics empowered by the Islamic Republic’s constitution to block acts of Parliament. He held a monopoly upon the state-run TV and radio networks. Lastly, the security services had systematically suppressed civil society and political organizations critical of Ahmadinejad’s policies. These opponents, disillusioned by the failures of Khatami and the “reformist” bloc in Parliament in years past, were expected to stay home on June 12, while radical Islamists and the immediate beneficiaries of Ahmadinejad’s populist economic gestures were predicted to turn out in droves.
Such predictions were a bit misleading. The number of deeply conservative voters, of the sort who back Ahmadinejad, has not exceeded 12 percent of the electorate since 1993. True, in 2003, these voters seized control of the city councils of major cities, not because of a surge in the popularity of their agenda, but because of the widespread abstention of those who had lost hope in the effectiveness of reformist candidates. With less than 12 percent of eligible voters participating in Tehran, the arch-conservatives of Abadgaran, the coalition of Ahmadinejad’s allies, grabbed the city council, appointing the little-known former provincial governor as mayor. Ahmadinejad spent liberally from city funds to position himself as a credible presidential candidate in 2005, when he wound up in a runoff with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, perhaps the most polarizing figure in Iranian politics at the time.
Ahmadinejad’s win stunned many in the Islamic Republic, to the point of arousing suspicions of rigging. The “moderate reformist” Mehdi Karroubi, who had been speaker of Parliament from 2000-2004, strongly objected to his own elimination in the first round, claiming that the Revolutionary Guards and Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s son, had conspired to doctor the vote tally in several key provinces. In the second round, Rafsanjani raised objections of his own. Khatami, then president, promised he would reveal details of election irregularities before leaving office, but this was a promise he did not keep. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, another contestant who later replaced Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran, announced that $330 million of the municipal budget was unaccounted for, hinting broadly that the monies had been illegally diverted to the Ahmadinejad campaign. Parliament formed a commission to investigate, but the new speaker, loyal to Ahmadinejad, suspended the investigation.
Despite the allegations of fraud, most Iran watchers accepted the result of the 2005 race. It was assumed as well that Ahmadinejad’s populism—he promised to “bring the oil money to people’s dining tables”—would expand his electoral base beyond the solid conservative bloc. But instead greater mass participation in the local elections of 2007 cost the hardliners their grip upon local councils. In Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s men lost two thirds of their seats and had to share power with reformists and moderate conservatives. In the absence of credible polling and free independent media after Ahmadinejad’s ascent, local elections are a bellwether for shifts in the national political mood. There was, therefore, good reason to think that the 2009 presidential race would at least be close.
Ahmadinejad’s glide path back to the presidential palace encountered additional turbulence when Khatami, still popular despite the reformists’ troubles, entered the fray in February. Khatami, however, faced strong opposition from hardline conservatives and difficulties with building bridges to moderates. He wisely bowed out when Mir Hossein Mousavi declared candidacy, throwing his weight behind a figure whose revolutionary credentials could not be questioned by any segment of the establishment. As prime minister, Mousavi had guided the economy during the lean years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). His administration had implemented far-reaching grassroots development measures that integrated the provinces into the national economy, at a time when Iran was under international embargo and Iraqi bombardment and oil prices had plummeted below $9 per barrel. His administration’s extensive rationing system had ensured that no one went hungry. And then there were his heated disputes with Ali Khamenei, who was then president and vociferously objected to Mousavi’s redistributive policies. Everyone recalled that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, still revered by millions, had unequivocally backed Mousavi against the cleric who would later succeed him as Supreme Leader.
Mousavi never disguised the fact that he was a pillar of the establishment and a firm believer in the legacy of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Nevertheless, in the popular mind, Mousavi was a candidate untainted by the corruption of continuous presence in the corridors of power, someone with a track record of exhibiting management skills, standing for social justice and, above all, standing up to Khamenei. The attraction of Mousavi was that he might be able to unify reformists and the politically neutral, professionals and the working classes, city dwellers and the peasantry. No one, however, doubted that Ahmadinejad could win the day, given the advantages enumerated above.
In short, cold-eyed analysis said to expect Ahmadinejad’s reelection, even as many hearts yearned for an upset. And the instinct of those with deep knowledge of contemporary Iranian history said to predict the unpredictable and, perhaps, to expect the unimaginable.
“Black Is White”
No one fully predicted what began to occur in late May, as the campaign began in earnest. Two critical factors widened the fissures in both the elite and the electorate, setting off the frictions that built into the seismic tremors of the weeks after the balloting.
First, a series of nationally televised debates exposed the cleavages splintering the political establishment. These divides had been exposed many times, often in vicious terms, but always in partisan newspapers with a small circulation. Now, on TV, the plainspoken, occasionally fiery duels were on display as never before in the history of Islamic Republic, and they were eagerly watched and discussed. Mousavi and his fellow challengers, former Speaker of Parliament Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei, raked Ahmadinejad over the coals, stressing his lackluster stewardship of the Iranian economy and his taste for confrontation in both domestic and international affairs. The incumbent, meanwhile, defended his term in office by recounting a laundry list of (often questionable) statistics and accomplishments, juxtaposing his record with those of previous presidents, whom he audaciously mocked as champions of injustice and inequality.
Ahmadinejad claimed that inflation had dropped to 15 percent, when readily available estimates by the Central Bank put the figure at 25 percent (and, in any case, Khatami had presided over 13 percent inflation). He asserted, based on equally dubious estimates, that gross domestic product had grown by 6 percent under his administration versus 5 percent under Khatami, neglecting to acknowledge that this was no stellar accomplishment. Thanks to skyrocketing prices before 2008, some $300 billion in oil revenues had flowed into Iran under the arch-conservative’s watch. Ahmadinejad said that the state’s deficit and level of borrowing from banks had decreased, but this was also not proof of improved economic performance. It happened due to windfall oil revenues and the selloff of public assets to banks, pension funds and front companies, many of which are set up by the military and security apparatus and the president’s conservative allies. The president claimed the gap between rich and poor had never been so narrow, though, again, his own Central Bank estimates that more than 7 million Iranians (out of an estimated 76) live in extreme poverty. He said that unemployment was falling, failing to note that his Labor Ministry had changed the definition of unemployment to pad its résumé, and ignoring the vocal mass actions undertaken by bus drivers, sugarcane workers, oil workers and teachers, all of which were savagely repressed. Ahmadinejad took credit for having privatized more public assets than his predecessors, and argued that the companies privatized under Khatami were doing poorly because they had been sold to well-connected “fake” entrepreneurs, without mentioning that, in many instances, these companies relied on government contracts and that his administration had refused to consider competitive bids from these privatized companies, bringing them to the verge of bankruptcy.
Mousavi did not let Ahmadinejad’s economic boasts go unanswered. (Neither did Rezaei.) For 20 years after serving as prime minister, Mousavi had been perched at think tanks: the Art and Culture Academy, the Center for Research and Development in Human Sciences, and the Association of Religion and Economics. He had maintained an uneasy silence as his successors took an increasingly neo-liberal approach toward the economy. Though he discreetly supported the cultural and political glasnost of the Khatami administrations, Mousavi felt strongly that the identity of the Islamic Republic should be redefined around a combination of social justice and more solid economic performance, as well as political reforms. Ahmadinejad’s hijacking of the social justice agenda seems to have forced Mousavi back into politics.
Awash in the flood of untrustworthy numbers, Mousavi responded on television: “One of our problems is that we are facing an amazing phenomenon: someone who can stare at the camera, look you in the eyes, and claim, with the utmost self-confidence, that black is white, that two times two is not four, but ten, and state it so emphatically that some of you are swayed! Nothing is worse than when the government lies to the people—and today we are witnessing exactly that. The only reason I have decided to get involved in this campaign is that I fear the consequences of this phenomenon.” His campaign posters were emblazoned with the slogan, “Lying is forbidden.”
The economics debate, perhaps dry to some Iranians, was coupled with a little sensationalism. After four years of promising to “name names” of those involved in corruption and nepotism, Ahmadinejad directed a series of insinuations at regime notables, including Rafsanjani and the influential conservative and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri. In one debate, he asked Karroubi why he took money from Shahram Jazaeri, a young entrepreneur imprisoned, to great media fanfare, for bribery of parliamentarians (mostly reformists). Jazaeri’s confession that he had also bribed people in Khamenei’s office was hushed up. Ahmadinejad prefigured his strident rhetoric condemning the post-election protests with vows to entrench his “government of justice” by “cleansing” the system of those who stand in the way of “the people.” In attacking his opponents, he went so far as to smear the educational pedigree of Zahra Rahnavard, a respected Islamist feminist, the head of a women’s university and Mousavi’s wife, who was removed from her position when Ahmadinejad came to power.
More incredible still, Ahmadinejad claimed that the expulsion of politically active university students had been a policy pursued under Khatami, whereas his administration had nothing but respect for higher education. He confronted Mousavi about the political repression of the 1980s, a dark chapter referred to euphemistically as “cutting neckties,” in order to cast aspersions on his rival’s defense of civil liberties. Mousavi responded that within the Islamic Republic there had always been warring camps, some who fought for the civil liberties principles enshrined in the constitution, and others who distrusted any manifestation of dissent, however feeble. Incredulously, the ex-premier exclaimed: “They keep telling me, ‘They used to cut neckties in your era.’ Who do you think used to cut neckties? Who do you think Imam Khomeini forbade from interfering in people’s lives? It was the same people who are in the administration now!”
But the content of the verbal broadsides during the campaign was somewhat beside the point. The tenor of contention was the important fact. In the past, the elite of the Islamic Republic had managed its rivalries through consensus building, horse trading and arbitration by the Leader. But the TV debates showed that the disputes had overflowed their containers. For the first time, in much starker terms than in the 2005 runoff, Iranians witnessed the establishment at public odds with itself, its usual united front in smithereens. The ruling clergy, it seemed, could only settle their dispute by turning to the citizens they claim to represent.
No Mere Show
The second critical factor during the official campaigning from late May until June 12 was the positive and hopeful vision of Iran’s future presented by Ahmadinejad’s rivals, especially Karroubi and Mousavi. Against all expectations, and despite a very modest war chest, the Mousavi campaign proved capable of rousing swaths of Iranian society from the political torpor that had set in when the conservative forces in the regime proved too strong, and the reformists too weak, to open up the system during the “reformist moment” of 1997-2005. A growing number of Iranians, schooled by bitter experience to be skeptical of electoral exercises, realized that the 2009 contest would be no mere show. Here were divisions among candidates that would directly affect their lives.
Karroubi’s campaign, for instance, staked out an explicit position in defense of the political and social rights of Iran’s Kurdish, Baluch, Azeri and other ethnic minorities, as well as Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities whose relationship with the Shi‘i Islamist state is fraught. Karroubi also spoke out for the interests of students and women.
Mousavi’s campaign framed itself more broadly as defending the rule of law, as well as civil and personal freedoms. One plank of his platform promised to discontinue the patrols of the morals police who enforce “Islamic” dress and behavior upon urban pedestrians, demonstrating an understanding that social exclusion under the Islamic Republic is as important as class inequality to young people, women and the intelligentsia. Mousavi acknowledged that the project of using violence to Islamize society, revived under Ahmadinejad, is nothing but an elite tool of domination over the urban middle classes.
In the face of Ahmadinejad’s populist puffery, Mousavi aimed to snatch away the mantle of social justice in the minds of Iranian voters. He specified that, by social justice, he meant creating employment opportunities by strengthening existing state and private institutions. He touted the concept of “good governance”—with its implication that technical competence ought to be valued more highly than ideological bombast in the state’s economic managers—and insisted on making the executive branch accountable to strong regulatory institutions. As an example of sustainable development, he argued that Iranian oil must become the basis of a network of linked secondary domestic industries, rather than a mere export commodity. He opposed the piecemeal privatization of public assets, as well as Ahmadinejad’s notion of social justice, which seems to be built exclusively upon cash and in-kind handouts, without any thought to how to bolster the purchasing power of the disenfranchised in the long run.
Through numerous rallies and other gatherings in the week before the election, the Mousavi campaign illustrated that it could mobilize many diverse thousands of peaceful and enthusiastic supporters in Tehran and other major cities. This successful electioneering was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it convinced an increasing number of Iranians that Ahmadinjead’s victory was not a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, the prospect of a large turnout that included the disenchanted may have contributed to the hardliners’ decision to manipulate the results to ensure victory.
More important in the long run may be the fact that the campaign again broke the monopoly of the Iranian regime over the expression of political opinions in public spaces. For three decades, the Islamic Republic has managed for the most part to limit public displays of “politics” to pro-government mass demonstrations, while conducting the public’s real business behind closed doors. Independent associations and trade unions, grassroots organizations and political groupings have been crushed. The eight years of Khatami, notwithstanding the serious shortcomings of the reformists’ program and political skills, saw the emergence of a relatively independent press and the curtailment of direct government interference in the home and the private behavior of citizens. Ahmadinejad and his ilk have tried mightily to roll back these changes.
In defiance of these efforts, citizens actively took advantage of the political opening of the 2009 campaign in unheard-of numbers. By all accounts, Iranian citizens were deeply engaged in debate over the candidates right up to the actual voting. Numerous observers in Tehran and other cities report that political debates in public spaces, like Vanak Square or Enqelab Square, were substantive and civil, if impassioned. People who had been intimidated or demoralized, or who had considered their differences with all Islamic Republic politicians, of whatever stripe, to be irreconcilable, began to poke their heads above the battlements. Artists, filmmakers, political activists, feminists and student groups across the ideological spectrum forged alliances and acknowledged common interests. Thirty-four Islamist and secular feminist groups coalesced to form the Women’s Movement Convergence, for instance, with nearly 700 activists gathering to hammer out a common platform. A week before the election, the Convergence held a debate with the representatives of the reformist candidates in the Office of the Islamic Revolution’s Women to assess which candidate would be most consistently committed to women’s rights.
In sum, the 2009 presidential election campaign was unique. Not even amidst the ferment that presaged Khatami’s sweeping triumph in 1997 was a candidate able to mobilize support across so many social boundaries and to be so inclusive of elements of the population that have been actively marginalized under the Islamic Republic. The effort at broad-based mobilization by non-incumbents was new, as was the degree of interplay between the political contestation roiling the ranks of “the regime” and that reverberating in “the street.”
Slaps in the Face of Reason
In the early afternoon of June 13, the Ministry of Interior announced the final “result” of the election. The turnout was a record-setting 85 percent and Ahmadinejad had won with 63 percent of the vote, followed by Mousavi with 34 percent, with Rezaei and Karroubi earning a mere 2 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively. These figures were remarkably congruent with early morning returns released prior to the closure of some overseas polls and strangely consistent across all regions of the country.
For many Iranians, the dispute over this “result” is not simply about the outcome—Ahmadinejad’s anointment as president -- but about the basic election procedures and laws that were violated. Beyond this, many voters are insulted by the responses of both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to the popular skepticism, with the president-select dismissing the protesters’ misgivings as “dirt” and the Supreme Leader unaccountably averring that the entire nation is united behind the official tally. The cries of CIA and MI-6 manipulation are likewise a slap in the face of reason. The Tehran municipality, run by the conservative mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, has estimated the number of protesters in mid-June at 3 million. These are not only the chic middle classes beloved of Western photographers: They are also the women in chadors, working-class youths and older people who are supposedly in thrall to the undying revolutionary fervor to which Ahmadinejad appeals.
Several examples will illuminate the reasons for the rampant disbelief in the June 12 “result.” Unlike in previous elections, the Ministry of Interior authorized deployment of 14,000 mobile voting booths, making it very difficult for candidates to send monitors to observe the balloting at every booth. Some 14.5 million extra ballots, by some reports, were printed and no clear system was delineated to track them. When several polling stations in urban centers ran out of ballots, Mousavi supporters asked where the extra ballots were, but they could not be found, and remain unaccounted for to date. Communication among campaign workers was hindered when SMS messaging was turned off and a web page associated with the Mousavi campaign was shut down. The popular BBC Persian service was jammed to restrict the flow of information. In the evening of June 12, a Mousavi campaign building was raided by the authorities, with several volunteers detained, before being released and then rearrested the next day.
Yet the clearest violation of the law would be Mousavi and Karroubi’s claim that their observers were not allowed to be present when ballots were counted and the ballot boxes sealed. By law and custom, these observers confirm that the boxes are empty before voting starts, and they are present at the count, sign the result sheet and take away a copy. They are also supposed to be present when the ballot boxes are finally sealed and sent to the Interior Ministry. A 65-year old monitor in charge of a station at a mosque in the modest, middle-class Yousefabad neighborhood of Tehran told local journalists: “Compared to previous elections, we had a huge turnout. Two years ago we had barely 400 votes at our station. This time, more than 2,000 voted. We closed the station and started counting the votes. By midnight we were done. Mousavi had 1,600 votes, Ahmadinejad approximately 300, and Karroubi and Rezaei each had around 150 or 200. We were in the process of filling out the forms and signing them when the announcement came that Ahmadinejad had won with two thirds of the votes!” Interviews by local journalists in and around the Shahid Mahallati neighborhood of northeast Tehran, where a vast quadrant of the city is closed off in gated communities for the families of the military, Revolutionary Guards and intelligence personnel, indicated that even this stratum of the electorate was divided in its choice of candidate. Several women who live in the compound indicated that they had neighbors who supported various candidates.
Unlike in previous elections and despite the enormous turnout, the Ministry of Interior was quick to declare a victor and the Leader officially congratulated Ahmadinejad before a final tally was released or the Guardian Council could make time to review complaints. The “result” generated sub-controversies as well. To highlight just a few, Karroubi is said to have won less than half a million votes (less than the number of spoiled ballots), when in 2005 he earned about 5 million votes, or 17 percent of the total vote. The initial count, oddly, did not include any ruined ballots. The Guardian Council was compelled to acknowledge that, according to the numbers that had been released, at least 50 voting districts had more than 100 percent turnout.
Since June 12, opposition candidates, Iranian journalists and independent researchers have marshaled a host of evidence that calls into question both the procedural fairness of the elections and the veracity of the result. This evidence is so overwhelming that no impartial observer can credit the hardliners’ protestations that the election was clean.
What Lies Ahead
During the campaign, opposition candidates repeatedly argued that Ahmadinejad had flaunted regulatory procedures in attempts to circumvent the constitutional checks and balances on the powers of the presidency. Today, it is apparent that this major campaign theme has been borne out in the election itself.
Supporters of Mousavi therefore had clear, ready-made language for protesting the election “result” on procedural grounds—and thus Ahmadinejad’s retort that their outcry is mere sour grapes is completely off point. Using the network of civil society organizations and campaign workers that had taken shape starting in late May, the protesters disseminated information quickly and people congregated in front of the Ministry of Interior and in the squares that join the main thoroughfares in Tehran and other cities. The unprecedented mass protests have demonstrated that the splits in the political elite are in fact a reflection of deep discontent in the polity. Although Mousavi is the symbolic leader of the street movement, it is not at all clear that he is in charge. The strength of the street actions was their sheer size and spontaneity, yet it is plain as well that they have been partly organized by the commitment of the participants to work toward a common goal: the rule of law and the right of citizen participation. Opposition campaign workers and civil society activists have helped a great deal in choosing effective locations for the gatherings, as well in promoting the tactic of silence and the ethic of inclusiveness and non-violence.
Initial responses by leading hardline clerics, even Khamenei, and other political figures seemed to offer some opening for reconciliation among the factions and with the populace. But Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and members of the Guardian Council, as well as state radio and television, rapidly turned against the protesters, trying at first to deny the extent of the outcry and then to denigrate it with flippancy, condescension and mindless conspiracy theory. Increasingly, however, and predictably, they brought to bear the coercive apparatus of the state to repress it.
Khamenei’s Friday prayer sermon on June 19, and the ensuing violent crackdown, have ensured the further alienation of the population from the powers that be and deepened the splits in the governing class. Khamenei’s choice to throw his personal clout behind Ahmadinejad, and thereby compromise the institutional neutrality of the Leader’s position, is almost inexplicable in terms of long-term strategy for maintaining his position and the structure of the Islamic Republic. By aligning himself so strongly with a divisive extremist who has only a hammer for every Iranian nail, Khamenei has undermined his institutional authority -- not only with the population but also with members of the political elite. He has done so irrevocably. By openly condoning the shooting of civilians, the powers that be have crossed another red line. The fact that regime spokesmen and the state media are calling the protesters “terrorists” will only inflame Iranian opinion further. Meanwhile, the video clips showing the June 20 death of an unarmed young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, at the hands of the authorities have given the protesters an unimpeachable martyr.
What is painfully clear is that violence and intimidation are the methods of choice by the new elite in its quest to monopolize the political space. This is a highly costly and risky strategy for all involved. As signaled by the June 19 Friday sermon, the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad alliance has turned its back on the two other tried-and-true methods of conflict management in the Islamic Republic: intra-elite negotiation and mass participation. The two men have shown little willingness to compromise with “the old guard” or to acknowledge the demands of the mass of Iranian citizens.
The problem now for the protest movement is to find a way to keep up the pressure while defusing the impact of state violence. Given that many of the movement’s leaders and mid-level cadres are now in prison (and reportedly under torture), this will be no mean feat. The movement will probably conclude that protest should move off the streets, where violence is easier to employ and the flame of dissent itself burns hotter and more unsustainably. The state escalation of violence has made the streets a site of confrontation rather than mobilization. In order to continue the momentum, the movement will have to shift tactics and weave tighter its ties with disgruntled factions of the power structure. Rafsanjani’s faction is already making overtures in this direction. The political alternative would presumably be a series of lower-key and less dangerous, but increasingly costly, work stoppages, boycotts of state manufactures and strikes, maybe including general strikes, combined with intermittent street mobilizations, most likely on the monthly and annual anniversaries of protesters’ deaths.
Such is the pattern of resistance that emerged during the revolution that overthrew the Shah. Everyone in Iran is acutely aware of this pattern’s significance, both practical and symbolic. It is not to be forgotten, as well, that Mousavi’s supporters have appropriated a chant that animated the crowds in 1978 and 1979. Banished for now from the avenues and byways of the Iranian capital, they call it out from the rooftops of their houses in the evenings. “Allah-o Akbar” resounds once again in Tehran -- and, once again, the forces of political and social change have taken the religious invocation back from the state.
For instance, see Ali Ansari, Daniel Berman and Thomas Rintoul, Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election (London: Chatham House, June 2009); and Walter R. Mabane, Jr., “Note on the Presidential Election in Iran: June 2009,” accessible online at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~wmebane/note24jun2009.pdf