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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

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Iran: Here We Go Again?

“The people behind what is taking place think they will be able to harm the government,” said Iran’s First Vice-President, Eshaq Jahangiri. “But when social movements and protests start in the street, those who have ignited them are not always able to control them.” And the question is: which people did Jahangiri actually mean, and which government?

The hard-liners in Iran insist (as they always do on these occasions) that the demonstrations that broke out on Thursday and have continued every day since are the work of ‘anti-revolutionaries and agents of foreign powers’. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has warned anti-government protesters they will face the nation’s “iron fist” if political unrest continues.

But there are actually two governments in Iran. One is the elected government of President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who won a second term in last June’s election. The other consists of the clerics and Islamic extremists (like the Revolutionary Guards) who serve the ‘Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and it’s Khamenei who has the last word in both theological and political matters.

There is always great tension between the two when Iranians elect a reformist government, and Eshaq Jahangiri has always supported the cause of moderation and reform. What he was actually signalling, in his cryptic remark, was his suspicion that the protests about economic conditions were initally incited by the hard-liners to harm Rouhani’s government – and then got out of hand.

Iranians certainly have lots to protest against. Living standards have fallen 15 percent in the past ten years. More than 3 million Iranians are jobless, and youth unemployment is about 40 percent. The price of some basic food items, like chicken and eggs, has recently risen by almost half.

It’s not really Rouhani’s fault. The main problem is that despite the 2015 deal that ended most international sanctions against Iran in return for strict controls on Iranian nuclear research and technology, US financial sanctions remain in place. That has made most banks wary of processing money for Iran or extending credit to its firms, and so the promised economic benefits of the deal never arrived.

It is natural for ordinary people to blame the government when promised economic improvements don’t happen, and so it may well have occurred to hard-liners to exploit that anger to discredit the reformist government. But the anger went deeper than that, and quickly turned into a protest against the Islamic regime in general.

One significant piece of evidence that Jahangiri’s veiled accusation may be true is the behaviour of the state-run media, which are almost entirely controlled by hard-liners. They reported virtually nothing about the much bigger demonstrations in 2009, but they gave front-page exposure to the current protests on the first day of the demos. Then, as the protesters’ demands grew more radical, the state media stopped reporting on them.

In any case, Rouhani is no longer the prime target of the demonstrations, and they are no longer just about prices and jobs. They are protests against the entire regime, and the slogans are explicitly political. Previous outbreaks of protest have been put down by force in 1999, 2003, 2006 and most spectacularly in 2009, but three things are different about the current demonstrations.

The first is that the unelected parallel government of the mullahs, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is no longer sacred and beyond criticism. The crowds have been chanting ‘Death to the dictator” and even “Death to Khamenei”, which is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. There have even been calls for the return of the Shah who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979 (or rather of his son, since he died long ago).

Secondly, for the first time the demonstrations began not in Tehran but in provincial cities. The initial outbreak was in Iran’s second city, Mashhad, which is traditionally seen as a very conservative place. The protests only reached the capital on Saturday – and they have broken out in a dozen smaller cities as well.

And the third thing (which may account for the second) is that the majority of protesters this time are not middle-class students and professionals but lower-class people with very little to lose. This may also be why the crowds are less disciplined and more likely to answer violence with violence this time around.

None of this necessarily means that the Iranian regime is on the brink of collapse. It has already cut off the social media that the protesters use to organise, and it is notorious for its willingness to use force against its own citizens (though a dozen have been killed at the time of writing). Most opposition leaders are in jail or in exile, and there is no visible coordination among the protests.

All the other waves of protest failed; this one probably will too. But once events like this start to happen, especially in the Middle East, almost anything is possible.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It is…on them”)

Iran: The New Broom?

16 June 2013

Iran: The New Broom?

By Gwynne Dyer

You certainly can’t say that Iranian elections are boring. In 2005, Iranians surprised everybody by electing the darkest of dark horses, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidency. They didn’t know much about him, but at least he seemed different from all the establishment candidates.

Well, he was different, but not in a good way. By the 2009 election Ahmadinejad’s erratic and confrontational style had turned people off, and he should have lost – but he rigged the vote and triggered mass protests that badly frightened the regime before they were crushed.

Term limits prevented Ahmadinejad from running again this year, which meant that last Friday’s election was clean. So the Iranians pulled off another surprise, electing Hassan Rouhani, the only moderate candidate among the six contenders, to the presidency in the first round. Rouhani got 50 percent of the votes; his closest rival got only 16 percent.

The foreign reaction to Rouhani’s victory was instantaneous. The United States offered to open direct talks with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear programme as well as on bilateral relations. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, predictably warned that there should be no “wishful thinking” about Rouhani’s victory. So what is he: new broom, or another disappointment in the making?

Especially in the past week, after the “reformist” leadership decided he was the least bad alternative and threw its weight behind him, Rouhani has been saying some interesting things. “What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country,” he told the reformist daily Sharq last Wednesday. “We have suffered many blows as a result of extremism.”

“It seems that extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between (the United States and Iran),” he told another newspaper on Thursday, “but logic says that there should be a change of direction.” And he repeatedly promised that both the nuclear issue and the resulting economic sanctions against Iran would be solved if he became president.

Fine words, but he said most of them AFTER the reformists lost hope for a victory themselves and gave Rouhani their support instead. But he is still really an insider, a man whose whole life has been dedicated to preserving the present political order in Iran.

On the other hand, so are Mohammad Khatemi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the two ex-presidents who gave him their backing. They are now seen as reformers because circumstances change, and so do people’s views. All these men are still determined to preserve Iran’s unique combination of theocracy and democracy, but they understand the need to shift the balance towards democracy, and also to deliver a reasonable level of prosperity to the voters.

You might think that Rouhani’s highest priority, therefore, must be to end the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy and impoverishing ordinary voters. Not so: trust comes first. In order to retain credibility with the people who voted for him, he must first release Iran’s political prisoners.

There are at least 800 political prisoners in Iran. Most are people who participated in the “green” protests against the rigged election of 2009, but journalists, human rights activists, feminists and leaders of all the minority religions in Iran (Christians, Sunni Muslims and Bahai) are also in jail. Even amidst great economic hardship, that is what the crowds in the streets celebrating Rouhani’s victory were demanding most urgently.

After that, of course, he must make a deal with the Western countries that have waged a long campaign on Israel’s behalf against Iran’s alleged intention to build nuclear weapons. That is not an impossible task, for Iran is certainly not working on nuclear weapons at the moment: the US National Intelligence Estimates of 2007 and 2011 both say so, and even the Israeli intelligence chiefs agree.

The whole campaign against Iran is based not on evidence but on mistrust: the conviction in some Western quarters (and most Israeli ones) that if Iran can enrich uranium, the “mad mullahs” are bound to build and use nuclear weapons in the end. But it is Iran’s right to build nuclear reactors and enrich fuel for them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed and still observes.

Many in the West are privately uneasy about waging a campaign against Iran’s quite legal nuclear power programme when their own ally, Israel, has not signed the NPT and secretly possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons. Now that motor-mouth Ahmedinejad is gone and a saner leader is about to take the reins in Tehran, there could be a deal on the nuclear issue.

It would be a deal that preserves the country’s right to enrich uranium, but strengthens the controls against enrichment to weapons grade (90 percent). As with the question of releasing political prisoners, however, Rouhani must first get the assent of the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, as the head of the theocratic side of the government, has the power to veto everything. On the other hand, he also wants to preserve this strange two-headed beast called the Iranian revolution, and he knows that if it does not retain popular consent it will eventually die. Western sanctions are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, and people are really hurting. So maybe Khamenei will let Rouhani and his backers save him.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 10. (“Fine…voters”; and “There are…urgently”)