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Supreme Leader

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Revolution Without Martyrdom?

21 July 2009

Revolution Without Martyrdom?

By Gwynne Dyer

Young Iranians were back out on the streets in Tehran on Monday night, after almost a month’s hiatus. They were there again on Tuesday, despite the fact that there were many arrests. Their numbers will probably grow in the next week, for we are now nearing forty days since the regime’s Basij thugs brutally crushed the first round of demonstrations.

In Iran’s Shia Muslim culture, forty days of mourning for the dead are usually followed by public demonstrations of grief. During the revolution against the Shah in 1978-79, that was when the crowds came out on the streets again, to be mown down once more by the Shah ’s army. The cycle continued until the army, sick of killing unarmed fellow-countrymen, began to refuse the Shah’s orders

At least twenty young demonstrators, and possibly many more, were killed by the current regime’s paramilitary forces in late June. Will that old cycle of protest, killing, mourning and more protest reappear in the present and lead to the overthrow of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president whose disputed re-election he so firmly defends, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Probably not, but they could still lose.

There will be no re-run of 1978 because today’s young Iranians are strikingly different from their parents’ generation th irty years ago. Those crowds had little to lose except their lives, and they were driven by a fatalistic courage that accepted death almost without demur. If you are fifteen or twenty-five or even thirty-five in Tehran today, you have lots to lose, and you do not want to die.

Like some general expecting the next war to be just like the last, I didn’t understand this difference at first. But then the terrifying video clip of 26-year-old Neda Agah Soltan, shot down by a Basij sniper and dying in the street on 21 June, got several million views inside Iran in twenty-four hours. After that, you could practically hear millions of young Iranians saying: “That could be me.” And they didn’t want it to be, so the streets emptied.

So don’t expect escalating street protests to make Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retreat or drive them from power. However, cautious, limited, recurrent protests could be part of a more complex strategy that ultimately accomplishes the same goal, for the ruling elite itself is deeply split. That has not happened before.

The three “reformers” who now lead the opposition to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are the three people who made most of the day-to-day decisions in the country from the time of the revolution until only four years ago. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in this year’s presidential election (and may really have won it), was the prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989; Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997; and Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005.

Mousavi has always faced unrelenting hostility from the ultra-conservative Ali Khamenei. As president in 1981, Khamenei refused to accept Mousavi as prime minister (even though he had been legitimately chosen by parliament) until the Old Man himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, intervened and insisted that Mousavi be allowed to take office.

The strong suspicion that this time the election itself was rigged by Khamenei’s supporters to exclude Mousavi from office has only made him more defiant. His website dismisses the regime’s claim that the protests were inspired by Iran’s foreign enemies with contempt: “Isn’t it an insult to 40 million voters… linking detainees to foreign countries? Let people freely express their protests and ideas.”

Rafsanjani, in a sermon at Tehran University last Friday, aligned himself firmly with Mousavi, demanding an end to the media clamp-down and the release of people arrested during the protests. He also referred indirectly to the fact that he actually chairs the committee that elects the Supreme Leader, and can dismiss him.

Khatami went further on Monday, calling for a referendum on the alleged outcome of t he election. “People must be asked whether they are happy with the situation that has taken shape,” he said. “I state openly that reliance upon the people’s vote and the staging of a legal referendum is the only way for the system to emerge from the current crisis.” It was after that that the protestors re-appeared on the streets.

They will not sweep the regime away, and if its henchmen start killing them again they will prudently withdraw from the streets for a while – but only to devise safer ways of making their resentment felt. Meanwhile, a parallel campaign will be waged within the ranks of the Islamic clergy, mixing fine theological points with the crassest appeals to self-interest. This 20will not be an epic tale of heroism and martyrdom, but a complicated and mostly obscure contest for the future of the Islamic Republic.

The hard-liners’ hope, understandably enough, was that after a while the outrage at Ahmadinejad’s implausible re-election to the presidency would subside into a sullen acceptance of the inevitable. That has not happened. Iran is in for a lengthy struggle, with an unpredictable outcome.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Mousavi…ideas”)

Iran: Turn the Page

8 February 2004

Iran: Turn the Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Thursday, only six days before the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution (on 11 February), a hopeful door to the future clanged shut. Democratic reformers, who won control of the Iranian parliament in 2001 but found their legislation blocked by the unelected Guardian Council, have decided to boycott the election on 20 February. Democracy will still come to Iran in the end, no doubt, but now it will come in the streets. The only question is whether it will be a non-violent revolution like Berlin 1989, or a re-run of Iran’s own bloody revolution in 1979.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a brazen attempt by religious conservatives to regain control of parliament by banning 3,000 reform candidates, including over eighty sitting members of parliament (out of 290), from running in this election. Iran’s bizarre two-headed constitution allows for an elected parliament and president alongside an unelected but all-powerful Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a Guardian Council appointed by the religious leader that can veto all parliamentary legislation and vet all political candidates, so it was technically legal. It was also supremely stupid.

Iran’s elected president, Mohammed Khatami, urged patience on his reformist supporters and appealed to the Supreme Leader to reverse the Guardian Council’s decree. Khamenei, fearing his appointees had overplayed their hand, suggested a compromise: the intelligence ministry would certify 600 prominent reformers as loyal to the Islamic state and they would be allowed to run. The Guardian Council replied by approving only 51 of the 600, and at that point the democrats threw their hands in. At least 127 MPs have already resigned, and the main opposition parties have declared a boycott of the forthcoming election.

The election will probably go ahead anyway, returning a huge conservative majority on a drastically shrunken turnout, but the important thing is that the democratic opposition has finally given up on politics. In one form or another, direct action is what will now determine the outcome of the struggle between Islamic conservatives and democratic reformers in Iran.

It has only taken this long because of the pacifying role played by Mohammed Khatami, who was reluctantly persuaded to run for the presidency in 1997 by the reformers. An Islamic cleric himself, though far more open-minded than the men around Khamenei, he agreed to run mainly to head off a direct clash between the bearded old men who rule Iran and the impatient young men and women who cannot stand them.

To his own astonishment, Khatami won by a landslide 69 percent majority on a massive 83 percent turnout of the vote. In office, he moved very slowly at first, avoiding direct confrontations with the religious authorities, but his enthusiastic supporters forgave him because the conservatives still controlled the parliament. They became more impatient when Khatami still did little after democrats won control of parliament in the 2000 election, but they returned him to the presidency with an increased majority in 2001. It was noticeable, however, that the turnout in 2001 dropped by almost a fifth to 67 percent: some people were already losing faith in the ballot-box.

Khatami briefly tried to play hard-ball in 2002, threatening to resign if the Guardian Council vetoed two parliamentary bills to stop the arbitrary vetting of political candidates and to end political trials. The Guardian Council vetoed them anyway, and Khatami didn’t resign. Neither did he condemn the conservatives when they used their constitutional position to shut down pro-democratic media. He even stayed silent when the police (who, like the army and the state-owned media, are under conservative control) helped fanatical vigilantes to beat protesting students last June.

Eventually the conservatives were so emboldened that they overplayed their hand, and now the political struggle moves to the streets. Khatami will stay in power for one more year, but he is a burnt-out case whose former supporters are coming to see him as a mere apologist of the regime. Among the massive cohort of disillusioned youth (Iran’s population has doubled to 70 million in the past 25 years), the alienation from the whole idea of the ‘Islamic’ republic is spectacular.

If they are middle-class, they are virtual citizens of a quite different world known to them through satellite TV, videos and constant contact with the huge Iranian diaspora that regularly travels back and forth between Iran and its new homes in Europe, the Americas and Australia — a world in which people like Khamenei and Khatami seem like complete anachronisms. If they are working class and under 25, they are probably unemployed.

They may not come out in their millions to demonstrate in favour of a president who was a disappointment and a parliament that proved to be irrelevant. “Protests shouldn’t focus on this matter, but should be about changing the structure of the system,” said Mehdia Aminzadeh, a student leader, last month. But when something does finally bring them out on the street again in a big way, it will probably be the end-game.

Fanatics like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the regime’s most prominent ideologue, vow to preserve the Islamic republic “even at the price of a million martyrs,” but it is also possible that the whole rotten structure of the theocratic system might collapse at the first hard push. Nobody knows — but it is clear that the patient, political phase of the struggle for Iran’s future is over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It has…ballot-box”)