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Would Iran be the same again?

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By  Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri – Professor – University of Jordan

Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Saanei and Makarem Shirazi condemned the security forces’ aggressive reaction to the protests.

Iran’s Reformists claim that they were the only ones who could feel that there was a behind-the-scene plan regarding the tenth presidential election. That is what the losing candidate Mirhossein Mousavi said during a meeting with the members of the Medical Syndicate on August 13, 2009.
Mousavi stated that – based on information that his offices in different Iranian cities had received – he was sure that the election would be rigged. Using this information, Mousavi contacted prominent officials, from the Supreme Leader to members of the judiciary.
Mousavi’s statement were preceded by calls made by various Reformist figures for reconsidering the election’s results. However, the Conservative camp, with whom the Supreme Leader clearly sided this time, described the election as the “most honest” in the history of the Islamic Republic.
The ongoing dispute between the Iranian political forces will continue, and it does not seem that the reconciliation efforts would end the current state of tension on the Iranian political scene.

A Legitimacy Problem?

Many prominent figures in Iran have been discussing the "legitimacy problem" the system is facing.   Elections in Iran are usually regarded as the source of the system’s legitimacy and as the event that the system uses to improve its relationship with the people. This does not apply to the presidential election only, but it also includes the parliamentary and municipal elections.   Therefore, the preparation process for any election in Iran involves ensuring a large turnout because a bigger number of voters means more legitimacy. And if a system acquires more legitimacy at home, it becomes more capable of facing external challenges, which is of particular importance in the Iranian case because of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.   Many religious and political figures in Iran have been discussing the “legitimacy problem” the system is facing after the tenth presidential election. Ayatollah Montazeri – one of the closest companions of the Islamic Republic’s founder, for instance, believes that the legitimacy of the system is jeopardized. He even compared the ongoing trials to those carried out by the monarchical system in Iran just before the Revolution, highlighting the fact that such trials were not an obstacle in the way of change that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.   The losing Reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi is one of those who believe that the election’s results raise concerns about the legitimacy of the system, given that the political system in Iran depends on the people and their votes for legitimacy. The statements of the former president Mohamed Khatami did not differ much from those of Montazeri and Karroubi.   The question of the system’s legitimacy has become a subject of debate even outside Iran; the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, did not hesitate to state that the Iranian political system was facing a “legitimacy problem.”   Iran’s Political Elite The legitimacy crisis the system is facing is connected to the escalating clash between the religious and political elites in the Islamic Republic. The existence of a rift between the members of Iran’s religious and political elites was openly admitted by the Supreme Leader during the Friday Sermon held on June 19, 2009.   Khamenei talked explicitly about the differing viewpoints adopted by him, Ahmadinejad, and Hashemi Rafsanjani, and how his opinion was closer to that of the hard-line president.   The wave of criticism that followed Ahmadinejad’s appointment of his father-in-law, Esfandier Rahim Mashaie, as a vice-president reflected a degree of disagreement on how much power the president should have.   Notably, the appointment process was not completed as the president had to cancel his decision after ignoring a message from the Supreme Leader for almost a week.   The delay in reacting upon the Supreme Leader’s directions, which turned later to an official message, ignited much criticism of the president, who did not show enough respect to the most powerful figure in the Islamic Republic. Also, it brought the important question of how much power the elected president to the forefront. The controversy that surrounded this issue put the question about the powers of the president vis-à-vis the powers of the Supreme Leader in the limelight again.   President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still need to face the challenge of parliament, which probably will not approve his government smoothly, given that he has not consulted enough with MPs about its make-up.   Also, the president’s insistence on appointing young politicians to his government would give his critics a reason to condemn him for not taking the issue of experience into consideration.   The Stance of Religious Scholars   None of the prominent religious figures congratulated Ahmadinejad for being reelected. On the other hand, Hashemi Rafsanjani has expressed openly his inclination to the Reformist camp, calling for putting an end to what he called the “violations” that had affected the Reformist leaders. The head of the Expediency Council considered this the minimum that could be done to calm down both the political elite and the Iranian society.

Rafsanjani’s statements brought him much criticism that there were rumors going around about the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohamed Ali Jaafari, calling for Mohamed Khatami, Mirhossien Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi standing trials. But he denied making such statements later.   It is important to note that this time the controversy involves religious figures; While most religious scholars supported the wave of demonstrations that followed the election, they preferred to remain silent because of their obligation not to comment on political issues.   However, Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Saanei and Makarem Shirazi condemned the security forces’ aggressive reaction to the protests and called for releasing the detained protestors.   What is even more important is that till this moment it has not been publicized that any of the prominent religious figures congratulated Ahmadinejad for being reelected. Such a delay opens the door to many speculations about the level of support the hard-line president has among them.   The Role of Iran’s Political Institutions   The debate in Iran is still going on, particularly the debate about the role of some of the key institutions in the Iranian political system, such as the Assembly of Experts.

Mohamed Ali Dastgheib, a member of the Assembly of Experts, raised questions about Article 111 of the Iranian constitution. According to this article, the Assembly of Experts supervises the performance of the Supreme Leader and it has the authority to dismiss him and appoint another person.   Dastagheib’s message focused on the necessity of holding a special meeting between the Assembly’s members and the losing candidates Mousavi and Karroubi. He also described the Assembly’s members as mojtahideen (Islamic jurists who practice reasoning), who should perform their role in light of this fact.   Also, Iran’s ex-MPs sent a message to Hashemi Rafsanjani, asking him to act upon this authority as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts to remedy the government’s mistakes in dealing with the unrest that followed the June 12 election.   Similar calls followed, questioning the role of the Supreme Leader in agitating the tension during the crisis, given that the security forces that clashed with the protestors were under his direct supervision. Also, the Supreme Leader plays a big role in the appointment of the intelligence minister, who emerges in the scene in the event of large demonstrations that are regarded as a threat by the government.   Part of the ongoing debate inside Iran has to do with the role of external powers in the36that followed the election, and the belief that what happened aimed at paving the way for a “velvet revolution.”     The Reformist movement and its leaders insist that the demonstrations reflected the Iranian people’s anger, and that they were directed against the government’s “selective” approach towards implementing the constitution. The Reformists’ fervent defense of the wave of popular anger is an attempt to refute the claims made by the Conservative media.   Conservative intellectuals, such as Sadiq Zeiba Kalam and Emad Afrooa, are suspicious of the “velvet revolution” argument, and they argue that the system should give more attention to the fact that there is a widespread state of discontent among some social sectors, who do not oppose the system itself, but some of its policies. Those intellectuals think that the government should start a dialogue with such alienated groups instead of antagonizing them.   Post-June 12 Iran

The ongoing crisis will probably increase the power of the military institution.   It seems that Iran will never be the same again. The debate about differences and disparities that used to take place behind closed doors has become public, and the tenth presidential election was the straw that broke the camel’s back.   The course of36moved towards escalation rather than reconciliation. The Conservative side seems to be stricter than ever, using the power of the security apparatuses and the army. At the same time, the Reformists insist on carrying out their campaign despite all the obstacles.   The Reformist talk about forming a sociopolitical front named “The Green Way” seems to be serious. The Green Way would call for resorting to the law and for applying the constitution without selectivity.   Challenging Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy would probably continue, given the delay of many world leaders in congratulating him for being reelected, and the abstention of the US president and the British prime minister altogether.  In this context, it is important to highlight the fact that Iran’s image has been affected negatively by the recent events, and that repairing the damage would require much effort, particularly in light of the ongoing media coverage of the developments in the Islamic Republic.   The ongoing crisis will probably increase the power of the military institution represented in the Revolutionary Guards, which will tighten the security apparatus’ grip over the political life in Iran. Also, the trust crisis would certainly discourage the political elite from participating actively in any upcoming elections. Also, it is totally unexpected that the current crisis will not affect the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. The early indications are negative, and the delay of congratulatory messages is an example. What is quite clear now is that many countries are waiting for Iranian initiatives, namely Tehran’s suggested solutions for the standoff over its nuclear program, which would be offered in September.

Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri is an expert on Iran in the Center for Strategic Studies in the University of Jordan. Holding a doctorate in Middle East history, Dr. Zweiri was a teaching fellow in Middle East politics and director for the Centre for Iranian Studies in Durham University in the United Kingdom. He authored several books and journal papers on Iran.

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