Monday, June 15, 2009

Why this is not just another protest.....

Great Article from Jim Muir of the BBC on the differences between today demonstrations and the student protests of 1999 and 2003. This is why the regime is fighting so hard to maintain control.

On the face of it, the disturbances currently shaking Tehran in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election look very similar to the street clashes that erupted there in July 1999 and June 2003.

As happened then, thousands of angry and disillusioned people, their hopes for change frustrated, have taken to the streets, clashing with security forces and hardline vigilantes who roam the city on motorcycles.

Buses and banks have been burnt, and student dormitories raided by police or irregulars, as happened on those earlier occasions.

The 1999 and 2003 disturbances involved thousands of protesters, rather than the millions it would take to shake the Islamic regime seriously.

They petered out after about 10 days, and achieved nothing, in the face of stern repression.

Will that be the fate of the current protests, too?

But these protests include more than just angry students and there is more at stake than just some decisions about administration at Tehran U.

This time it is very different.

The protests are in reaction to specific political grievances involving senior politicians well-embedded in the Iranian system.

On Monday, they led to a peaceful mass demonstration in Tehran - despite an official ban - that by all accounts ran into hundreds of thousands, far bigger than any of the earlier protests, and too big for the authorities to disperse without causing potentially more serious repercussions.

The current protests bring together grassroots sentiment and the political level in a way that the earlier protests did not.

That carries the current dissension into the heart of the Islamic power system.

Heavyweight supporters

The man at the centre of the storm, presidential challenger and runner-up Mir Hossein Mousavi, is not some lightweight outsider.

Ahmadinejad supporters demonstrate outside the British embassy in Tehran on 15/6/09
Ahmadinejad supporters have also rallied in Tehran

He was Iran's prime minister from 1981 until 1989, and was generally given high ratings for running the country through almost all of the eight years of war with neighbouring Iraq.

One of his closest associates and backers, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is an even weightier figure who has been a major pillar of the Islamic Republic since its foundation.

Twice president, from 1989 to 1997, Mr Rafsanjani is a pragmatic conservative who currently heads two of the regime's most powerful bodies: the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes over legislation) and the Assembly of Experts (which appoints, and can theoretically replace, the Supreme Leader).

He also wields huge influence and economic clout behind the scenes.

But in this year's presidential campaign, Mr Rafsanjani was bracketed together with Mr Mousavi and lambasted vitriolically by Mr Ahmadinejad in televised debates.

Mr Mousavi was also supported by another two-term former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who withdrew his own candidacy in Mr Mousavi's favour and is now also calling for the vote to be cancelled and re-run.

The same demand has been made by another of the election losers, Mohsen Rezaie, who for 16 years commanded the Revolutionary Guards, another of the regime's main pillars.

In addition to alienating reformist and centrist circles, Mr Ahmadinejad (the first Iranian president not to be a cleric) is also not uniformly backed by hardline conservatives, including the religious establishment in Qom.

Where he is believed to enjoy huge support is among the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its auxiliary basij (volunteer) militia, where he has built up a strong following and patronage.

His support among the military is such that many Iran analysts have portrayed what has happened as a kind of military coup from within the regime.

But Mr Ahmadinejad has also won much support among the poor by pursuing a populist political and economic policy, disbursing funds in rural areas in a manner that his critics say has added to Iran's woes by generating high inflation.

'Burning dilemma'

And so how will it all end?

Much will clearly now depend on whether the street demonstrations escalate, whether the authorities respond violently, and what decision emerges from the Council of Guardians, the highly-conservative oversight body which has 10 days to adjudicate appeals lodged by Mr Mousavi and Mr Rezai.

Ayatollah Khamenei has urged the Council to study the claims closely.

Its decision could provide him with a way out of a dangerous situation and avert an eventuality where Mr Ahmadinejad could emerge in such a powerful position that Ayatollah Khamenei's own standing could be undermined, with traditional balancing power centres eclipsed.

Much must be going on behind the scenes, involving key figures such as Mr Rafsanjani, from whom little has been heard since the results were announced.

If the confrontation remains unresolved, he and others may have to decide whether to throw their weight behind an effort that could tear apart and bring down the system in which they have a big stake, or trim their sails and accept a reduced status.

To avert an escalation, Ayatollah Khamenei may have to find a way either to persuade the losers and their backers and followers that the results were genuine and fair, or to pacify them by other means - perhaps by curbing Mr Ahmadinejad or diluting his policies in some way.

I think a lot depends on what happens tonight in the U.S. and tomorrow in Iran. Tonight president Obama is supposed to make a statement - I think he needs to be careful what he says but we'll see. And tomorrow there is supposed to another huge rally in Tehran, this time accompanied by a national strike of Mousavi's supporters. If Obama treds carefully, and if the strike happens tomorrow, I think it becomes almost impossible to dismiss this as just another protest or just people pissed at the outcome of an election. This may be the beginning of a 2nd Iranian revolution.

No comments: