Iran in numbers

2012: Year of the next parliamentary elections in Iran

2013: Year of Iran’s next presidential election

Source: MEED

December marks the 18-month anniversary of Iran’s June 2009 presidential elections. The official results showed a decisive electoral victory for the neo-conservative populist incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

The two defeated opponents of Ahmedinejad, Mir Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, led accusations of massive electoral fraud. Even the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, known to be cautious in his public statements, said: “A velvet coup d’etat has taken place against the people and republicanism.” This was despite confirmation of the results by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and his rejection of accusations of cheating. 

In the following six months, major demonstrations and bloody crackdowns rocked the Islamic Republic. The consequences of these events are still felt today, despite the regime’s attempts to show a return to normality.

Lasting political damage in Iran

Despite the government’s present ability to prevent the emergence of mass shows of discontent, a large cleavage between state and most of society remains. The high public turnout in the 2009 elections showed that society as a whole accepted most of the principles of the Islamic Republic on the condition of gradual political reform and competent economic management.

Ahmedinejad continues to attempt to crush all criticism and opposition in the elite and society

However, after the events of 2009, the extent to which Ahmedinejad enjoys popular support is an open question, although clearly he is unpopular in large and medium-sized urban areas, where he is openly mocked. The killing and mass imprisonment of young people, along with allegations of rape in detention have permanently damaged the legitimacy of the regime.

There is a sense that the current political stand-off cannot continue and that, at the very least, Ahmedinejad will not survive until the end of his second term in 2013. Fanning this public discontent is the deteriorating economic situation, caused by mismanagement and allegations of corruption in the Ahmedinejad administration, and compounded by tightened sanctions against the country.

The political discontent was mainly a concern of students, the population of major urban areas and the professional middle class. But now economic discontent is politically activating the working and lower classes, which face stagnant incomes, high unemployment and inflation, mostly in regard to housing and food.

Although the opposition Green Movement and its leaders, Karrubi and Mussavi, have paid little attention to the major concerns of the latter groups, they stand to benefit politically from economic discontent.

As a whole, among the urban population of Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, Mashad and Tabriz, there is a sense of uncertainty about the future, coupled with the belief that the country is experiencing a calm before the storm.

Meanwhile, the elite – known for factional fighting since the founding of the regime – is irrevocably split. The political scene is fluid, given the predominance of the role of personalities over institutions. Nonetheless, some conclusions can be made. Opposition to Ahmedinejad and his elite supporters is not limited to reformists still in the official political scene and those outside of it, namely Karrubi and Mussavi. The majority of principalists, the leading conservative political party, and independents in the parliament are also openly critical of the president’s economic and political policies. Leading figures opposing Ahmedinejad include Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the deputy speaker of the Parliament, and Ali Motahari, the conservative parliamentarian.

Public and religious holidays are marked by a vastly increased presence of police and anti-riot forces

At the same time, the popularity of Ahmedinejad and his government among the leading clerics is, on the whole, low, despite strong backing from some major Ayatollahs, such as Mesbah Yazdi. One of the reasons for the Supreme Leader’s recent visits to Qom was to obtain solid clerical support for Ahmedinejad. Seemingly, he did not reach this goal, given deep clerical unease over Ahmedinejad’s policies and modus operandi. Fragmentation among the conservatives and clerical opposition to Ahmedinejad will increase as the dates for the next parliamentary (2012) and presidential (2013) elections begin to close in.

Succession dispute in Iran

One major bone of contention between Ahmedinejad and the leading clerics is his wish that his close adviser and father of his daughter-in-law, Rahim Mashai, succeed him. The neo-conservative populist group behind Ahmedinejad is aiming to ensure that one of their own is the next president in order to maintain the political and economic hold they have established over the country during the past six years.

Mashai’s positions on cultural and political issues have turned the clerical establishment against him. Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati recently rejected Ahmedinejad’s attempts to arrange a meeting between them and Mashai.

Despite having crushed the demonstrations, the regime remains fearful of the people. Public and religious holidays are marked by a vastly increased presence of police and anti-riot forces on major streets and squares. One of the main reasons for the government’s delay in lifting subsidies on food and energy is public reaction. In a recent major speech, Ahmadimogaddam, the head of the country’s police forces, signalled the regime’s increasing fear of social unrest arising from economic discontent and openly spoke of ‘economic rebellion’. He warned that the regime is prepared to deal with any public sign of economic discontent.

Personality cult

The regime, having realised its loss of legitimacy – as a result of the charges of electoral fraud, the bloody crackdown and accusations of rape – has launched a concerted campaign to establish and strengthen a cult of personality around the Supreme Leader. His portraits and sayings are evident in numbers not even seen in the Khomeini period. State media consistently shows him enjoying massive public support, more often than not in front of a group of militia or state-sponsored groups, such as the Bassiji. It has also increased efforts to promote Khamenei as the closest of confidants of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khamenei hopes to strengthen his political and popular position by linking himself directly with the Khomeini legacy. Yet, the family of Khomeini finds itself under attack by Khamenei’s political partner, Ahmedinejad, and his supporters. Additionally, having politically emasculated, at least for the moment, those who were close to Khomeini, namely Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mussavi and Karrubi, Khamenei needs to fill the consequent political vacuum with images of himself.

These efforts have had limited effect, since it is popularly known that Khamenei was not a member of Khomeini’s inner circle. Moreover, his and other leading figures’ consistent remarks stressing the fairness of the presidential elections underscore the regime’s realisation of its political problems.

His role, nonetheless, remains pivotal for the moment. His many years at the top of the political structure, away from society and attended by sycophantic advisors, have left him unable to understand clearly the dynamics of society and the political situation. His goal of using Ahmedinejad to strengthen his position and create unity by eliminating the threats he saw in Rafsanjani, Mussavi and Khatami did not bring the desired results. He was caught off guard by the extent of public fury over the belief that cheating had taken place and the unwillingness of Karrubi and Mussavi to back down. Having tied his legitimacy and fate to Ahmedinejad, Khamenei has driven himself into a political dead-end and is too timid and fearful to go into reverse.

Meanwhile, Ahmedinejad continues to attempt to crush all criticism and opposition in the elite and society.

Mussavi and Karrubi remain, issuing critical announcements and providing an alternative to what is considered the coup government. Through their public statements, both men show an optimism about the political maturation of Iranian political culture and the ultimate failure of the Ahmedinejad regime.

Their messages, which continue to be read and passed within the country, reflect both men’s keen understanding of the changing political and economic situation in the country. The regime’s unwillingness so far to arrest these men, despite many threats to do so, reflects its political weakness and fear of society.

In the midst of all this, Tehran’s international position continues to deteriorate. The latest round of sanctions, which garnered the support of Russia and China, and the recent leaks of US State Department reports underlining Arab pressure for a US attack, underlines the international isolation of Ahmedinejad’s government. The Obama administration, while adapting a reasoned position with regard to Tehran, has taken good advantage of the Islamic Republic’s self-isolation from the international community.

Lone fighter

Ahmedinejad’s seeming willingness to restart negotiations belies the political and ideological inability of Tehran to accept conditions proposed by the 5+1 group. To be seen backing down in the face of international pressure would undermine Ahmedinejad’s attempts to portray himself internationally and domestically as the lone fighter against, as the Islamic Republic puts it, “world arrogance”.

At the same time, the Supreme Leader’s paranoia about the West and specifically the US will make reaching an agreement difficult. The group, knowing of Ahmedinejad’s deteriorating domestic position and Tehran’s habit of extending negotiations in order to play for time, will probably see no reason to make any concessions to a regime weakening at home and abroad.

Domestically, while the Green Movement and its leaders are not yet in a position to achieve their goals, the regime is unable to defeat it, even if their leaders are arrested. Despite the absence of images of massive demonstrations similar to those seen in the summer of 2009, the regime and society remain in a stand-off, fearful of each other.