As Iran prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its revolution, the supreme leader faces a choice between granting concessions to opponents of the government and defeating them once and for all
“In the streets you are fighting with shadows and your defensive walls are collapsing, one by one, in the hearts of the people,” said Mir Hossein Moussavi, the de facto leader of the Iranian opposition, in a statement issued in early December rebuking the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Moussavi was one of the defeated candidates in Iran’s June presidential election and his statement is just one sign of the continued opposition to the result.
The government fears opposition supporters will hijack February’s celebrations for the 31st anniversary of the revolution
The funeral of the country’s leading dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, on 21 December provided the most recent focal point for opponents of the Iranian regime. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the holy city of Qom, clashing with pro-government militiamen and chanting in support of Moussavi. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of supporters in major towns joined the Qom protestors in denouncing Ahmadinejad’s right to rule.
But the government’s use of force and mass arrests on 6 and 7 December, during large demonstrations in Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz and Hamadan, underline its deep concerns over the deteriorating political situation. The arrests included those of 20 mothers who were marking the deaths of their children at recent disturbances with a vigil in Laleh Park in central Tehran.
The “Green” opposition movement – named after the campaign colour used by Moussavi in June – is a socially broad, decentralised popular movement and has proven predications of its early demise wrong.
Ahmadinejad and the official institutions backing him were initially caught off guard by the furious public reaction to perceptions of electoral fraud, but the attempts since then to suppress the opposition have largely failed.
Having believed that the brutal use of force would cow the demonstrators and their nominal leaders – Moussavi, presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi and former president Mohammad Khatami – they appear frustrated and surprised, not only by the continuing unrest itself but also by the spread of support for the opposition movement across the country.
The arrests of suspected opposition activists have done little to stem the tide of protest. Almost 200 students were arrested in the two weeks before the 7 December demonstrations, with thousands more arrested on the day itself. But the degree of unrest in the University of Tehran was still so great that Ahmadinejad closed it down.
The decentralised nature of the Green movement ensures that it is likely to survive, but to bring about any change it needs to have clearer leadership and goals.
In their public announcements, Moussavi and Karrubi remain loyal to the Islamic Republic, implying that an essentially good governmental structure has been overtaken by a group of bad people. The question now is how long they can maintain such a stance as their supporters become more radical as a result of the violence and intransigence of Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In other words, one of the biggest problems facing the Green movement and its leaders is deciding what they want. Another is maintaining a respectable turnout at demonstrations, even as there is a gradual closing of the political space.
Even if some are dissuaded from taking part in public protests, the level of public anger over the election result and the use of violence by the authorities will not end anytime soon. If anything, the longer Ahmadinejad attempts to remain in power, the greater the radicalisation of the movement.
It is now common to see slogans such as ‘Death to Khamenei’ and ‘Iranian Republic’ on walls across the country, which imply growing opposition to the political system itself rather than just to its current leaders.
“It is not about who the president is or is not; the issue is that they have sold out a great nation”
Mir Hossein Moussavi, de facto opposition leader
While Ahmadinejad tries to face down the opposition, he also has problems in retaining the support of those within the conservative camp. This difficulty began during his first term in office, from 2005 to 2009, but has intensified since the most recent election.
Conservatives in the Majlis (parliament) have refused to co-operate with Ahmadinejad on several major bills, including one in early December last year to remove up to $100bn a year of government subsidies on petrol, gas, electricity, food and other items. He has also faced opposition to ministerial appointments and other policy initiatives. This will continue in 2010 and 2011, making governing difficult for Ahmadinejad.
The problems in the Majlis are compounded by wider divisions among the elite. Factional politics has been characteristic of the country’s political life since at least 1989, when Aya-tollah Khomeini died. During the Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani presidency, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, and that of reformist president Khatami, who was in power from 1997 to 2005, the divides deepened.
But certain boundaries were always respected, and when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for unity, most sides, at least publically, acquiesced.
Since the 2009 elections, however, the situation has changed dramatically. The supreme leader, by openly supporting Ahmadinejad and approving the use of violence against protesters, is no longer seen as an independent arbitrator between different groups.
Moussavi, Karrubi and Khatami have all spoken out against Khamenei’s interpretation of the election results and his sanctioning of the use of violence, and have ignored his calls for unity. Karrubi has urged the government to accept that “in order to get over the current situation, it needs to accept the people’s demands”.
In the run-up to the 7 December demonstrations, Moussavi also stressed that the reform movement was “alive” despite continued government attempts at suppression. In a sign of the unbridgeable gap between the two warring camps, he added “they are asking us to forget about the election results as though people are concerned only about the elections. How can we make them understand that this is not the issue? It is not about who the president is or is not; the issue is that they have sold out a great nation.”
Rafsanjani has also weighed in to the debate. In a speech in the eastern city of Mashhad a few days before the 7 December demonstrations, he referred to attempts to violently suppress previous protests by saying “constructive criticism is not tolerated in the country. It is not right that Basij [volunteer militia] and the Revolutionary Guards are set against the people”.
This unwillingness to adhere to the position of the supreme leader is not limited to Ahmadinejad’s opponents. On several occasions, the president himself has ignored Khamenei’s advice and requests. With the supreme leader now only one of several players in the political scene, albeit a powerful one, the intense factional struggles will continue unabated until one side is defeated.
But Khamenei tied his legitimacy and authority to Ahmadinejad when he publically backed the election result in a speech on 19 June, and is now forced to continue supporting him. If the president falls, the supreme leader’s authority and power will be severely reduced.
The extent of Khamenei’s power is also under question as the Revolutionary Guards, working to protect and expand its own economic and political power, seems to be increasingly able to make major decisions, which are then simply rubber-stamped by the supreme leader. Its goal, according to the late Ayatollah Montazeri, who was once Khomeini’s heir apparent and a leading reformist voice in Iran, is to create an Islamic military dictatorship.
Most of the country’s politically powerful grand ayatollahs find themselves in opposition to the policies and statements of Ahmadinejad, not least his use of violence and repression.
Many of these clerics are now talking about a ceasefire between the warring factions in the hope of achieving national reconciliation. After the demonstrations of 7 December, Ayatollah Naser Makram Shirazi called for a ceasefire and then reconciliation.
However, the Ahmadinejad government has a history of rejecting such attempts, arguing that any form of mediation leading to reconciliation would “provide opportunity to the anti-revolutionary forces”.
In the background of this political crisis grows an even larger, economic one. Unemployment continues to rise and inflation rages, while major companies and factories are short of cash and some are unable to pay their workers. Strikes by workers demanding the payment of outstanding wages began in the summer of 2009 and increased in the autumn.
The economic demands coming from this lower-middle class group are slowly transforming into political demands as increasing numbers of workers join the demonstrations against the Ahmadinejad government.
The ongoing controversy over Iran’s attempts to develop its nuclear industry places additional pressure on the Ahmadinejad government. Having lost much popular support since the election, Ahmadinejad has been forced to rely more on his core group of supporters, many of whom, greatly suspicious of the West, and the US in particular, would view any major concession as a dangerous sign of weakness, giving him little room for manoeuvre.
The supreme leader, known for his strong anti-US stance, is also seemingly disinclined to agree to a deal with the West, which he blames for the continuing unrest.
While some members of the Green movement are worried that US President Barack Obama will do a deal with Ahmadinejad, which would give the increasingly beleaguered president the political and economic opportunity to solidify his position and crush his opposition, many traditional conservative opponents have the same fear. Given this political dynamic, there should not be any major changes on the nuclear issue, except for increased economic sanctions against Iran.
The regime is already worried about the possibility of the Green movement hijacking the celebrations marking the anniversary of the revolution in February. The supreme leader faces a choice: make concessions or try to defeat the opposition once and for all. The latter could include the arrest of Moussavi and Karrubi.
In a statement released on 13 December, Khamenei seemed to be moving towards the second option of defeating the opposition.
Whatever choice he finally makes, 2010 and 2011 will bring increased political and economic instability in the Islamic Republic, given the economic and political