The View Above Tehran From 10,000 Feet

by dday

A sampling of cable media last night - and yes, it was cable, but these were generally pretty knowledgeable scholars, like Reza Aslan and Joseph Cirincione and Abbas Milani - suggested pretty much en masse that Iran had reached a tipping point from which they cannot return, and that the regime has been dealt a fatal blow by a week's worth of protesting. I think we have to step back for a minute and process this. As Jim Sleeper, a journalist informed by one of his former students living in Iran right now, notes, this revolution is in no way understandable in an American liberal/conservative sense. Aslan touched on this tonight as well. It's a group largely made up of precisely the people who kicked off the 1979 Iranian Revolution - Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Medhi Karoubi, the top cleric Montasevi who reportedly broke with his colleagues - using similar tactics to take down specific actors in the regime in the name of "redeeming" the revolution. Mousavi himself is a former Prime Minister and classic insider, a protege of the Ayatollah Khomeini who could be motivated simply by animus toward the Supreme Leader Khamenei. Seeing someone so close to Khomeini lauded by conservatives is quite a laugh. That does not mean figures like Mousavi are irreconcilable:

Although he has long had an adversarial relationship with Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his insider status makes him loath to mount a real challenge to the core institutions of the Islamic republic. He was an early supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, and as prime minister in the 1980s he approved Iran’s purchase of centrifuges on the nuclear black market, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Yet like many founding figures of the revolution, he has come to believe that the incendiary radicalism of the revolution’s early days must be tempered in an era of peace and state-building, those who know him say. Some have seen a symbolic meaning in his decision to make Monday’s vast demonstration in Tehran a march from Enghelab (revolution) Square to Azadi (freedom) Square.

“He is a hybrid child of the revolution,” said Shahram Kholdi, a lecturer at the University of Manchester who has written about Mr. Moussavi’s political evolution. “He is committed to Islamic principles but has liberal aspirations.”

It's also worth understanding how this has completely bypassed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, almost ceasing to be about him at all, and instead has to be viewed through the lens of the desires of the Supreme Leader. The election itself has become almost besides the point, as thirty years of frustration with the shift of the Islamic Revolution, or possibly even just frustration with the personality of Khamenei himself, bubbles to the surface. This is a really good analysis:

However, his support for Ahmadinejad before and after the elections, together with what many believe to be overwhelming election fraud that he has sanctioned, is almost out of character for Khamenei. Such moves are very sudden and extreme, unlike the punctilious way in which he has maneuvered around important issues and decisions in the past. They are also very provocative, not just for supporters of reformists, but because they are clearly efforts to isolate other powerful figures. These leaders include Rafsanjani and Karroubi, both of whom have vast business connections and are politically well-connected.

One possible reason for Khamenei’s recent decision is that he realized that unless he intervened, the reformists would win the elections. What concerned the Supreme Leader even more is the fact that the clergy, both right and left, were turning against the president, and ultimately, against him. Recently, for instance, the Society For Combatant Clergies, a powerful conservative group belonging to the clergy in Qom, decided “not to support any candidate in the presidential elections.” This was a politically correct way of saying that they would not support Ahmadinejad. As someone who has supported Ahmadinejad throughout his career, Khamenei took their decision as a rebuff against his own political ambitions.

A victory by the reformists, in cooperation with the clergy and Rafsanjani, would have created a powerful front against Khamenei. Instead of being loyalist soldiers like Ahmadinejad, they would have challenged his views in important areas, such as dealing with the United States. With Khamenei already viewing Obama’s positive overtures as a threat, any more internal dissent would have boosted Washington’s position against Iran in the negotiations.

It's worth noting that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts, the religious body which chooses - and can depose - a Supreme Leader. The clerics have said almost nothing throughout this week of protests, but Rafsanjani has been alleged to be masterminding this whole spectacle. The fact that some protestors are targeting Khamenei personally lends credence to that. Rafsanjani and "moderates" like him have backed down before, but the presumed stolen election is a more powerful lever with which to play out the palace intrigue. Viewed this way, we can see these protests as a high-stakes jockeying for power among different sects from the original Islamic revolution, a far cry from some democratic uprising for freedom. I don't think that's the motivation of everyone in the streets, but what they don't know won't hurt them.

A huge protest is scheduled for tomorrow in mourning of the reportedly 32 protestors who have died in the struggle so far - something pulled right from the playbook of 1979, when the mourning rallies were used to demean the brutal regime of the Shah. But the government has fairly successfully cracked down on communications to the outside world, and the Revolutionary Guard and its militias, for the most part, appear to remain firmly in the camp of the current rulers, although there are some cracks in that armor. When the people with the guns start to don green shirts and fold into the crowds, then things may change. Until then, we're as likely to see a repeat of Tiananmen Square as a revolution of any kind. As Steve Coll says:

All of the opening source evidence since the last round of counter-revolutionary street protests suggests that there has seen no particular strengthening of the urban and merchant forces who constitute the backbone of “reform” in Iran. If anything, the Defenders of the Revolution seem stronger now, since their militias, conservative foundations, and overseas networks have been strengthened by the money flowing from expensive oil. Yes, the economy is in trouble, and yes, the urban reform forces can make a lot of noise in the streets, since they live and thrive in the cities. This, however, a counter-revolution does not make. The Obama Administration has banked on engagement with the “real” Iran. Surely the Administration is right to lay its long-shot bet on the protests—morally, and otherwise. But let’s not kid ourselves about how the roulette wheel is most likely to spin.

(I don't know that Obama has banked on much of anything - they were perfectly willing to engage whoever ran the country before the elections.)

I have been following Nico Pitney's minute-by-minute reports with interest, and I think that this is an interesting moment in the history of Iran. Those using nonviolent resistance techniques should be commended for their bravery. But perspective is highly sought. This isn't so clear-cut.

More from Juan Cole, translating primary sources, here.