Rick Sindelar on Iran

Written by  //  June 24, 2009  //  Government & Governance, Middle East & Arab World, Politics, Wednesday Night Authors  //  Comments Off on Rick Sindelar on Iran

Protesters’ tenacity to decide the future in Iran


(Houston Chronicle) The mullahs have miscalculated, and the fascinating panorama that is Iran now seems destined for a severe, long-term and possibly regime-changing crisis. A mix of factors is simmering in a veritable stew of Iranian political intrigue, and various scenarios increasingly bring into question whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can retain the presidency, and indeed even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s capability to hold on.

The question will be whether protesters are willing to become martyrs. If they stand their ground in the face of violent regime thuggery — as protesters facing the Shah’s Savak did in 1978-79 — they may bring down Khamenei himself, if not the clerical regime.

Ahmadinejad’s victory is now tainted. The mullahs overreached by rigging the vote count to re-elect Ahmadinejad on the first ballot, and the adjective in use on the Iranian street is “fraud.” Any result that lets stand Ahmadinejad’s “victory” will instantly be viewed as a perpetuation of the fraud now enshrined in the mind of the street.

Crucial to the popular reaction is its broad base. The 1999 and 2003 protests that turned violent were university- and student-based. Now, older citizens and the middle class feel disenfranchised and have joined in the protests.

The size of the protests will test the resources of the authorities to suppress the gatherings. Outnumbered security forces in an oppressive regime classically abandon crowd-control measures when pressed and turn to violence as demonstrations grow. And modern technology — not available to Iranians in Khomeini’s 1978-79 revolution — is a massive media tool that the protesters have become adept at using to inspire support and connectivity. Regime efforts to stanch the flow of Internet-based and Twitter information have been ineffective, and tech-savvy Iranians have begun themselves counterattacking by hacking the regime’s Web sites. Brutal crackdowns would bring Internet-churned cell phone videos of more deaths, calling into question the clerics’ ability to hold power.

The bouillabaisse includes a potentially significant and seemingly worsening rift among Iran’s influential clerics, never a monolithic group in the best of times. Moderate clerics — moderate within the framework of fundamentalist Iran — are highly critical of the official Ahmadinejad victory.

Most intriguing is the wary relationship between the powerful and influential Ali Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei. Rafsanjani quietly competed with Khamenei to be the heir to Ayatollah Khomeini, only to acquiesce in the latter’s accession. In 2005, Rafsanjani was defeated in a bitter run-off election by Ahmadinejad, who added a public charge of corruption to the mix in the 2009 election campaign, a stinging rebuke that still clearly rankles Rafsanjani. But in assessing the current bubbling stew, account must be taken of Rafsanjani’s perhaps reduced influence and clout. Suspicions are widespread that the wealthy pistachio king is indeed corrupt.

Then there is the 18th of Tir factor, the anniversary of violent student protests in 1999 that arrives July 8-9. A declaration confirming Ahmadinejad as victor would almost certainly inspire more protests and a predictably harsh regime response, and this new round of violence could then segue into renewed anniversary rioting “honoring” the 18th of Tir protests.

Iran faces potentially a month or more of leadership fracturing, popular discontent, crackdowns and thuggery, all vectoring toward regime instability. Whether the protesters have the will to persist over many days in these wide-ranging and massive demonstrations — and publicly risk death in the streets as their brethren did in 1978-79 — remains uncertain; time and lack of success in the shorter term have a way of dissipating interest.

The final ingredient in the stew, in the eyes of those in the street, is presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi himself. He possesses a quiet charisma and is well-respected as a former prime minister who exhibited solid leadership during the troubling 1980s. Protesters from all walks of life, faced with accepting Ahmadinejad’s flailing leadership, may prove tenacious in supporting a change to Mousavi.

In the end, the protests may not bring the fall of the Islamic regime itself, but they might cost Khamenei his role, and could bring to power a president with the ability to stabilize Iran economically and politically. A reformer in the Iran context, Mousavi is still a very conservative leader by Western standards. He is also a pragmatist willing to engage the West.

H. Richard Sindelar, a professor of foreign policy at the University of St. Thomas here, served as the State Department’s deputy director of the Office of Near East & South Asia Analysis, which included the Iran portfolio.

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