Collision course

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

Opposition supporters and loyalists of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clash during the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom on December 21.-AFP

Opposition supporters and loyalists of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clash during the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom on December 21.-AFP

THE protests in Iran triggered by the disputed presidential election of June 12 have entered their second phase. Unlike the immediate aftermath of the polling in summer, the protests, within a space of a few months, have shifted their focus substantially. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the winner of the June election, was no longer the centre of attention during the violent December 27 demonstrations. Except for the lasting legacy of the green colour code of his campaign, neither was Mir Hosain Mousavi, who lost the election, a star attraction.

During the unrest, which claimed the lives of eight people, three new elements were introduced into the oppositions campaign. First, the agenda shifted to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. In making him the main target of its attack, the opposition risked breaching a well-established firewall, for, in all previous protests since the 1979 revolution, the authority of the Supreme Leader was kept beyond reproach.

Second, the protests were infused with deep religious symbolism. The demonstrators challenged the authorities on Ashura, a hallowed, emotionally surcharged day in the Shia Muslim calendar, which commemorates the martyrdom, 14 centuries ago, of Imam Hossein at the hands of Yazid, the ruler of the day. By situating the Iranian leadership under the shadow of the villainous Yazid, the green movement sought to arm itself with a powerful moral purpose that resonates in the Shia psyche. However, the bold move notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether this step will serve the movements cause or boomerang on it as a grave tactical blunder.

Third, the protesters sought to sharpen the attack on Khamenei by contrasting him with Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died of natural causes a week earlier. Ayatollah Montazeri shot into prominence when, as an ally of Imam Khomeini, he organised street protests against the Shah. He was appointed Khomeinis representative after the Shah was sent into exile. Montazeri played a pivotal role in drafting Irans Constitution and wrote extensively defending the doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih, which empowered the chief jurisprudent as the final political and religious authority not only in Iran but within the transnational Shia network.

He also served on the Assembly of Experts, a body that monitors the Supreme Leaders activities and, theoretically, has the authority to remove him. In 1985, he was designated as Khomeneis successor. However, the two fell out, mainly on the question of human rights, including the fatwa that was issued against the writer Salman Rushdie. In November 2009, Montazeri described the occupation of the American embassy and the hostage crisis that followed soon after the revolution as a mistake.

Montazeri emerged as a harsh critic of Khamenei, who had succeeded Imam Khomeini, and faced house arrest in 1997 until his release six years later. He criticised the conduct of the June election, which had the full backing of Khamenei. He called for a three-day mourning after Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman, was killed during a protest in Teheran on June 20. On his passing, the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi described Montazeri as the father of human rights.

Montazeris funeral in Qom acquired strong political overtones. This was amplified during the December 27 protests. Tens of thousands including Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric who was also defeated in the June election, participated in the funeral. Clashes were reported between the mourners and Basij militia, loyal to the regime. During the protests in Teherans Enghalab Square, slogans such as Death of Dictator! Montazeri, your path will not be forgotten! were chanted lustily.

Despite the focus on Khamenei, the real objectives of the green movement remain hazy. Are the protesters seeking a change in the current set of leaders alone, within the existing Khomeinist constitutional framework? Is the attack on Khamenei a precursor to an assault on the Vilayat-e-Faqih doctrine and the larger constitutional and executive architecture that it defines? Or, is the movement heading in a secular direction outside the framework of the Islamic revolution? Are we witnessing the beginnings of a counter-revolution in Iran?

While a definitive prediction of the direction that the opposition movement might take may not be possible at this point of time, it can, however, be said with a fair degree of certainty that the protests are unlikely to yield a pro-Western dispensation outside the framework of the revolution. Irans anti-Western and pro-independence characteristics are too strong and are too much a part of its collective DNA to warrant such an eventuality.

Irans anti-foreigner sentiment is deep-rooted and has resonated throughout its modern history. It was openly demonstrated when an alliance among the Ulema (religious leaders), bazaaris (shopkeepers and traders) and a few secular intellectuals led a successful rebellion against the British tobacco concession in 1890-92.

Nationalistic sentiments came to the fore during the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and the subsequent struggle against the Russians and the British, who along with the Ottomans occupied Iran during the First World War. The nationalisation of oil in the early 1950s by Mohammad Mossadeq and his consequent removal through an Anglo-American coup made a deep anti-Western impression on the Iranian psyche, which echoed strongly during events that paved the way for the 1979 revolution.

In the run-up to the revolution, some of the Iranian revolutionary leaders went into exile in Lebanon and, in refugee camps there, established personal contacts with the Palestinians and Lebanese Shias. This led to the emergence of the Amal militia in Lebanon and later Hizbollah. The Lebanese experience also enabled the Iranians to establish ties with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and, in later years, with individuals who became enmeshed with the Islamic Jihad and Hamas. These experiences further reinforced their anti-American and anti-Israel position.

Given the strong anti-foreign disposition at the mass level, the opposition will be badly hurt if it relies on external supporters, especially in the U.S. and Britain. The Iranian regime is already focussed on characterising the protests as foreign instigated.

The statement from Paris on December 28 by Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organisation (MKO) which is supporting the green movement, is likely to be poorly received at the popular level in Iran. In her statement, Maryam Rajavi lauded the courageous uprising on Ashura and the slogans Death to Khamenei and Death to the principle of Vilayat-e-Faqih. The protests are a call for solidarity among all those who reject the rule of the supreme leader, the Vilayat-e-Faqih, she was quoted as saying. What we call the Green movement against the electoral fraud quickly disappeared to be replaced by a deeper movement whose goal is the total overthrow of the regime, she claimed. However, she appealed for support from the U.S. and the European Union, asking them to abandon the failed policy of appeasement of the Iranian regime.

Iranian media, including the state-run Press TV and Tehran Times, were quick to run the MKO leaders remarks prominently. Iranian officials went on to accuse the MKO of killing Mousavis 35-year-old nephew, Seyed Ali Mousavi, during the course of the protests. We have no doubt that the Monafeqin [hypocrites, as the MKO is referred to in Iran] has been involved in this issue, Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi told reporters on the sidelines of a Cabinet meeting on December 30.

The MKO, which also goes by the name Peoples Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), has been accused of assassinating, in 1981, the elected President Mohammad Ali Rajai, Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar and Chief Justice Mohammad Beheshti. These events have caused widespread animosity towards the group even among the revolutions less enthusiastic supporters. Apart from the deep-rooted suspicion of foreigners, which will dissuade people from questioning the fundamentals of the revolution, key sections of the Iranian population, such as workers in the oil industry, the business community, and dominant sections in the government, bureaucracy and the armed forces, have shown no inclination so far to join the protest movement. Consequently, the large participation in the protests notwithstanding, the green movement does not appear to have acquired the critical mass to alter the status quo in any fundamental way.

However, that does not mean that the impact of the demonstrations in Teheran and other cities, including Isfahan and Tabriz, can be taken lightly. The movement, more on account of the manner in which it has been mishandled by the establishment, is bound to generate a powerful internal dynamic, asking serious questions of the regime.

For instance, sections of Irans clerical establishment and their followers might have been sufficiently miffed by the harsh treatment to which some respected clerics were subjected to in the wake of Montazeris demise and the Ashura protests. A day after Montazeris funeral, Basij forces apparently targeted mourners who were attending a ceremony at the Isfahans Seyyed mosque. Many of those who had assembled at the mosque were apparently beaten.

The Basijis also made a failed attempt to target Ayatollah Seyyed Jalaleddin Taheri, Isfahans former Friday prayer leader and the main organiser of the ceremony. Such an event can antagonise not only sections of the clergy but also the rural folk, who are the main supporters of the regime.

The authorities in Teheran have used force so far to quell the protests. In yet another sign that the regime could intensify the crackdown emerged on December 30, when huge pro-government rallies were simultaneously held in several cities. Amid the show of strength, Teherans police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam warned protesters of harsh consequences in case the demonstrations persisted.

In dealing with previous protests, the police showed leniency. But given that these opponents are seeking to topple [the system], there will be no mercy. We will take severe action. The era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted him as saying.

With the green movement yet to take a definite shape and the situation remaining fluid, the Iranian establishment has to adopt a more creative approach, including engagement with the opposition in a dialogue, to defuse the deepening crisis. In his column that appeared in Middle East Online, the Iranian writer Kaveh L. Afrasiabi points to the seven-point reconciliation plan that has been authored by the centrist politician Ali Mottahari. It includes acceptance of defeat in the presidential election by the opposition and acknowledgement of the legality of the presidency of Ahmadinejad.

The President, on his part, would do well to apologise for the governments harsh tactics and some controversial statements that were made during the election debates. Measures taken to respect free speech, release of political prisoners and restoration of banned newspapers would also help. A deterioration in the situation and a deepening sense of disunity can have dangerous consequences for Iran.

A show of internal disarray can only encourage powerful constituencies in the U.S., Europe and Israel to impose stringent sanctions and, if they do not work, to launch a full-scale war.

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