Deep divisions

Published : Jul 17, 2009 00:00 IST

recently in Teheran

IT is easy to lose perspective on Iran, which is facing a student-led revolt of unprecedented intensity. For days there has been an outpouring of youthful energy, with thousands of people staging demonstrations and rallies in protest against a presidential vote they think was stolen.

Unrest rocked the streets of Teheran on June 13, soon after official results showed that the incumbent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won the previous days election hands down, defeating his nearest rival Mir-Hosain Mousavi by nearly double the votes. The margin of victory was astounding.

With Mousavis campaign on a roll since the beginning of June, especially after heated television debates energised it, a close contest was expected. A run-off between the top two candidates Ahmadinejad and Mousavi was the most likely scenario. It was estimated that neither of the two would manage to muster 50 per cent of the votes that was necessary to emerge winner.

Ahead of the election, Teheran was awash with green, Mousavis colour code, which has a deep historical and religious symbolism. On June 12, long queues began building up at polling stations, and polling was so heavy that it had to be extended beyond the stipulated 8 p.m. local time. It was evident that those who had queued up were committed voters.

Soon after dusk, a thunderstorm began brewing over Teheran. Lightning lit up the Alborz Mountains that tower over the picturesque Iranian capital. Despite gusty winds and driving rain, men and women, many in their traditional black chadors, refused to budge from their lines that snaked out of polling stations and ended up at the sidewalks outside.

It was evident that at least in most parts of Teheran, Mousavis voters had the edge and were determined to vote in strength. They had to because Ahmadinejad was by no stretch of imagination a lightweight. Over the past four years he had carefully nurtured its constituency of the poor and the lower middle class. He and his Cabinet colleagues made regular visits to all of Irans far-flung provinces. The countrys health care system was expanded to cover a large number of the deprived. Salaries of government officials and teachers were raised substantially. And the President opened the door for the poor to buy justice shares in privatised companies.

Ahmadinejad also had solid support among the Basijis a militia consisting of around 10 million youngsters. During Ahmadinejads first term, its services were used for a variety of purposes ranging from breaking opposition rallies to laying water pipes in rural areas.

Ahead of the election, it was estimated that Ahmadinejad would get around 13 million votes from his committed voters. That figure, however, was insufficient to allow him to carry the day although it would have given him a head start.

Mousavis camp knew that it would have to fight hard to get as many votes as possible from the 46 million voters that comprise Irans electorate. Ahmadinejad was declared winner after only 20 million of the ballots had been counted.

Even when the counting was in progress, Irans Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, a supposedly neutral figure of the highest authority, welcomed Ahmadinejad as the countrys President for a second successive term. A stunned electorate could only gape in disbelief at the heavy margin of Ahmadinejads victory and the haste with which the results were announced.

Under the grey Teheran skies of June 13, tension began to build up. By midday, crowds began to gather around the Interior Ministry, from where the results were being announced. Restive crowds lit up fires in huge metal trash bins and battled the riot police, which charged them with batons. Pitched battles began in central Teheran, and they abated only around midnight.

Ahmadinejad was on television for a nightly address, congratulating the electorate on its record turnout. Outside, in the streets, his words seemed to have no meaning as motorcycle-borne riot police navigated perilously around several small fires that protesters had lit up. Since then Iran has witnessed an explosion of discontent, with Mousavi remaining steadfast in his demand for a repoll.

A string of rallies have followed, more in support of Mousavi than for Ahmadinejad. Seven people were killed after a demonstration, which Mousavi addressed after emerging in public view for the first time after the day of polling. The killings further fuelled the protests as martyrdom is particularly venerated in Shia Islam, which most Iranians practise. On June 18, there were demonstrations all over Iran to mourn the dead. Participants wore black, the colour of mourning, which has a deep religious resonance, along with the trademark green sported by Mousavis supporters.

As they unfolded, the protests began to be clothed in the symbolism of events that preceded the 1979 Revolution. Every night, Mousavis supporters ascended rooftops and, for a few hours, chanted in unison Allahu Akbar, exactly the same way an earlier generation had done under the command of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Revolutions founder. At rallies, the protesters decided to give flowers to security personnel, duplicating a practice that demonstrators had mastered at the turn of the Revolution.

The protests have divided Irans powerful clergy. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appears to be firmly behind the Mousavi camp, though he has not made an explicit statement in support of him. Ayatollah Rafsanjanis daughter, Faezeh Rafsanjani, addressed a rally in support of Mousavi. Effat Marashi, the Ayatollahs wife, has also asked protesters not to give up their campaign. The regime cannot be dismissive about Ayatollah Rafsanjani and his family. Rafsanjani heads the 89-member Assembly of Experts, which theoretically is empowered to remove the Supreme leader.

Fault lines have appeared in other parts of Irans complex clerical edifice. The Association of Combatant Clerics, a top reformist body made up of influential clerics, sought authorisation for a pro-Mousavi rally in Teheran on June 20. So far, the Iranian establishment has combined force, with a hint of flexibility, in its response to the serious challenge posed by Mousavi. Ayatollah Khamenei, whose credibility has been substantially eroded after he showed partisan support to Ahmadinejad soon after the election, has ordered the supervisory Guardian Council to conduct a partial recount of the votes.

However, the regime has frequently disrupted SMS text messaging, the backbone of communication among Mousavis supporters. The Mousavi camp has also effectively used social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for rallying supporters and for sending messages abroad. These tools have become even more important as visiting foreign journalists have been asked to leave, with requests for visa extensions being refused. Tehran University, the nucleus of earlier student revolts, witnessed considerable violence when men, reportedly in plainclothes, stormed dormitories and the students countered their attack with Molotov cocktails and other means.

The government crackdown has led to the arrest of some prominent reformist figures, including Behzad Nabavi, Saeed Hajjarian and Mohammad Ali Abtahi, an adviser to Mehdi Karroubi, who was a presidential candidate. As the protests driven by the election result escalate and deepen divisions within the ruling establishment a complex web of the clergy, the armed forces and the bureaucracy, as well as ordinary people layered along lines of class and ethnicity the Iranian system of Islamic governance has come under unprecedented stress. But those in the West who have begun writing obituaries for the 1979 Revolution may have to rethink.

Mousavi, the leader of the revolt, is himself by no means a counterrevolutionary. On the contrary, he is a product and defender of the Revolution. He was a successful Prime Minister in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war when the Iranian Revolution faced its most acute existential threat. He is also not part of the camp led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who has been accused by Ahmadinejad of leading a corrupt and monopolistic economic elite.

During the years of Ayatollah Rafsanjanis rule, Mousavi was a reclusive figure, outside the charmed circle of Teherans political elite. By aligning with reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami, Mousavi promises more liberal space within the system. That is perhaps what Irans restive youth wants a new social contract within the framework of the revolution that governs in an idiom of modernity, sophistication and civility. Simultaneously, Mousavi, having a reputation of being a leftist, also has to ensure that the system gives hope to the poor and dispossessed that, in the first place, gravitated towards Ahmadinejad, in anticipation of a better life.

Mousavis fate at the moment hangs in the balance. He could emerge triumphant, embellished with the reputation of a true moderniser of the Revolution. Or, he could end up as a tragic figure like Mohammad Mossadeq, a former Iranian nationalist Prime Minister, who failed to survive a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-mounted coup in 1953. Whatever be the case, Mousavi has already made a mark in Irans turbulent history. Whether the Revolution modernises, turns authoritarian or caves in entirely, post-June 12 Iran will never be the same again.

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