In the face of violent repression by Iranian security forces, the supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi are revolting against last week’s blatantly rigged presidential election. As they demonstrate in the streets, a second, equally crucial battle is unfolding behind closed doors among the country’s power brokers, who have splintered over the regime’s decision to subvert the modest democratic guarantees that have helped sustain Iran’s revolutionary system for the past 30 years.
The convergence of these two challenges — mass mobilization and elite infighting — has produced the most serious threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic since the early years of its existence. However the election turmoil plays out, it has irreparably shattered the Islamic Republic’s most important underlying assets — elite cooperation and popular participation — and left the state dependent upon a vicious but inherently narrow power base.
Unrest within Iran is not particularly new — since 1979, when an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah, the country has faced ethnic rebellions, labor actions, student protests, economic riots, and a range of other political agitation. In some cases — most notably the student-led protests in July 1999 — these episodes managed to shake the political elite. The regime, however, has always managed to contain such political flare-ups. For most Iranians, life went on as usual, albeit somewhat uneasily.
The movement taking shape on Iran’s streets today, however, is a profound departure from those in the recent past. The eruptions of the 1990s and early 2000s were small-scale events, limited to a particular interest group or neighborhood. The current turmoil has engaged Iranians on a scale that transcends age, ethnic background, income level, or geographic location. Protests are erupting not just in Tehran, but in cities such as Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz. The unprecedented scope of the unrest is a response to the profound miscalculation of the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who apparently decided to use an election as a means of orchestrating a power grab. In doing so, they roused Iran’s 46 million voters, who value Iran’s long constitutional legacy as well as their own limited democratic rights under the theocratic state.
The closest parallel to the current protests is the mass mobilization that preceded the 1979 revolution. Then, as is happening now, disciplined crowds spanning Iranian society’s traditional cleavages among generations, ethnic groups, and social classes poured into the streets. As in 1979, the regime’s violence against peaceful protesters is triggering mourning ceremonies, which themselves morph into political rallies. As this cycle repeats it also grows, because those sitting on the fence begin to feel increasingly insulated by a sense of anonymity and safety in numbers. The initial instigation for the protests, in this case outrage over the stolen vote, is supplanted by a sense that change is, in fact, possible. Over time, unrest takes on a momentum that — while not unstoppable — is at least temporarily self-sustaining.
It is important not to overstate this analogy; there are differences between recent events in Iran and those of 1979. The hard-liners, thanks to their close association with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have a greater capacity for repression than did the Shah and those close to him.
The other essential dimension of the current turmoil is the emergence of Mousavi, an opposition leader who is willing to unleash the potent weapon of public frustration. He is an unlikely hero — Mousavi’s longstanding association with the current system seemed to suggest that he would be a poor candidate to lead an uprising against it. During the campaign, his relative obscurity among Iran’s youth and his mumbling, detached manner made him seem almost secondary to the symbolism of his election bid.
Despite his underwhelming personality, Mousavi’s role is quietly critical. By refusing to endorse the official vote tally and appealing for Iranians to persist in their protests, Mousavi has defied the explicit edicts of the Supreme Leader. He has signaled that he is prepared to jeopardize the regime’s survival in order to defend its representative institutions, a stance that has reinforced the fledgling street movement and emboldened other regime elites to confront Khamenei.
As the protest movement gained momentum, it quickly transcended Mousavi himself — in part because the regime’s crackdown on communication and its arrest of hundreds of activists has kept Mousavi from exerting any operational guidance over street politics. But he remains the most powerful symbol of the opposition and its only identifiable leader, and any concession by Mousavi could undercut the commitment of the protestors.
The dissent that Mousavi is encouraging violates the central tenet of the Islamic Republic’s political culture, which is based on a shared commitment among “khodi,” or insiders, to the preservation of the system. It has always been an uneasy bargain — factional skirmishing has raged throughout the past 30 years, and even the towering figure of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not enforce obedience to his every mandate. But the incentives of power and a deeply ingrained fear of disorder kept conflict contained within the elite and deterred public defections of senior officials. This desire for self-preservation made earlier reformers such as Mohammad Khatami cautious; as president from 1997 to 2005, Khatami allowed hard-liners to quash his budding movement rather than take his followers to the streets.
The next phase in deciding Iran’s political future will hinge as much on what happens behind the scenes as it does on continuing unrest in the streets. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who is now allied with Khatami and Mousavi, is reportedly looking to gather an array of revolutionary stalwarts and old-school clerics to speak out against the electoral fraud. He does not lack for natural allies in this effort: many state officials and high-ranking clerics are unnerved by Ahmadinejad’s radicalism and would reject the arrest or expulsion of Mousavi, who is widely revered for stewarding Iran through what many call the “imposed war” against Iraq in the 1980s.
The likely objective of Rafsanjani, who has only recently made peace with the reformists after past disagreements, is to persuade Khamenei that a public discrediting of Iran’s representative institutions poses a more serious risk to the survival of the system than does reversing course on the election. Still, mounting an effective internal challenge will be an uphill climb — the instinct for avoiding open conflict is deeply ingrained among the Iranian elite, and Khamenei surely recognizes the danger to his authority in acquiescing to Mousavi and his “green wave” of support. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad himself shows little interest in conciliation. The intelligence file on Mousavi’s wife that Ahmadinejad brandished during pre-election debates was a signal to other elites of the regime’s capacity for inflicting punitive damages.
In watching Iran, it can be tempting to conflate excitement with inevitability, and rallies with regime change. So far, U.S. President Barack Obama has carefully tempered his public rhetoric despite pressure from political rivals to issue a more fervent appeal on behalf of the protestors. His reserve seems designed to avoid Washington’s common trap of misguided optimism about systemic change in Iran. This administration understands that, for the moment, the United States can do far more to compromise any serious nuclear negotiations and undermine Iran’s nascent opposition than it can to advance the aims of the reformers.
It is still possible, perhaps even probable, that the Islamic Republic will survive this crisis with its leadership and its ideology intact by using the same tactics that have enabled it to survive the manifold challenges over the past 30 years — namely, making deals behind the scenes and cracking heads on the streets. However, if the crowds persist and Mousavi remains undaunted, the challenges to the regime will intensify, possibly beyond its capacity to withstand. Any substantial reversal in the official election verdict would effectively spell the demise of Khamenei’s authority and, by extension, usher in a powerful sense that the public can hold the Iranian state and its leadership accountable.
The developments of the past week have offered an unexpected vindication of the reform movement’s original strategy from the late 1990s, which aimed to apply pressure from below and negotiations at the top. Even if today’s reformers do not succeed, and the street protests are stamped out by the regime, or those elites tempted to side with Mousavi ultimately buckle under pressure, the Iran that emerges from this crisis will be markedly different from the country the world knew before the election.
The reformists on the streets and in the corridors of power have emphasized the moderate nature of their demands; neither group is seeking to overturn the Islamic system. This caution may help enable the regime to prevail, but its short-term survival may leave it fatally weakened. In the aftermath of a stolen election, Iranians will remain mobilized in unprecedented numbers against their government and the leadership will be undercut by profound internal cleavages. However the crisis unfolds, the Islamic Republic as it has existed for 30 years is over. What follows will — in either the short or long term — represent a genuine improvement for both the Iranian people and the international community.