An Overview of the Transformative Events of June 2009
I think the events we have been seeing this month —June 2009 — represent a seismic shift, a great exclamation point in the punctuated evolution of the Islamic Republic. It is not just a political shift. This week of demonstrations, involving the shutdown of much of Iran, including the government’s intermittent shutdown of its whole communications infrastructure, have affected people who previously were not terribly activist, or reformist. Many have been radicalized. Many more have been forced to think. And feel.
Perceptions so far, politically:
Ahmadinejad seems to have been weakened tremendously. He can no longer pull off his “man of the people” act in the same way as before. He appears suddenly crude to his countrymen. He can still do damage, but his larger influence will be in decline.
Khamenei has probably lost his aura of legitimate, overwhelming authority. He has been publicly discredited in the eyes of at least half the people, and many of the members of the clerical establishment. The very function of “Supreme Leader” is no longer secure.
Mousavi has become the man of the hour — the righteous leader wronged by corrupt authorities, the “Hossain” archetype of martyrdom that is the central theme of Persian Islam. This makes him dangerous, and puts him in serious danger.
Former President Rafsanjani is the wiliest and most powerful of the big players, and he’s been the only one who has been publicly silent — and very active behind the scenes. Through the Assembly of Experts or the military, he could become the new kingmaker, or he may be in a difficult struggle for his political survival.
Former President Khatami, the also-ran Presidential candidates Karroubi and Rezai, Grand Ayatollah’s Montazeri and Saanai, and Ayatollahs Javadi Ameli, Amini and Ostadi have all publicly challenged the accuracy of the electoral results announced by the Ministry of the Interior. More and more stakeholders in the Islamic Republic have been alienated by the regime’s violent repression of its own citizens.
Even Ali Laranjani, the former nuclear negotiator and arch-conservative architect of the brutal suppression of the student demonstrators of 2003, has publicly questioned the official tally (which makes sense, given his history of conflict with Ahmadinejad.
Although the regime has the guns and the will to use them, there are real limits to the regime’s ability to exercise this power.
Even if there is no evidence of centrally-organized-and-executed fraud, everyone knows the elections system was staffed with Ahmadinejad’s political employees. If any disgruntled employee of the elections system goes public with stories of electoral fraud (even anonymously, with a well-told story in a local blog, which is almost sure to happen) Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will both be even more fatally weakened.
All this is happening at a time when all Iranians have been deputized as journalists and historians by their mere possession of a cell phone with text capabilities or a still or video camera. People who would never before have used their cameras now realize they are holding a weapon. How will this affect their neighbors who worked in any humble position and observed something “fishy” at any of the polling places? Even if all participants were carefully screened, this society is too divided for the regime to feel arrogantly certain that even minor electoral cheating will not be exposed in the weeks ahead.
Worse yet, it is likely to go viral, further wresting control of the narrative from the leaders, like the martyrdom of the young Iranian woman, Neda, who was shot dead by the Basij in front of a video camera and the eyes of the world. She is becoming a heroine, the most visible martyr of this uprising.
Political and Cultural Undercurrents
Meanwhile, Laranjani and Rezai are military men, and Rajsanjani has many military supporters, so the entire military is not in lockstep unity with Khamenei and Ahmadenijad. The basij and the Revolutionary Guard (Ahmadinejad’s original constituency) are controlled by true-believer Islamic neoconservatives. But the regular Iranian Armed Forces are public institutions, containing fighting men from every segment of Iranian society. Right now all the guns on the streets belong to the regime’s guys. But that monopoly is not absolute. Ultimately, all parties know they are vulnerable.
This is also a generational confrontation, with Ahmadinejad’s youthful faction emboldened by its momentum. But most young Iranians are equally passionate, and better educated. Ahmadinejad’s cohort overplayed their hand. Their best option now is to retain power and minimize losses.
Many of the senior leaders in Iranian society have serious misgivings about Khamenei’s harsh response to the demonstrations. They and the people behind the opposition movement (most of them young and impassioned) cannot all be purged and marginalized. They are too many, too pervasive. The regime cannot simply suppress and purge all of its opponents. The nation cannot sustain the economic injuries that would come from long shutdowns of Iran’s Internet and text messaging systems.
The long-term momentum belongs to the opposition. The regime cannot completely suppress this citizen uprising because the opposition sees itself as heroic in a broad new struggle. The opposition has been energized and ennobled, while the regime has become angry, brutal and unimaginative. It’s hard to estimate how big a factor this advantage (in energy, style, and panaché) will prove to be.
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