Geopolitical Diary: Islamic Republic Destabilizing From Within?
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Tehran on Monday to protest results of the June 12 election, which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office. State broadcasters reported that seven people were killed in shooting that erupted after the Basij militia opened fire on protesters, who hurled rocks at a Basij compound near the main protest. The protests have now spread beyond Tehran to several other cities. Clearly, the situation on the streets has escalated exponentially since the initial weekend protests in Tehran, when the number of demonstrators was much lower. Violent clashes between security forces and protesters are likely to lead to greater unrest in the days ahead; such events tend to feed off one another and build in intensity. The last time Iran experienced so great a level of unrest was during the 1979 revolution, which brought the current regime to power. Consequently, questions are being raised about the stability of the Islamic Republic. These questions are not being raised only by outside observers. In fact, we are told that the most powerful figures within the clerical establishment — including the second most powerful cleric, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — have warned Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the situation could metastasize and lead to the collapse of the regime unless election results are annulled and a fresh vote ordered. Rafsanjani is joined by many other powerful conservatives, who are working behind the scenes to steer the country away from what appears to be an increasingly explosive situation. Rafsanjani and those who agree with him are obviously concerned about the almost unprecedented unrest on the streets and the possibility that it could destabilize the regime from within. But the radical advice of these conservatives to the Supreme Leader is being driven by the threat to their own political interests that comes not from the public, but from Ahmadinejad and his allies — who would like to use their election win to set the stage for an eventual purge of Rafsanjani and those like him. In other words, Ahmadinejad's enemies within the system would like to use the current crisis to launch a preemptive strike and neutralize the threat they face from his re-election. Khamenei, who has long acted as the ultimate arbiter between factions in Tehran, is therefore in the biggest quandary of his political career. He does not want to see the Islamic Republic collapse on his watch. But he has little room to maneuver: He can neither contain the unrest in the streets without a brutal crackdown that could radicalize both the opposition and key government factions, nor can he move easily toward a fresh vote. Ahmadinejad and his allies will not back down after winning what was, ostensibly, a landslide election in their favor. While many compelling arguments have been made about the improbability of Ahmadinejad winning the election by several million votes, there is insufficient empirical evidence to support the claim of fraud. Foul play on such a large scale would not be possible without the involvement of a very large number of people. Furthermore, requests for the kind of data that could corroborate such fraud have been ignored. Iran’s powerful Guardians Council, which must certify the election results, has begun a probe into the matter, and therefore it is quite possible that in the next several days such evidence may emerge. But what is stunning is how, thus far, there have been no leaks to the press on the details of the alleged vote tampering. So long as there is no clear evidence of wrongdoing, Ahmadinejad’s opponents cannot make a convincing case against his government. At this stage, it is difficult to predict the trajectory of events — but this election has clearly resulted in a breach within the Islamic Republic that could prove difficult to mend, regardless of the outcome of the clash between the president and his opponents. Until Friday's vote, Iran had proven quite resilient — weathering a devastating eight-year war, decades of international sanctions, multiple rebel groups, and a long confrontation with the United States. In the last four days, the regime has found that the greatest threat to its existence comes from within.