Analysis by Webster Brooks
June 20, 2009
Iran’s “Velvet Revolution is fast approaching the tipping point of passing over to a violent struggle for power between the radicalized reformists movement led by Mir Hussein Mousavi and Iran’s clerical establishment led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. On Saturday, in a speech in Southwest Tehran Mousavi said that he is “ready for martyrdom” and according to a Reuters news report called for a national strike if he is arrested. Mousavi’s bold statements are a direct challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei’s clerical rule. A call for a national strike would potentially expand the student-based protest movement to include merchants, professionals and the middle class. By saying he is “ready for martyrdom,” Mousavi delivered a stunning rebuke to Ayatollah Khamenei’s ultimatum issued on Friday, saying “I call on all to put an end to this method [street demonstrations]… If they don’t, the political leaders will be held responsible for the chaos and the consequences.” Mousavi has now passed the point of no return. He has all but dared the government to arrest him, and has placed his fate in the hands of Iranians who are willing to risk their lives and futures on an uncertain challenge for power. But what are the chances that the mass protests will pass over to a revolution or a decisive shakeup in the clerical establish that runs Iran along with the Revolution Guard?
The chances that Iran’s clerical establishment will be overthrown by a new democratically led government are remote but not impossible for three reasons. First, Mousavi’s youth and student dominated reformist movement cannot force a change in Iran’s leadership structure unless its support broadens to encompass, the middle class, workers, professionals and the highly influential merchant class. It was this base coalition along with the clerics that overthrew the Shah in the 1979 revolution that ultimately to led to Ayatollah Khomeni’s ascendance to power. In this regard, Mousavi’s call for a general strike if he is arrested has a deliberate strategic implication to expand his reformists forces. If his movement can draw a sizable section of these different constituencies into the opposition it is likely that the moderate-conservative clerical wing led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani will cross over to support the removal of Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei to avoid the possibility of massive bloodletting and civil war. Moreover, while the central theater of action has been the struggle in the streets of Tehran, Mousavi’s forces must demonstrate strength in Iran’s other major cities. While there have been sporadic reports of protest in Ishfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz, it remains to be seen if the rest of the country is prepared to follow events in Tehran. Another critical factor will be Iran’s large minority populations of Kurds, Azeri, Arabs and Balochis. Should these groups seize the moment to start pressing for more demands for autonomy from Tehran in line with Mousavi’s reformist upsurge, Iran could be headed for massive nationwide chaos.
Second, Mousavi will have to ultimately win the support of part of Iran’s clerical establishment which is not a political or religious monolith. In addition to Ayatollah Khamenei’s hard line anti-U.S. conservative clerics who are committed to running an Islamic state, Mousavi, former President Khatami and presidential candidate Medhi Korrubi represent a section of the political elite that are aggressively pushing the clerics to open up more democratic institutions. They want to restrict the growing power of the Revolutionary Guard and relax of social norms, particularly for women. There is also a strong moderate conservative pragmatists wing led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iranian Parliamentary leader Ali Larijani. These moderate-conservatives have advocated for improving Iran’s woeful economic conditions that have deteriorated under Ahmadinejad. They have also called for an end to Iran’s economic isolation from the global economy and talks with the United States. In many ways, the powerful Rafsanjani may hold the key to the resolution of Iran’s crisis. While he has remained in the background during the protests and not supported Mousavi openly, his daughter appeared at a pro-Mousavi rally. Rafsanjani is strategically positioned to be pivotal player as leader of the Assembly of Experts who select and can dismiss the Supreme Leader. He is also leader of Iran’s Expediency Council that resolves disputes between Iran’s leading governmental agencies. It is no coincidence that during the presidential campaign Ahmadinejad unleashed a volley of verbal assaults against Rafsanjani as being a collaborator with the United States and an opponent of the Islamic state. Behind the scenes both Rafsanjani and Larijani are working the clerical establishment to gauge the twist and turns of the struggle for power. If the crisis matures and Rafsanjani openly sides with Mousavi and the reformist forces, Ayatollah Khamenei’s days are numbered.
Finally, it is doubtful that the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij forces will allow Ayatollah Khamenei to be removed from power without a fight. Despite the concentration of power in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, his authority is highly dependent upon the formidable military power of the Revolutionary Guard that also solidly backs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Revolutionary Guard is not simply a military and intelligence unit. They run and influence many of the governmental “power ministries” and are deeply embedded in the economic wellsprings of the nation. Most importantly, the Revolutionary Guard is instrumental in Iran’s emerging nuclear program and its growing foreign policy and military influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
Thus far, the Revolutionary Guard have not been called out in full force to drown the revolt in blood. Although Ayatollah Khamenei has made it clear that continued demonstrations will be severely dealt with, he is trying to avoid at all cost a massive bloody crackdown on the opposition. However, should the reformers challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule continue to grow, the Revolutionary Guard will be confronted with a tricky dilemma; whether to crush the opposition by brute force or seek out another member of the clerical establishment to replace Khamenei. While their loyalty is to Ayatollah Khamenei, their larger interest is to maintain their own power, with or without him.
The situation in Iran has grown increasingly fluid and the unfolding events are clearly headed toward a decisive showdown. The government’s press blackouts and attempts to shut down opposition websites, Facebook and Twitter have only been partially successful in blunting the opposition’s determination to change the face of Iran. What is clear is that Mousavi has thrown down the gauntlet to Supreme Leader Khamenei and the resistance is responding. Whether the opposition can grow fast enough and strong enough is the seminal question. Mousavi’s forces have the momentum and the bodies. Ayatollah Khamenei still maintains substantial if not deteriorating support. He also has preponderance of force and coercion on his side in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard. Unless Mousavi’s opposition movement can sustain their momentum and expand their ranks to include the middle class, merchants, workers and the support of the moderate-conservative clerics led by Rafsanjani, Iran’s Velvet Revolution is likely to be soaked in blood.