Debate: Where Will the Power Lie in Iran?

June 16, 2009, 12:00 pm <!– — Updated: 10:08 pm –>

Where Will the Power Lie in Iran?

(Photo: Ben Curtis/Associated Press) Hundreds of thousands protested the result of the election in Azadi Square in Tehran on Monday.

Updated, June 16, 9:15 p.m. | Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, reports from Iran on how young people in small towns are different from their urban counterparts.

Updated, June 16, 4:05 p.m. | Janet Afary, a professor of Middle East history, discusses how gender politics became a central issue in the election.

In the largest antigovernment demonstration since the Iranian revolution of 1979, thousands of people took to the streets in Iran on Tuesday to protest the disputed presidential election in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner this past weekend.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for an examination of opposition charges of vote-rigging and the country’s powerful Guardian Council said Tuesday that it would order a partial recount. That concession was rejected by the main opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and other opponents, who demand that a new election be held.

We asked some experts to give some background on the developments over the past few days, and what the Obama administration’s reaction should be.

A Middle-Class Uprising

Abbas Amanat

Abbas Amanat is a professor of history at Yale and author, most recently, of “Apocalytic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism.”

This election and the post-election protests are by far the greatest challenge the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced since its inception in 1979. Neither the downfall of President Banisadr in June 1981 nor the election of Mohammad Khatami to presidency in June 1997 matches in size and intensity the events of the past few weeks.

Even though the outcome is uncertain, the ongoing protests reflect a remarkable phenomenon: the rise of a new middle class whose demands stand in contrast to the radicalism of the incumbent President Ahmadinejad and the core conservative values of the clerical elite, which no doubt has the backing of a religiously conservative sector of the population.

The protesters are far more urban, more educated and more interested in creating their own indigenous secularism than ever in the past.

Nevertheless, this new middle class, a product of the Islamic Revolution that supports Mir Hussein Moussavi and the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the two moderate opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad, is a force to be reckoned with. This middle class has a different vision for the Iranian society and state. It is much larger in size and younger in age, politically more engaged and less timid.

Nearly 80 percent of today’s Iranians are urban or semi-urban and with a substantial percentage of them residing in provincial centers with populations over one million. In the 1950’s urban population was around 25 percent and at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 barely exceeded 50 percent. The new middle class wants to participate in the discourse of democracy and create its own indigenous secularism.

Like any other middle class it demands better living standards, more cultural and social freedoms, greater gender balance and women’s rights, ethnic and religious inclusion and better access to the outside world. It wants accountability from the government and it demands to be heard. It is sensitive to Iran’s image abroad and does not wish to be portrayed as extremist and uncouth. It is more articulate, better educated, technologically savvy, and more confident of its own place.

If the conservative forces within the Iranian regime crush the peaceful protest movement they stand to alienate the largest, the most productive sector of the population. This may severally paralyze, even destroy, Iran’s chances to emerge as a prosperous and stable country pivotal to the stability of the whole region.

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Why Engagement Failed

Meyrav Wurmser

Meyrav Wurmser, the former executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.

Ahmadinejad’s recent election “victory” completes a process begun in June 2005, with his first election as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After that, Iran went through a quiet revolution consuming the theocracy, which is anchored in the clerics of Qom.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), particularly the veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, had seized ownership of Iranian revolution from the clerics, whom they accused of being weak-willed opportunists who retreated at the first sign of trouble.

The elections represented the last desperate attempt by the clerics of Qom to reassert their legitimacy against a crowd that had already essentially wired all power.

As they have said clearly in their statements, these veterans of that war believe they are the true defenders and vanguards of the revolution, and they have come back to “save” it. For want of better terminology, this can best be described as a theo-fascist coup against a theocracy.

The June 12 elections had come to represent the last desperate attempt by the clerics of Qom to reassert their legitimacy against a crowd that had already essentially wired all power. Knowing that they lacked the repressive powers of the IRGC-run state, they hoped for an “Orange” revolution and sought support from abroad. This took place while we in the West spent immense energy searching to no avail for moderates and moderation, thus ignoring the nature of the regime that we were confronting.

Our ill focus originated in the second Bush administration and culminated in the Obama administration’s heightened attempts to engage the Iranian regime. A string of failed policies and efforts has created dynamics in Tehran that bolstered the most extreme elements and brought about the current crisis. Israel failed to deliver a withering blow against Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Gaza in the war of 2006. Then the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate validated Ahmadinejad by claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that Iran had stopped working on its nuclear program in 2003. The West engaged — and thus legitimized — the Iranian regime over the last few years.

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The Supreme Leader Is Supreme

Mohsen Milani

Mohsen M. Milani, the chairman of the political science department at South Florida University, is the author of “The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.” He is also the author of “Tehran’s Take: Understanding Iran’s U.S. Policy,” an essay in the current Foreign Affairs.

Will there be a fundamental change in the strategic direction of Iran’s foreign policy? The answer depends on the outcome of the disputed election, as Mir Hossein Mousavi and millions of his supporters have accused the government of staging a premeditated but clumsily executed “electoral coup” against the forces of reform.

Tehran views the U.S. as an existential threat and to counter it has devised a strategy that rests on both deterrence and competition in the Middle East.

Unless there is a fundamental change in the existing structural configuration of the Islamic Republic, or in a change in the institution of the Supreme Leader, it is unlikely that Iran will radically change its foreign policy. If anything, the next president of Iran is likely to rely increasingly on nationalistic sentiments in order to bring harmony to a divided, dynamic and assertive Iranian electorate.

The strategic direction of the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been determined by the Supreme Leader, in consultation with the main centers of power in Iran’s highly factionalized polity. As the second most powerful man in the country, the Iranian president has profound impact on strategy and policy, but the Supreme Leader — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — is the final “decider.”

As the country’s most powerful figure, he is the commander of the armed forces and in charge of the intelligence and security forces and serves for life. He — not the president — makes the key decisions regarding war and peace, Iran’s nuclear policies, and relations with Washington. The Islamic Constitution was deliberately structured to insure that the unelected component of the government, or its Islamic part, dominates its elected or the republican part.

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What if Ahmadinejad Really Won?

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani is a professor of economics at Virginia Tech and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Iran’s young people helped energize this election with the hope that it would bring relief to their twin problems of unemployment and social restrictions.

Moussavi appealed to young Iranians in cities, but not in small towns.

Young people ages 15-29 make up 35 percent of the population but account for 70 percent of the unemployed. In addition, they feel constantly harassed by restrictions on how to dress and who they can hang out with. In the weeks before the election, they had come to believe that, thanks to their sheer numbers (40 percent of the voting age population) and strong determination, they could take control of their destiny by electing a new president. Their optimism was underscored by the fact that though they have no memory of the Islamic Revolution, its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, or of the 8-year war with Iraq, they chose as their leader — Mir Hussein Moussavi — a well-known figure with strong ties to all three.

Now that the results have gone completely contrary to their expectations, they are naturally very disappointed, and, as the world has witnessed, they are taking great risks to express it.

So far, protests are confined to Tehran and a few large cities, and smaller towns and rural areas have been very quiet. True, large crowds in large urban centers offer a degree of safety that is lacking in rural areas and small towns. But, behind the difference in reactions to Ahmadinejad’s election may lie real divisions among the young Iranians in large cities and in small towns and rural areas. Mr. Moussavi’s main appeal to them was on social, not economic, issues, which are more important to the more affluent youth in Tehran and large urban centers. Indeed, he confined his campaign to Tehran and a few large cities.

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A Political Wife, a Women’s Movement

Janet Afary

Janet Afary will hold the Mellichamp chair in Global Religions and Modernity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this fall and is author of “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran.”

The presence of Zahrad Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hussein Moussavi, was a significant factor in the election. Mr. Moussavi, who is not a very charismatic speaker and had left politics nearly 20 years ago, saw his prospects for victory increase when his wife joined him in the campaign. The well-publicized picture of them holding hands was not merely symbolic.

During the campaign, both spoke out for greater women’s rights, which is an issue that resonates with Iranian voters. Her presence also encouraged other candidates to campaign with their wives, the first time this has happened since the 1979 revolution.

Sexual politics was a dominant focus of the campaign.

Ms. Rahnavard was a leftist long before she became an Islamist, and in that sense she and her husband are different from the more conservative rightist Islamists.

Leftist Islamists were moved by social and economic concerns of the poor and dispossessed, and thought that Islam would be a unifying ideology toward greater social progress and democracy in Iranian society. Since 1979, both she and her husband have gone through a series of changes. She has become a strong advocate of women’s rights and headed al-Zahra Women’s University until President Ahmadinejad removed her from that post in 2005.

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