Analysis: The internal Balance of Power

Jerusalem Post- 18/06/2009

One would need a heart of stone not to be moved by the scenes emerging from Iran: Hundreds of thousands of youthful demonstrators, taking to the streets to express their frustration at the restrictions on life under a theocratic oligarchy – with the communications revolution enlisted to bypass the heavy hand of the regime’s censors. Nevertheless, at such a time, it is particularly important to employ the tools of cool and dispassionate analysis.

It is therefore worth keeping three crucial facts in mind, when considering the events in Iran. First, in so far as a real struggle for power is currently taking place, it is happening within the boundaries of the Islamist regime, and not against it. Second, if one were to imagine for a moment the emergence of a real, popular leadership opposed to the regime, and were then to assess its chances of success, the following conclusion would be inescapable: At the present time, the regime possesses both the will and the means to ensure its survival. Third, no such popular leadership currently exists. Consider: Mir Hossein Mousavi, the hero of the demonstrators, is a product of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 no less than is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi served in the now defunct position of prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989. In the latter part of that period, in 1987, the Iranian nuclear program was revived. Mousavi is a committed supporter of the Iranian system of governance known as Vilayet a-Faqih (rule of the jurist), and of the brutal repression which this system brings in its wake. He represents the establishment, conservative wing of the regime, as personified by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This element has been singled out for particular criticism by the younger radical conservatives, or ‘principalists,’ of whom Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most well known representative. The principalists, strongly represented in the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, portray Mousavi and his allies as venal, cynical and corrupt. The Rafsanjani camp, meanwhile, considers Ahmadinejad and his allies to be irresponsible fanatics. In the course of the recent presidential election campaign, Mousavi found it useful to seek the support of those Iranians who have failed to benefit from Ahmadinejad’s populist economic policies. He also sought to represent the many Iranians who are embarrassed and dismayed at Ahmadinejad’s expressions of Holocaust denial and populist anti-Americanism.

The demonstrations currently taking place are demanding the annulment of the election results, in the almost undoubtedly accurate belief that they were falsified to ensure the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the first round of voting. The principalists have the support of the chief holder of power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appears to have intervened in their candidate’s favor. But Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, ultimately, are representatives of rival streams within the ruling elite. Mousavi is no less supportive of the Iranian nuclear drive and of support for Hizbullah and Hamas than is Ahmadinejad. His election would have made no difference for policy in these areas. Khamenei, who holds his (unelected) position for life, makes the decisions on questions of strategy. Some have claimed that Mousavi is no longer the key issue. Events have taken on a momentum of their own, it is being said. The huge crowds are seen as heralding a classic pre-revolutionary situation – in which the discontented masses go to the streets to challenge their rulers, posing the question of who holds power and by what right.

When the question of power is posed in the streets, two questions become paramount: Does the ruling element have the will to order a large-scale repression of popular unrest should the need arise, and will the security forces obey the regime if such an order is given? If the answer to either of these questions is negative, the regime is in real danger. Regarding the first – the Islamist regime in Iran, whatever its internal fissures and its many failures – is not a tired, uncertain, decadent and crumbling affair. Its leaders believe in their right to rule and possess a large popular constituency. Regarding the second question – Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the regime he leads hold the unquestioned loyalty of those military and security forces sometimes termed the “deep state.” The more excited Western media reports notwithstanding, no evidence has yet emerged from Iran to contradict this picture. Hence, when it comes to the ultimate test, the regime appears to be equipped with the means to preserve its rule.

Events will not, however, necessarily reach the stage of brutal repression. To make a revolution, an additional requisite factor is a revolutionary leadership. Such a leadership does not currently exist in Iran. There is no force or party, outside of the various factions within the regime itself, able to capitalize on the current popular anger. One should also not lose sight of the fact that even in terms of the struggle between the presidential candidates, Ahmadinejad undoubtedly possesses a very considerable popular base among less wealthy, religiously pious Iranians. All these facts taken together point, regrettably, in the direction of a single conclusion. At the present time, the Islamist regime in Iran is almost certainly not in danger.

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