By Nima Sharif
In recent weeks the infighting among various factions within the Iranian establishment has sharply increased. Ahmadinejad, once Khamenei’s undisputed favorite, no longer enjoys that position. One of his close aids was imprisoned while he was in New York. His recent attempt to visit his aid in Evin prison was rejected by the head of the judiciary. Ahmadinejad brought the issue to public by responding to a private letter by the head of the judiciary. Finally, Khamenei intervened and warned that making such internal differences public is tantamount to “treason”.
The current internal dispute coupled by more economic hardship, growing public discontent and increasing international sanctions has made the Iranian regime more vulnerable than before. The prospect of fall of Assad regime in Syria and its consequences, including among others, cutting the direct physical link with the Hezbollah is a nightmare for the Iranian rulers.
In just over six months the presidential election will be held in Iran. The bickering for power has already begun. Given the events of the past four years, Khamenei’s room for maneuver is much smaller than four years ago.
Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, presidential elections have been more of a barometer to show the strength of various internal factions within the regime. At no time have they been a genuine election, in which the real opposition could participate. Even at the first presidential election in 1980, Ayatollah Khomemini issued a religious fatwa banning Mujahdin-e-Khalq (MEK) candidate from running, for not having endorsed the supremacy of the clergy in the constitution.
In 2009, feeling more secure, Khamenei entered a huge gamble. In the course of the election campaign he allowed public debate between the presidential candidates. The anticipated objective was to completely root out the opposing faction. The tactic backfired. The revelation of only a fraction of the embezzlements that had taken place throughout the years by officials and the highlighted fissure at the very top, subsequently led to a public explosion of discontent known as the Twitter Revolution.
The surfacing of the internal disputes provided a unique opportunity for the people, being suppressed for years, to come out and express their desire for change. The outpour of public dissent started with chants against the systematic rigging of ballot boxes – which was nothing new in Iran. But soon after, the demands went much further than what the mullahs were prepared for. The chants of “where is my vote” soon turned into “down with dictator”, “down with the rule of clergy” and even “down with Khamenei”. No doubt, the people’s desire in the streets was regime change.
But for the defeated candidates and other self declared leaders of the “Green movement” radicalization of the movement was a nightmare. There was clearly a widening gap between the people who made the Green movement possible and those, who under the same banner, wanted to control the people’s movement for limited reforms within the clerical regime.
Although the uprising was suppressed, however, the discontent among Iranian youth never died and indeed, it has since grown exponentially due to economic and social crisis the country is currently facing. In a very strange way, both the ruling faction and those self claimed leaders of the Green movement, despite their differences, are united in opposition to those calling for regime change.
The fact is that from the outset, the challenging presidential candidates who later morphed into the leaders of the Green Movement never intended at all to dispute the basis of the Islamic Republic. In reality, they themselves had been, for years, part of the same establishment.
Mir Hussein Mousavi, recognized as the leading figure for the Green Movement has never been a stranger to power. He was Iran’s Prime Minister during the 1980s when tens of thousands were summary executed for political dissent. During his tenure the infamous 1988 massacre of political prisoners in which, according to opposition sources, as many as 30,000 political prisoners were executed in a matter of few months, occurred.
Geoffrey Robertson, the well respected lawyer and former UN judge in his well researched documentary report “The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran” reveals that in December 1988, in response to a question asked by an Austrian television correspondent, then Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi said about the killings of the opposition, “they (refereeing to members of Mujahedin Organization) had plans to perpetrate killings and massacres. We had to crush the conspiracy.” He then added, “In that respect we have no mercy.”
But, during his 2009 election campaign Mousavi, tried to avoid addressing this issue. When compelled to response he made contradictory statements; from claiming that he had no hands in the killing to tacitly supporting it as the right course of action at the time.
Even as an opposition head figure, Mousavi never defied the regime and always tried to stay within the boundaries of Islamic rule. In a statement he released during the uprising on September 28, 2009, Mousavi emphasized that the Green Movement seeks the “implementation of the constitution and the return of the Islamic Republic to its original self.” For him Khomeini’s era was a golden period that the country should return to.
In another statement on June 14, 2009, he described the Green Movement to be “committed to the Islamic Republic and its Constitution,” adding that “We consider the principle of Velayat-e Faghih (Supreme Leadership of Clergy) one of the basis of the government and our movement will act within its legal framework.”
Mousavi and many other like-minded people are on the record to have supported the country’s nuclear program. Talking to reporters in Isfahan during his presidential campaign, Mousavi stressed on the need to save the nuclear program for the country and said, “The nuclear technology strengthens our position in the region and the world. We cannot abandon it.” Yet, as reported by news agencies, during the recent anti-government protests over the collapse of Iranian currency, people chanted “we do not want nuclear program, do something about our situation.”
While election in Iran has never been a genuine opportunity for the people to decide about their own destination, however, in the current state of the regime, the next election could once again pave the way for another public outburst. Tehran fears that in the aftermath of Arab Spring and possible downfall of Assad, it would be much more difficult this time to suppress a movement for regime change.
In addition, those seeking reforms within the system rather than a regime change, such as those claiming to represent the Green movement, are trapped in an identity dilemma. They can no longer carry the label of opposition and yet help preserve the current system with some minor reforms.
Nima Sharif is an Iranian-American human rights and political activist. He writes frequently for various publications in this regard and he is also the editor of Stop Fundamentalism website.