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Khamenei to Khomeini

June 22, 2009

It is eerily familiar. The chants of Allah-o-Akbar (God is Great) rent the air at night in Tehran. The greens seem to be everywhere. That is the color of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man Mahmoud Ahmedinijad vanquished in the elections of 2009 in Iran. Protesters are everywhere. The police and the Basij militia are out in full force. The Revolutionary Guards line the streets of Tehran. Foreign journalists are being packed up. The BBC man in Tehran John Lyne has been told to leave. A Canadian journalist of Newsweek has also been detained. The situation is fluid in Iran, and the protests continue.

The people are asking incredulously – where is my vote? Most seem to have voted for the Azeri – Mousavi – a liberal. The voting was done by ballot paper and the results were announced only a couple of hours after the voting stopped. There  was such enthusiasm among the voters that the voting hours had to be extended. It was impossible for the votes to have been counted in such a short time. The verdict has flummoxed the people of Iran. A 62.6% vote in favor of the hardliner Ahmedinijad and a mere 33% in favor of Mousavi. Iranians are incensed. The situation got so bad that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to address the people in Tehran University. They listened with respect and chanted slogans from time to time showing their approval for what the Ayatollah had to say. The comedy was when the old cleric lamented that he was an old man and that he is fragile – many in the crowds had handkerchiefs in their hands wiping off their tears! One would have thought that with the kind of respect Khamenei commanded, the protests would stop forthwith. But by evening, the chants of Allah-o-Akbar rent the air again. The people were out in the streets. Police and the Revolutionary Guards fired at the crowds and the official figures are – ten dead and a few dozen injured. Pictures smuggled showed people being shot at with live bullets. Mousavi told his supporters that he was ready to be a martyr. He went on to add that the people should protest peacefully and give the security men flowers – a Gandhian way of protest.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the powerful clerics in the Guardian Council who was also a candidate in these elections has said that it was the right of the people to protest. His forty seven year old daughter was detained and then released. Rafsanjani has supported Mousavi. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri , the head of the Guardian Council who was a part of the Revolution of 1979 and who lives in Qom is also a liberal and has not said much. The eleven member Guardian Council, it seems is divided and there is a tug of war within the Council. Mousavi and Ahmedinijad are pawns in the hands of the clerics. The protests have become increasingly volatile and with people dying on the streets of Tehran, it is going to get worse. The protesters are not protesting only in Tehran. Reports are that in Qom and Isfahan also there have been large crowds protesting the election results. It is back to the days of Khomeini when the old man started his tirade against the Shah of Iran from his humble abode in Qom. The incessant chants of Allah-o-Akbar rent the air night after night then. It is the late seventies revisited. Blood has already spilled on the streets of Tehran. The days of Khomeini are back again. It remains to be seen as to how dogged the protesters are.  The situation is slightly different this time around. This time it is a proxy war between the clerics. There is some credence to the fact that the elections have not been entirely fair – for have we seen any Ahmedinijad supporters standing up to the protesters?

Khamenei believes that if Mousavi comes to power the anti-West rhetoric will get diluted and that may in turn weaken his position. There may be some truth in that as there have been systematic protests in all major capitals of Europe and in Washington – outside the White House. The west has not been a mere bystander. They would love to see a regime change. That would help them achieve what they have wanted all along without taking any punitive action. McCain may have hummed ‘Bomb Iran’ but the fact of the matter is that the US and the west are in no position to get into another war. Whether the west is engineering these protests is hard to say, but I would be surprised if the west is not in touch with some of the influential personalities in the Guardian Council – the seat of power in Iran. It is also true that the proud Persians have never liked repressive measures. The seven year war with Iraq is a testimony to the resilience of the Iranians. Khamenei and Ahmedinijad may be making the same mistake the Shah did – try to suppress a popular uprising with force. This time however, it is very unlikely that the Ayatollah or Ahmedinijad will hang from a helicopter gunship shooting down people like the flamboyant Shah did. Khamenei derives his power not from the Guardian Council but from his hold over the military and the militia. It will take some effort for Mousavi and his benefactors to be able to turn the tables. The proposed 10% random counting of the votes suggested by Khamenei has appeased no one. The protests continue. It is clear that the people want a change.

Iranians are protesting not just against the election results. Perhaps they are protesting against the orthodoxy that has permeated the largely open Iranian society since the 1979 Revolution. The people are fed up of having to follow strict Islamic rules. It is said that there was a section in the Iranian society that was hoping the Americans would enter Iran when they invaded Iraq. The prominence of religion in the daily life of the people has suffocated the common Iranian such that he wants to get rid of the clergy. The next best thing is to have more liberal clergymen in power in the country. For Obama and the west this is music to their ears. Ahmedinijad does not care much about the views of the west. He is also adamant that Iran must have a robust nuclear program. A regime change both at the presidential level and more importantly at the Guardian Council could mean a more pliable leadership in Tehran. That would suit the western interests and those of Israel. Tel Aviv will sleep better if they can see the back of Ahmedinijad. However, there is no guarantee that the change of guard at the Guardian Council would mean a more liberal leadership.

As for India, we have had a very good relationship with Tehran. Even when President Bush was in power and we were going to sign the Civilian Nuclear deal India never took an anti-Tehran posture, though we did vote against Iran at the Security Council a couple of times, but that was a principled stand that Tehran must heed the concerns of the international community and open its nuclear installations for inspection. For us, Iran is the gateway to Central Asia. Our relations with Persia go back to times immemorial. That is not to say that we would not like a more liberal and a more overtly democratic Iran. It is just that our strategic interests are conjoined such that we cannot ignore each other. However, it is also true that the will of the people must be respected. The west would do well to keep away from the internal politics of this crucial nation. Khamenei and Ahmedinijad know the people of their country well and I am sure they will not take the road that led to the demise of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Update 23.06.2009: The Guardian Council, in an effort to placate the protesters has conceded  that there were irregularities in some 50 constituencies, but that did not alter the election results. Meanwhile the British embassy has advised its staff to send back their families because of the unstable political situation in Iran. Two British diplomats have been asked to leave Iran for indulging in activities ‘incompatible with their diplomatic status.’ Britain will be sending back two Iranian diplomats in a weeks time, as a response. Protests continue.

Update 26.07.2009: The protests against the poll results continue. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is a tug of war between Khamenei and Ahmedinijad on one side and Rafsanjani and his followers on the other. Rafsanjani and the other clerics have become very wealthy and powerful over the decades. They are afraid that their wealth and power will be checked if Ahmedinijad comes back to power. That is a real threat. There have been demonstrations in Paris, London, Washington and other major capitals around the world. Tehran has not remained peaceful either. There have been ongoing protests over the weeks in Tehran. The West would like a regime change. If Rafsanjani and his men manage a coup of sorts, or a color revolution, as has been the trend in recent past, there is no guarantee that the new regime will be pro-West. What it could mean is that Tehran may defer their nuclear program, which is critical from the western point of view. The struggle for power continues.

Update 05.08.2009: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in Wednesday for a second term as president nearly two months after a disputed election triggered massive street protests, split Iran’s clerical leadership and brought attacks from within his own conservative camp over mistreatment of detained opposition activists.

In streets near parliament, security forces using batons dispersed hundreds of protesters who chanted “Death to the Dictator,” witnesses said. Some wore black T-shirts in a sign of grief and others wore green — the color of the opposition movement. A middle-aged woman carried a banner warning Iran’s leaders if they do not listen to people’s demands, they will face the same fate as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The opposition had called for demonstrations to coincide with the inauguration and a number of its key leaders — and all three of Ahmadinejad’s election challengers — boycotted the swearing in ceremony in parliament. Source: AP

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