Iran – no Revolution but potential for Change anyway

In my previous article “Iran-Twitter-Revolution”    I had some doubts that revolution is coming soon concluding however that something historic is afoot in Iran today. I order to understand events in today’s Iran I think they should be put in wider context of Iran’s history and ruling system.  In this article I try to do so before jumping to analyze of recent elections which from my point of view are the key element while estimating the basic conditions for revolution, coup d’état, power swift or some – even historic – change in Iran’s political climate.

History of democracy in Iran

Iran is a country with one of the oldest democratic systems in the Middle East. In order to understand the background to the demands of the demonstrators it is necessary to look briefly at the major developments in Iran prior to and since the Islamic revolution.  My source which I quote here is Dr. Farhang Jahanpour, Oxford and his article “Iran’s Suppreme Leader silences the opposition”.

Over one hundred years ago, the Iranian people staged the “Constitutional Revolution” (1905-11) against the power of despotic kings, and wrote a constitution that transferred power to the people’s representatives in the Majlis (Parliament). Throughout the past century, even at the worst of times, different governments have found it expedient to hold elections, even if they were not completely free and fair. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 was essentially a democratic revolution aimed at extending people’s freedoms and establishing a truly democratic state. Although Iran had made great material progress under the Shah, the brutality of the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK and the lack of political freedom, forced people to rise up to achieve greater freedom and democracy. Sadly, as the result of infighting among various democratic forces and as the result of the stature that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had gained as the leader of the revolution, the mullahs ended up controlling all levers of power. Instead of laying the foundations of a more democratic state, Ayatollah Khomeini established an Assembly of Experts (dominated by clerics who were allegedly experts in Islamic law) and the novel concept of the Velayat-e Faqih, or the rule of the chief jurisconsult, emerged as the basis of the new constitution. This concept which had no precedent in the history of Islam enshrined the power of the clergy over the state and resulted in the creation of a theocracy.

The unexpected election of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 election, with the votes of over seventy percent of the eligible voters with 80% turnout, opened a new chapter in the post-revolutionary history of Iran and provided the possibility of reform from within. However, his efforts were at every step blocked by the rightwing clergy and their agents in the judiciary and especially in the Guardian Council whose clerical members are appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i. This body supervises the elections and approves the credentials of the candidates that can run for high office. So, even in the best of times, only the candidates that are approved by the regime can run in the elections. The nation-wide student uprising in June 1999 was brutally crushed, with a number of students killed or injured. The reformers, and especially the young people, lost faith in the system and adopted a negative and detached stance towards the regime.

Some characteristics about Iran ruling system

Iran’s political system is a combination of elected and un-elected institutions.  Some unelected institutions like Guardian council has vetting powers e.g. to bills decided in Parliament and they also can bar candidates from standing in elections  to Parliament, the Presidency and the Assembly of Experts. A graphic version of Iran’s power system below:

  • The president is elected for four years and can serve no more than two consecutive terms. The constitution describes him as the second-highest ranking official in the country. He is head of the executive branch of power and is responsible for ensuring the constitution is implemented. Members of the cabinet, or Council of Ministers, are chosen by the president. They must be approved by parliament, which in 2005 rejected four of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s initial nominees for his hardline cabinet. Parliament can also impeach ministers.
  • The 290 members of the Majlis, or Parliament, are elected by popular vote every four years. The parliament has the power to introduce and pass laws, as well as to summon and impeach ministers or the president. However, all Majlis bills have to be approved by the conservative Guardian Council.
  • The responsibilities of the Assembly of Experts are to appoint the Supreme Leader, monitor his performance and remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties. The assembly usually holds two sessions a year and is officially based in the holy city of Qom. Direct elections for the 86 members of the current assembly are held every eight years and are next due in 2014. Only clerics can join the assembly and candidates for election are vetted by the Guardian Council. The assembly is dominated by conservatives. Its current chairman is former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
  • Guardian council is the most influential body in Iran and is currently controlled by conservatives. It consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. The council has to approve all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law. The council can also bar candidates from standing in elections to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.
  • The role of Supreme Leader in the constitution is based on the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini, who positioned the leader at the top of Iran’s political power structure. The Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appoints the head of the judiciary, six of the members of the powerful Guardian Council, the commanders of all the armed forces, Friday prayer leaders and the head of radio and TV. He also confirms the president’s election. The Leader is chosen by the clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts.
  • The Armed forces comprise the Revolutionary Guard and the regular forces. The two bodies are under a joint general command. All leading army and Revolutionary Guard commanders are appointed by the Supreme Leader and are answerable only to him.
  • The Expediency Council is an advisory body for the Leader with an ultimate adjudicating power in disputes over legislation between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The Supreme Leader appoints its members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures.




One of the key questios is what was the real result of Iran elections.  Official results gave 63% of the vote to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and 34% to Mir Hossein Mousavi. The Mousavi camp say the true result — allegedly leaked by the interior ministry — had its candidate winning more than 60% of the vote.  I have not any reliable first hand source, but sc. leaked real results are claimed to be following:

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty claim in their Washington Post –article Monday, June 15, 2009 that the election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. I quote:

Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin — greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election. Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, preelection polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy. By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years. Conducted by telephone from a neighboring country, field work was carried out in Farsi by a polling company whose work in the region for ABC News and the BBC has received an Emmy award. Our polling was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The breadth of Ahmadinejad’s support was apparent in our pre-election survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

The full report of Iran poll can be found as pdf here!

Iranian economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani – professor at Virginia Tech and guest scholar at Brookings – noted in the New York Times online evidence that Ahmadinejad’s programs to distribute income and wealth more evenly have begun to bear fruit, explaining his support in rural areas and small towns: “Once these factors are taken into account, it is not so implausible that Mr. Ahmadinejad may have actually won a majority of the votes cast, though not those cast in Tehran.

But if the Iranian election was not stolen, it does make the protest and crackdown fundamentally different political events: it fundamentally undermines the claim of the protesters to be speaking for the majority of the Iranian population, who just voted for a different candidate than the one supported by the protesters. Only a new vote with new rules and independent monitoring is likely to end the argument, and so far Iran’s ultimate rulers have refused to contemplate such an outcome.

Isolated protest?

Successful revolutions have three phases. First, a strategically located single or limited segment of society begins vocally to express resentment, asserting itself in the streets of a major city, usually the capital. This segment is joined by other segments in the city and by segments elsewhere as the demonstration spreads to other cities and becomes more assertive, disruptive and potentially violent. As resistance to the regime spreads, the regime deploys its military and security forces. These forces, drawn from resisting social segments and isolated from the rest of society, turn on the regime, and stop following the regime’s orders. Revolutions fail when no one joins the initial segment, meaning the initial demonstrators are the ones who find themselves socially isolated.

“Westerners love to overstate the importance of street demonstrations abroad. In our eyes anyone flashing the local equivalent of a v-sign salute represents all that is decent and democratic in the world. But we do them a disservice by raising false hopes and proclaiming their every protest as the next velvet revolution” writes Lionel Beehner in his The Guardian colum “Iran’s manufactured revolution”. Beehner continues “despite the hopes of overexcited western commentators, demonstrations in Iran are likely to change very little Regimes do not collapse as easily as we think. There were similar pronouncements that the junta in Burma was finished after hundreds of saffron-clad monks took to the streets a few years back. Well, guess what happened: not much. The junta continues to clamp down on the opposition.”

While background data informs that according to the United Nations, 68 percent of Iranians are urbanized and urban population seems to be on the streets one can get impression that the demonstrators are good representative of the country. The problem is the Iranian definition of urban includes very small communities (some with only a few thousand people) as “urban”. Tehran proper has about 8 million inhabitants; its suburbs bring it to about 13 million people out of Iran’s total population of 70.5 million. Tehran accounts for about 20 percent of Iran, but as elsewhere too the students at elite universities are only fraction of the whole Tehran population. There are six cities with populations between 1 million and 2.4 million people and 11 with populations of about 500,000. Including Tehran proper, 15.5 million people live in cities with more than 1 million and 19.7 million in cities greater than 500,000. However it seems that just the Tehran professional and student classes possess civic courage to go on the streets. While appearing large, the demonstrations actually comprised a small fraction of society.

George Friedman from Stratfor notes quite well that

The global media, obsessively focused on the initial demonstrators — who were supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponents — failed to notice that while large, the demonstrations primarily consisted of the same type of people demonstrating. Amid the breathless reporting on the demonstrations, reporters failed to notice that the uprising was not spreading to other classes and to other areas. In constantly interviewing English-speaking demonstrators, they failed to note just how many of the demonstrators spoke English and had smartphones. The media thus did not recognize these as the signs of a failing revolution.

As in Iran, none of the poorer folks from the provinces bothered to show up.  Could the reason be that they like and voted their pandering president, even if the west couldn’t stand him. There just seems to be no popular support for regime change.  Ahmadinejad has helped the poor and lower middle class by increasing pensions, sometimes by more than doubling them, loans, and government workers wages, also increasing and maintaining financial support for the families of those killed or wounded during the Iran-Iraq War. The New York Times has reported that Ahmadinejad “has also handed out so-called justice shares of state firms that are selling stock to the public, and provided low-interest loans to young married couples and entrepreneurs.”

The Iran’s purchasing power parity is estimated to be about US$800 Billion, or about $12,000 per capita, in 2007.  Life expectancy is about 71 years, and literacy about 85-90%. School enrollment is 100%. Iran has the 17th largest economy in the world ahead of Australia and Israel. Iran’s oil and gas reserves are known and when the logistic location of country is not so bad, better say opposite, the country has relatively good change for sustainable development even more regional superpower than it is today.

From the media coverage we can see a lot of Iranians in towns and cities protesting, but what about the rural areas? A grassroots movement cannot succeed unless they have massive support from all segments of the populace. And while the majority of all Iranians are not actually from the middle class, not live in major cities and not have Internet access, a justified conclusion can be that the mullahs will have no problem ignoring or crushing the isolated (student) movement.


Foreign interference

Among typical conspiracy theories Iran’s political leadership can have some base to their claims about foreign involvement to destabilize Iran. Already years some western NGOs like the Open Society Institute, Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy have been financing, training, supporting and mobilizing opposition movements in countries that have been targeted for destabilization, often during elections and usually organized around an identifiable color. These “color revolutions” sprang up in the past decade and have so far successfully destabilized the governments of the Ukraine, Lebanon, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, among others. The only thing different is that now social media and networks are being employed to amplify the effect of (and the impression of) internal protests. One mechanism by which the U.S. interferes in the internal political affairs of other nations is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental agency with funding from both Congress and private individuals whose purpose is to support foreign organizations sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy goals. In February, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested emergency funding from Congress to the amount of $75 million, on top of a previously allocated $10 million, “to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government”, in the words of The Guardian. The money “would be used to broadcast US radio and television programmes into Iran, help pay for Iranians to study in America and support pro-democracy groups inside the country.” The propaganda effort would include “extending the government-run Voice of America’s Farsi service from a few hours a day to round-the-clock coverage.”

However, there are credible reports that the CIA has been working for two years to destabilize the Iranian government. On May 23, 2007, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito reported on ABC News: “The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert “black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell ABC News.”On May 27, 2007, the London Telegraph independently reported: “Mr. Bush has signed an official document endorsing CIA plans for a propaganda and disinformation campaign intended to destabilize, and eventually topple, the theocratic rule of the mullahs.”A few days previously, the Telegraph reported on May 16, 2007, that Bush administration John Bolton told the Telegraph that a US military attack on Iran would “be a ‘last option’ after economic sanctions and attempts to foment a popular revolution had failed.”On June 29, 2008, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker: “Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership.

The protests in Tehran no doubt have many sincere participants. The protests also have the hallmarks of the CIA orchestrated protests in Georgia and Ukraine. Several commentators have already dredged from the memory hole press reporting at the time on a presidential “finding” on Iran, which is the formal method for the president to initiate covert actions against another country. Back in 2007 — plenty of lead time for this election — the president met with the Congressional Star Chamber, the “gang of 8″ House and Senate leaders, and was granted the authorization to use some $400 million for among other things, as the Washington Post  – reported, “activities ranging from spying on Iran’s nuclear program to supporting rebel groups opposed to the country’s ruling clerics…

More about US involvement one may find from an article of Daniel McAdams on June 19, 2009 which I have used also as my source related foreign interference.


Battle inside Power structure

More important for Iran’s political future than street protests is the battle inside the power structure, tensions within the Iranian political elite. The Supreme Leader Khamenei also faced a stark warning from another senior cleric and onetime rival, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. “If Iranians cannot talk about their legitimate rights at peaceful gatherings and are instead suppressed, complexities will build up which could possibly uproot the foundations of the government, no matter how powerful,” Montazeri said. He called for an impartial committee to be set up to resolve the Islamic Republic’s worst crisis since the 1979 revolution. (The Guardian 25th June 2009)

In his article “The Iranian Election and the Revolution Test”on June 22, 2009 George Friedman from Stratfor claims that many of Iran’s religious leaders see Ahmadinejad as hostile to their interests, as threatening their financial prerogatives, and as taking international risks they don’t want to take. Ahmadinejad’s political popularity in fact rests on his populist hostility to what he sees as the corruption of the clerics and their families and his strong stand on Iranian national security issues. In my opinion Mr. friedman hits the nail on head and I quote his analysis:

The clerics are divided among themselves, but many wanted to see Ahmadinejad lose to protect their own interests. Khamenei, the supreme leader, faced a difficult choice last Friday. He could demand a major recount or even new elections, or he could validate what happened. Khamenei speaks for a sizable chunk of the ruling elite, but also has had to rule by consensus among both clerical and non-clerical forces. Many powerful clerics like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wanted Khamenei to reverse the election, and we suspect Khamenei wished he could have found a way to do it. But as the defender of the regime, he was afraid to. Mousavi supporters’ demonstrations would have been nothing compared to the firestorm among Ahmadinejad supporters — both voters and the security forces — had their candidate been denied. Khamenei wasn’t going to flirt with disaster, so he endorsed the outcome. The Western media misunderstood this because they didn’t understand that Ahmadinejad does not speak for the clerics but against them, that many of the clerics were working for his defeat, and that Ahmadinejad has enormous pull in the country’s security apparatus. The reason Western media missed this is because they bought into the concept of the stolen election, therefore failing to see Ahmadinejad’s support and the widespread dissatisfaction with the old clerical elite. The Western media simply didn’t understand that the most traditional and pious segments of Iranian society support Ahmadinejad because he opposes the old ruling elite. Instead, they assumed this was like Prague or Budapest in 1989, with a broad-based uprising in favor of liberalism against an unpopular regime. Tehran in 2009, however, was a struggle between two main factions, both of which supported the Islamic republic as it was. There were the clerics, who have dominated the regime since 1979 and had grown wealthy in the process. And there was Ahmadinejad, who felt the ruling clerical elite had betrayed the revolution with their personal excesses. And there also was the small faction the BBC and CNN kept focusing on — the demonstrators in the streets who want to dramatically liberalize the Islamic republic. This faction never stood a chance of taking power, whether by election or revolution. The two main factions used the third smaller faction in various ways, however. Ahmadinejad used it to make his case that the clerics who supported them, like Rafsanjani, would risk the revolution and play into the hands of the Americans and British to protect their own wealth. Meanwhile, Rafsanjani argued behind the scenes that the unrest was the tip of the iceberg, and that Ahmadinejad had to be replaced. Khamenei, an astute politician, examined the data and supported Ahmadinejad.

My conclusions

Putting my own sympathies – I admire people who have courage to risk their lives for their ideals – aside I would conclude following related today’s events in Iran:

  • Iran’s ruling system can be criticized especially due the powerful role of non elected institutions in the whole.  Even the system is far away from western democratic ideals I however see existing system more democratic than in most other Middle East or Arabic countries
  • During last elections there probably was some irregular acts and wrongdoings but not so massive fraud demonstrators are claiming.  Indeed the election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.
  • The demonstrations are actually representing a small fraction of society – mainly students and middle-class in Tehran – and as such they will be isolated from other segments of society and unable to deliver any revolution in Iran.
  • There has been foreign interference for years to destabilize Iran’s regime, however foreign influence for recent demonstrations could be estimated to be minimal and not that scale what Iran’s leadership has been claiming after election protests.
  • The battle inside Iran’s power structure can lead to radical changes inside ruling clerical elite and maybe also a power shift from non elected to elected institutions.
  • The short-term effects might well result in either a harsher regime or a more liberal regime.  The first choice would probably be counterproductive the later would stabilize Iran by channeling peoples demands for democracy instead of theocracy.

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