No Comment — June 15, 2009, 10:45 am

Keller’s Iranian Insights

The developments in Iran since Friday expose the country’s fracture lines. They have demonstrated graphically what some have contended for years, namely that there is a growing divide between its government (headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, backed by the nation’s radical clerical leadership) and the educated and commercial classes. The latter had supported two anti-Ahmadinejad candidates at the polls. We may never know exactly how the Iranian people voted in that election, but we know there was a record turnout, that concern about the outcome was feverish, and that the governing elites felt acutely threatened by the vote. It will take some time to assess what all of this means for the United States and its foreign policy initiatives, but one thing is extremely clear: large parts of the Iranian nation—the urban elites which in a functioning democracy would be expected to carry the government—have a much more positive view of the United States than Ahmadinejad and his clerical backers. That’s an essential fact for American policy makers in the months going forward.

But sorting through the coverage of the developments in Tehran—which in the mainstream U.S. broadcast media was astonishingly weak—I was puzzled by a featured piece of analysis by Bill Keller and Michael Slackman in the New York Times. Keller and Slackman see the outcome as the confirmation of Ahmadinejad, who now climbs closer to paramount power in Iran as the face of the clerical interests:

Asked about speculation that in his second term he would take a more moderate line, he smirked, “It’s not true. I’m going to be more and more solid.” He can afford to be. With the backing of the supreme leader and the military establishment, he has marginalized all of the major figures who represented a challenge to the vision of Iran as a permanently revolutionary Islamic state.

Really? It’s true that the Supreme Leader heralded Ahmadinejad’s victory as a “divine assessment” on Friday. Today, however, under strong pressure from surging crowds in the streets and critics high in the clerical establishment, he appears suddenly to acknowledge that the assessment might well have had a different source. In any event, I suspect that images of Ahmadinejad’s triumphant press conference—in which he proclaimed peace, order, and the rule of law as his thugs beat students and middle-class businessmen senseless in the streets of Tehran—will come back to haunt him as long as he still clings to power. Keller’s coronation anthem to Ahmadinejad may be premature.

A more prudent assessment would, I think, make the following points. The recent developments exposed the fault lines both within Iran’s governing elites and the population in general. They reveal that Ahmadinejad’s provocative foreign policy and his pursuit of nuclear power (and warheads) are not popular with powerful elements within society. They reveal a strong taste for personal freedom and reforms among many groups—students, women, and what the Iranians call the “bazaar,” namely middle-class businessmen. The rigging of the election was certainly supported by the highest clerical levels and was designed to silence these political opponents and heighten the prestige and authority of Ahmadinejad. But the fraud may have been too crudely carried out to allow this objective to be achieved. In any event, however, it is unlikely that this election will be unwound, because that would severely threaten the power and authority of the clerical leaders. It will be key to see what happens in the next few weeks with Mir Hossein Mousavi—will Ahmadinejad keep him in prison? Will be continue his defiance? Will he be forced into exile? Similarly, what happens with critics like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chair of the Expediency Council, is also important. Harsh action against the reform camp will, however, signal weakness or perceived vulnerability and not strength in the government in Tehran.

Reza Aslan says that what we’re watching is a slow-moving military coup d’état, in which the Revolutionary Guard are consolidating control over the apparatus of government. That may well be so, but I think it would be prudent to see what their physical control over real estate really means. Are they flexing political muscle? Are they willing to operate against the will of the Supreme Leader or president?

The Iranian economy also presents a severe test for any new government. The global economy is in trouble, but Iran stands to be one of the most adversely affected nations. There will be inflation, soaring unemployment, and shortages of goods. The constituencies to which Ahmadinejad and the clerical party play—the urban poor and rural Iranians—are likely to be the hardest hit, and this is likely to loosen the government’s hold on its last redoubt. The clerical leadership has touted the nation’s political freedom, though serious analysts have consistently noted that this is more appearance than substance. But expect the space previously allocated for free political expression to shrink dramatically—the developments of the weekend already send a strong signal to that effect.

In any event, speaking of a “triumph” of Ahmadinejad is naïve. He came to power as the candidate of the clerical extremists who actually run the country. Mousavi would have presented a threat to the power of the radical clerical party, and it’s now apparent to all observers that they stepped beyond the bounds of Iran’s curious theocratic constitution to stamp that out. So the upshot of the election is not really the ascendency of Ahmadinejad, but rather that Supreme Leader Khamenei is jealous of his power and senses his vulnerability. Over the last four days, the curtain has been drawn back to show how far he will go to continue his unchecked exercise of that power. Changes in Iranian nuclear policy and foreign policy are unlikely. More likely is that Tehran will attempt to build the popular perception of foreign threats as a means of coping with rising domestic unease caused by the faltering economy.

The global economic meltdown was always certain to produce flashspots, and Iran clearly will be one of them. What happened this weekend is likely to flare again until change comes to Iran. The myth of the Islamic Republic has been shaken by its roots.

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