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The Iranian Uprising

Green, But Not Velvet

by FARID MARJAI

In reaction to the widespread discontent with the election results in Iran, reflected in large scale demonstrations and disturbances in the streets, the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had asked the Guardian Council to conduct a partial recount of the presidential election of June 12th. Although the Guardian Council (GC) has acknowledged irregularities in the vote count, it considers the irregularities inadequate to change the final tally of the votes. The Guardian Council which is the institution responsible for the task of monitoring elections has asked for several more days to announce its final decision on the elections. It is interpreted this time is needed for the lobbying that is taking place behind the scenes.

Mousavi, the challenger to President Ahmadinejad, is not satisfied with this procedure of a partial recount since it does not adequately address what he views as the election irregularities. But whatever the details of the behind the scenes dialogue with the conservative establishment, Mousavi strategists are focusing only on the vote count and the presidential election. This is an achievable goal. It is crucial to understand that the reformists within Mousavi camp are not using the election issue to pursue a maximalist strategy of transforming the Islamic Republic or undermining its institutions. Mousavi strategists are aiming to manage this confrontation within this definable framework.

Clearly, over the years, the Guardian Council has been a right wing institution resisting the reformists in their transformative politics. Nonetheless, it is remotely conceivable that at this stage the Guardian Council could make a compromise decision towards Mousavi. However, that depends on several factors and dynamics in the coming days. We need to explore these factors.

The Mechanisms and Institutions

The Guardian Council is composed of 12 jurists; 6 members are appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the remaining 6 are jurisprudents recommended by the Judiciary, to be approved by the Parliament majles. The Judiciary itself is more neutral in this matter than the Guardian Council. Immediately, before the elections, the Judiciary started to prosecute cases that were embarrassing to President Ahmadinejad. This move was interpreted by observers that the Judiciary is not completely behind Ahmadinejad.

Politically, the Judiciary is not a monolithic entity. It is headed by Ayatollah Shahroodi who is somewhat independent in his conduct; the other faction is influenced by the graduates of the Haghani Seminary. This school had attempted to provide modern education and thinking for the clerical students. So in a way, this seminary has been effective in creating a generation of politicized clerics, although many of them ended up with right wing elements.

Prior to monitoring elections, the Guardian Council is responsible for filtering out candidates. In this way, the Guardian Council works as a mechanism to shape the character of the elected bodies of the executive and the legislative branches. As opposed to the Assembly of Experts, members of the Guardian Council are not elected by popular vote. The GC is considered as right wing and pro-Ahmadinejad. So, GC’s final announcement on the election results, if unfavorable to Mousavi, will clearly have legitimacy issues, and will fail to create social trust at this time.

It should be noted that senior clerics or marja and the clerical establishment is not unified on this contested issue. On June 17, an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Experts was convened. Although on paper the Assembly is the institution that can select or unseat the Supreme Leader, too much is being read into this. In Iran, there is a balance of power that is understood. As clerics, members of the Assembly of Experts are elected by popular vote, but have to pass an exam to qualify for the candidacy. Two years ago, during the elections for the 68 seat Assembly, the conservative faction of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, supporter of Ahmadinejad, was competing with Hashemi Rafsanjani faction for control. Rafsanjani’s faction won with a slight majority.

The Outside Dynamic and Elements

By watching the foreign broadcasting television and the cyber–public–sphere, you get the impression that many players seem to want to throw their hat in the game. Many in the opposition outside the country are projecting their wish list onto Mousavi’s campaign. It is imaginable that some émigré circles, neoconservatives, and elements of Iranian opposition linked with the neoconservative cliques would paint a picture that is favorable to their objective of “creative chaos.” In other words, for them to try to agitate for strategies that are in line with “regime change,” or a velvet revolution if you may. In that sense, they see Mousavi’s Green Wave, as the strategic vehicle for this regime change. However, the reformists want to stay with Mousavi’s pace and objective, and maintain that it is counterproductive and unwise to try to get ahead of the Mousavi platform. They are focused on a strategy that remains responsive to the internal dynamics.

Many of us believe that Mousavi and former president Khatami’s inner circle are concerned that the movement not be appropriated or influenced by obstructionists. They want to contain the slogans to a framework within the Islamic Republic, and what is achievable with minimum human cost.

The system in Iran has multiple power centers. For challenges confronting the Mousavi camp, he needs the support of the clerical establishment. Over the years, this establishment has not entirely acted as a monolith, and he is astute enough not to alienate them with an agenda that might be viewed as an assault on the state. Their support or lack of can be decisive for the outcome.

Moreover, Mousavi supporters need to continue to be actively engaged, without resorting to any violence. For the most part they have done so.

In addition, the tone of language of protest on the street can not be along class lines. Although Mousavi’s language has been inclusive and his discourse egalitarian, some provocateurs in the public at large hurled insults at Ahmadinejad during the presidential campaign, using demeaning terms (such as “peasants”) which has a de-humanizing effect and alienates sectors of the society that support Ahmadinejad.

During the disturbances of the past week, those who brought you the Iraq “show” like Paul Wolfowitz have resurfaced, and written op-eds about the Iranian situation. In his appearances on CNN, Wolfowitz urged the American government to establish contact with Mousavi. There is a subtext to this statement and position. By coloring and compromising Mousavi and the Green Wave in this way, Mousavi would suffer legitimacy, and as a result, the social crisis would intensify and radicalize the process to the point of desperately Americanizing the movement. This may be a component of the “creative chaos” doctrine that was advanced by the neoconservative elements in the Bush national security team. In their writings, other Neocon figures such as Kenneth Timmerman had been focusing on opportunities that can be created in Iran even before the elections. Basically, they are on a fishing expedition.

Mousavi and the people around him are revolutionaries of the early 1970’s and have an understanding and long view of the American paradigm, destabilization policies and official attitude toward independent democratic movements of the periphery. Mousavi’s direct audience first and foremost is the Iranian people. His audience may include the world community, but his utterances indicate that his agenda is not the same as the American neocon establishment with their design towards Iran.

For some years now, the Voice of America (VOA) TV has been beaming broadcasts to Iran targeting the Iranian audience. The VOA Persian program is not a standard politically objective news network. It is a legacy of the Cold War propaganda and its programming tends to imply regime change in Iran. Also, the predominant orientation of the Los Angeles TV stations that beam to Iran are mostly influenced by the exiled monarchist émigré circles and counter-revolutionary royalists. They are also fishing, and hope that the demonstrations in Tehran will create an assault on the State and obliterate it. That is not what the reformists in Iran are striving for, nor is the movement capable of it.

Several neoconservative organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINP) and the American Enterprise Institute pursue policies towards the Middle East and Iran that are ideological and highly charged. They have been making efforts to cultivate and attract “native intellectuals” in line with their own agenda and policy of “velvet revolution” and regime change.

A recent debate on VOA illustrates this. On June 14, in his conversation, Eisa Saharkhiz a supporter of the other reformist presidential candidate Mr. Karrubi, debated a person affiliated with WINP. In that, Saharkhiz reminded his interlocutor in strong terms that Mousavi’s statements and letters explicitly state that we operate in a non-violent manner within the framework of the constitution of the country (recount the vote, and obtain the executive branch through legal means.) Saharkhiz was implicitly saying that the Green Wave is a vernacular movement, and superimposing of any message or agenda to this movement would be a misrepresentation outside of the Mousavi framework.

Imagining wish lists is not complicated, but the challenge is to be able to carry the movement thru to a political conclusion. A crisis on its own does not necessarily lead to a political conclusion. Only an institution or a leadership that enjoys widespread legitimacy can act as the catalyst to bring a series of chaotic events to a fulfilling conclusion.

Sure, some voices are heard here and there that claim the Green Wave “is not about vote counts, or a Mousavi candidacy anymore” – that it has gone beyond Mousavi and the elections. But considering the realities on the ground, we have to acknowledge that as a catalyst, only Mousavi with the backing of both the reformist block and the moderate conservatives can the crisis be brought to a meaningful conclusion. The state is not about to collapse. That is why the Mousavi camp insists that it is only within the framework of the Green Movement and the constitution that a resolution to the crisis can be envisioned.

Democracy activists in Iran believe that another strong independent opposition is being born within the system that is not looking for regime change; critics, observers and outside actors need to respect and accommodate this birth, and not undermine it through sectarian and selective politics.

FARID MARJAI is a contributor to the reformist newspapers Etemad and Shargh in Iran. He could be reached at fmarjai@yahoo.ca