Iran Update (4/9/10)

A new strategy?

As I noted in my last update, the events of 22 Bahman led a lot of people to rethink the movement’s strategy. Until that point the main strategy of the reformists had been (justifiably, I believe) to continue to show their strength and presence through demonstrations and protests, largely coming on state-sponsored or religious holidays. While I won’t go so far to say that street protests and demonstrations are over, they seem to be fading in importance since 22 Bahman

There were no large-scale protests, nor even any big pushes to do so, during the Iranian holiday of chahrshanbe suri (or “red Wednesday”). This holiday falls on the last Wednesday of the year when people traditionally go into the streets, set off fireworks, light bond fires to jump over, and generally celebrate the start of the new year holidays. Particularly for the youth this turns into an outdoor party—think Persian mardis gras, minus the booze and beads—full of dancing, flirting, and other activities not normally permitted outside the home. There were rumors of protests on this night, but nothing really came of it, and no one really pushed for this to happen in the first place. (As a side note, having protest on this night could have been a disaster. Large crowds in the dark, combined with security forces and a high presence of fireworks that sound like gun shots, could have spelled trouble…). Every year authorities try to stop these gatherings from happening, and every year they fail. This year Khamenei—probably in response to rumors of protests—issued a fatwa telling people not to go out for this holiday, and predictably this fell on deaf ears. I wouldn’t call that a victory for the reformists as much as I’d call it a victory for the spirit of Iran.

In addition to the peaceful passing of chahrshanbe suri, there were only muted demonstrations during the funeral of the late Ayatollah Montazeri’s wife. This is not to say that people didn’t deem her death worthy of holding a demonstration, but again there were no real calls to turn this into a reformist demonstration. The same goes for another holiday that fell towards the end of the new year, when in after the 1979 revolution the population voted on a referendum, approving a constitution establishing Iran as an Islamic Republic. Again, little to no attempt to turn this into public demonstrations. As a side note, the government didn’t do much to mark this holiday either, but such is the extent of Iranian new year: everything shuts down for 2 weeks.

It’s still too early to tell exactly what the new, reformist strategy is in the post 22 Bahman era—or even if there is one singular, coherent one—but there are some discernable elements of a change in tactic. First, there has been attacks on elements of the system itself, specifically the Guardian Council.

Immediately after 22 Bahman Karroubi and Musavi twice met to regroup and re-think strategy, and after the second meeting Karroubi released a statement calling for a referendum on the role of the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is charged with approving any law passed by the parliament to ensure it is not against Islam (a function that was often debated during the days of Khatami and a reformist-dominated parliament whose bills kept getting rejected) and also plays a major role in elections, such as setting electoral laws and approving any candidates for elected office, such as MPs, president, or member of the Assembly of Experts. Karrubi’s criticism was more directed at the Guardian Council’s role in elections, claiming that it has unfairly disqualified people for standing for elected office, and also failed to be a neutral arbiter during the election. (The chairmain of the counsel, Ayatollah Jannati, has been accused of campaigning openly for Ahmadinejad). Interestingly, several days after this, during a meeting of the Expediency Council (chaired by Rafsanjani) Hassan Rowhani—the former nuclear negotiator during Khatami’s presidency—proposed a law that would establish a National Election Committee that would oversee elections. This body would still fall under the authority of the Supreme Leader, but the Guardian Council would be relieved of its duties as such. As one can imagine this proposal did not get far.

What I find interesting about this tactic of criticizing structural aspects of the system is that it cleverly goes after a part of the system that is a tremendous obstacle to political reform, but does so without threatening the system as a whole. It’s basically a compromise between wanting to work within the system and changing it wholesale. It’s working within the reformed system.

In fact, there is already evidence of this new approach seen right after the new year holiday. Twice in recent days Musavi has met with reformist members of parliament, and at a very auspicious time, when Ahmadinejad is in a bitter struggle with parliament over the budget for the new year (more below). Again we’ll see how this plays out as things start to get back to normal, but for now there is evidence of a strategy of working with the elected portions of the system (i.e. parliament) and trying to reform the un-elected ones (i.e. Guardian Council).

I should also note that after 22 Bahman Musavi published another lengthy statement where he spoke of the need to bring the movement to the towns, expand its presence, continue with online organization, etc. At first I was fairly disappointed with this statement, since people really seemed to want someone to take organizational leadership after 22 Bahman and Musavi almost explicitly declined to do this, instead reiterating that the strength of the movement lies in its decentralized structure. But I do find the portion of his statement that talked about spreading the movement into provincial areas promising, as this signals, to some degree, a change from tactic of ‘resist and demonstrate’ to ‘regroup and strengthen.’

Inside the Establishment

Musavi wasn’t the only one to visit with reformist MPs in recent days though. Rafsanjani, the moderate political ‘king maker,’ also sat down with reformist MPs (the same group who met with Musavi several days ago, from the “Imam Khomeini Line” of parliament). He agreed with them about the important role parliament has in Iran (after first emphasizing the importance of the role of the Supreme Leader), and offer some characteristically vague words of support for the parliament in the fight over subsidies.

Combined with the recent harassments (and brief imprisonment) of allies and family members of Rafsanjani, one might think he’s slowly inching towards the reformists. I’d argue that this is still far from the case. Before the new year holidays the Assembly of Experts—the body charged (at least on paper) with monitoring the Supreme Leader and selecting his successor, and which is chaired by Rafsanjani—held their annual meeting. Some people were speculating (myself included) that some of the backroom meetings with senior clerics in Qom, moderate politicians like Qalibaf and Rezaii, and the various rumors about Rafsanjani falling out with Khamenei might lead to something.

I don’t think anyone who has been following Iran thought this meeting would lead to some clerical coup or a formal admonishing of Khamenei by the body, but there was speculation that at least something different from the usual sycophantic statements of support would come from this meeting. The result of the meeting, though, was more of the usual—and at first, was actually a quite worrying statement for the reformists. A statement purporting to be the assembly’s official statement appeared on a hardliner website that praised the Supreme Leader and labeled the opposition seditious, which, if it was the official one, would have been quite a blow to the opposition. About two days later, however, the official statement emerged from the assembly, which again did praise the Supreme Leader, but refrained from calling the opposition seditionists. Again, there was never going to be a statement extolling the virtues of the opposition or railing on the Supreme Leader for abuses of power, but the statement, and some statements by Rafsanjani in public after the meeting, did show that that pillar of the establishment is still firmly behind the Supreme Leader. (Maybe not behind Ahmadinejad, per se, but little about that from the meeting.)

So what does all this mean? Whose side is Rafsanjani on? Simply put, he’s on his own side. He has his own coterie of supporters amongst the ‘pragmatists’ and ‘moderates’, is the subject of vicious attacks from the principalists/hardliners, and at times flirts with reformist, but in the end he’s his own faction. He is a firm believer in the system, and while he has his differences with Khamenei, will jump to his defense if criticisms of the Supreme Leader could lead to undermining the Islamic Republic. And he may agree with reformists on some issues, but will only go as far with them as ensuring the stability and continuity of the governing structure allows. He eschews public confrontations and tries to keep private the regime’s factionalism. There’s a reason why he’s known as ‘the shark.’

I don’t say this to imply that reformists shouldn’t work with him, or mean to suggest that he’s irreparably untrustworthy. Indeed, if reformists are serious about expanding their base of support they need to cultivate ties with Rafsanjani and people such as him who are in the middle of the political spectrum. But I do think one needs to be realistic about Rafsanjani’s role in the political establishment. He’s not going to be behind or supportive of any sort of plan to oust Khamenei from his position and install himself or some clerical junta in its place. Nor is he going to publicly announce his support for ‘the rightful president Musavi.” He can be a key political ally in the ongoing reformist battle, but he’s not going to be its final arbiter.

Human Rights and Civil Society

Leading up to the new year holidays a bunch of detainees were released, some temporarily on holiday furloughs and some permanently (for now) with high bail. The rash of prison releases was fairly unexpected, given the regime’s prior record of arrests, but there are several reasons for it. One is strictly PR. The regime wanted to look merciful, allowing prisoners to visit their families during the holidays, and giving the government a face of kindness. On top of that, it also shows that they are in control. These prisoners can be released and the streets won’t erupt into mass demonstrations like they did in June and July—the country does not need de facto martial law to have order, as some critics have said. Second is a less altruistic reason. Even people released ‘permanently’ and on large sums of bail will be brought right back into prison after the two week holiday period is over. The brief period of leniency and forgiveness is merely a façade, and for whatever reason—good public relations or holiday-inspired altruism—things will go back to normal after the holidays. In the coming weeks we’ll see whether this is true and people previously released are brought back into prison, but it should also be noted that even when these people are freed they are, in the words of one commentator, living in an ‘open air prison.’ They have to constantly check-in with their minders, are forbidden from engaging in any sort of political activity, and are under extreme pressure.

I believe both of these reasons have some validity. Again, we’ll see how things are in the coming weeks. But one person I talked to about this made an important point that I don’t think had been discussed enough. The people who were released were fairly high-profile detainees, and their release was the exception rather than the rule. Lesser known oppositionists remained in jail during the holidays in high numbers. So while it is encouraging that people like Tajzadeh (former Interior Minister under Khatami) were released, the number of people still in jail belies any claims to compassion or further legitimacy.

Along these lines, in recent weeks the government was increasingly targeting human rights groups and activists. While these groups were always targets of government harassment, there has been a spike in arrests and targeting of people affiliated with groups that publicized human rights abuses inside Iran. At first reading it may seem obvious that the government would go after people who criticize its record of human rights, but this underscores an important point that should not be forgotten when thinking about Iran.

Legitimacy is still hugely important with the regime. Despite the wishes of some hardline clerics (eg Mesba Yazdi), the Islamic Republic gets its legitimacy not just from Islamic but from the population. When security forces behave like the Shah’s SAVAK forces, this undermines some of the fundamental purposes of the 1979 revolution. At the regional and international level, Iran also likes to think of itself as a shining example of an alternative to Western secular democracy on the one hand, and quasi-dictatorships and pseudo-monarchies that exist in the rest of the Middle East on the other. When allegations of rape in prison and gross human rights abuses are publicized, this belies any claim to be a preferred alternative to these other systems. Iran has, for the most part, abandoned its early plans to export its revolution throughout the region directly, and instead tries to do so by leading through example. But it surely cannot do so in the face of such criticisms.

I say this to emphasize how important it is to continue to pay attention to human rights in Iran. Government statements, reports from NGOs, and other mentions of human rights violations in Iran do not fall on deaf ears inside the country. The leaders are very much mindful of how they are perceived in the rest of the world. Although it may be frustrating to continue to report on such things and see the situation of human rights deteriorating, it’s a critical area that should not be abandoned.


As usual, I don’t have much to update on the nuclear front. There were several alarmist reports (two from the NYT) about Iran’s nuclear capacity—one about Iran moving its nuclear stockpile above ground, seemingly daring Israel to attack it, though it was actually moved there for technical reasons—the US is cultivating support for a new round of sanctions (and has actually succeeded in getting European and even Russian business to reduce ties with Iran), while Iran continues with the usual statements and is starting to enrich to 20%. The speaker of parliament (Larijani) went on a 5-day visit to Japan back in February, right around the time when there were rumors that Japan could serve as the 3rd party intermediary for the nuclear fuel swap instead of France, Russia, or Turkey. But nothing concrete has come out of that yet. So as always, expect more of the same.


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