Iran's ruling clerics feel heat from below

Fury over election refuses to subside, opening window for change.

The Associated PressJune 17, 2009 

  • Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main his main rival in the disputed presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, staged competing rallies Tuesday.

    In the afternoon, the government organized a large rally in Tehran. Thousands waved Iranian flags and pictures of the supreme leader, thrusting their fists into the air and cheering as speakers denounced "rioters" and urged Iranians to accept the results showing Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a landslide Friday.

    In the evening, a large column of Mousavi supporters marched peacefully along a central avenue in north Tehran, according to amateur video.

    The government moved to extinguish international news coverage of the crisis.

    The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance banned foreign journalists from continuing to cover rallies in Tehran, revoked the credentials of those with temporary visas and ordered them to leave the country as soon as possible. Cell phone service was cut in the city.

    The ministry also prohibited news agencies and foreign broadcasters from sending out video and pictures in what could presage a more violent government attempt to crack down.

    In an apparent attempt to defuse the crisis, the 12-member Guardian Council, part of the ruling theocracy, announced that it would conduct a partial recount of the balloting, which the government said Ahmadinejad won with more than 24 million votes, to 13 million for Mousavi.

    President Barack Obama said Tuesday that it would be counterproductive for the United States "to be seen as meddling" in the disputed Iranian presidential election, dismissing criticism from several leading Republicans that he has failed to speak out forcefully enough on behalf of the Iranian opposition.

    Although the president said he had "deep concerns about the election," he also said that any direct involvement by the United States would not be "productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations." How Iran goes about electing its leaders and establishing freer debate and democratic principles, he told reporters at the White House, "is ultimately not something for the American people to decide."

    At least eight demonstrators were shot dead and 28 others wounded by members of the Basij, a hard-line Islamic militia loyal to Ahmadinejad, according to workers at Tehran's Rasoul Akram Hospital.

    Sources: M Clatchy Newspapers, The Associated Press, The New York Times

— Iran's Islamic regime has survived a devastating war with Iraq, strong American sanctions and international isolation in its 30 years of power. It has seen reformist and hard-line presidents come and go, with barely a flinch.

But now, public anger over the disputed election has given Iran's ruling elite a challenge of a new and unsettling kind: a growing opposition with apparent broad backing, headed by a leader who is one of their own and doesn't seem intimidated.

Iran's clergy-guided system does not appear to be in immediate danger. But the ruling clerics are paying close attention to the street anger, the same kind of popular unrest they harnessed themselves three decades ago to bring down the shah in their 1979 revolution.

There is a chance -- just a chance -- that the recent protests could turn into a serious, credible movement similar to an opposition party in another country, fundamentally changing a system now ruled by an all-powerful and untouchable theocracy.

There is also a chance, more likely, that to avoid such an outcome, the clerics will either jettison, or at minimum rein in and weaken, the president they have supported until now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For that to happen, the protests will almost certainly need to be sustained, spread to other cities and most importantly, attract enough clerical support to create high-level rifts.

"No one is very sure where it will go next," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. But, she says, "They have forced the regime to take a step back."

Still, the likelihood that Iran's clergy-ruled system will undergo a radical change remains dim.

Many Iranians feel strong kinship with the revolution, and they are reluctant to do anything that would trigger bloody upheaval again. Ahmadinejad has broad support among the poor and pious, who also venerate the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Yet Ahmadinejad's jousts with the West, his mishandling of the economy and, in particular, what many view as a blatant theft of the election, seem to be turning off growing segments of the middle class.

The recent protests are different from the country's last unrest, student-led protests in 1999 that fizzled. In particular, this go-round has attracted some of Iran's middle class, the same group that changed a religious movement in 1979 into a strong revolutionary force.

The leader of the street protesters this time, rival presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also different from the reformist student leaders of 1999. He is no sideline player or amateur but an experienced politician who was prime minister in the 1980s during Iran's tough war with Iraq, when Khamenei was president.

Mousavi does not appear intimidated by the supreme leader or his inner circle. Indeed, he can take his complaints right to them, and he can make their lives difficult if he begins to criticize the clerical system as complicit in protecting Ahmadinejad.

There's no way to know if Mousavi will challenge, or would even want to challenge, the Islamic system itself. He is a product of the revolution, never known as a reformer in the past. Yet he has already gone further than many expected.

The country's clerics may hold the final word.

Iran's power structure has always been opaque. Essentially it consists of a broad base of clerics supporting a ruling elite of high-level clerics, who have the power through various institutions to overturn the decisions any president makes.

At their top is the country's supreme leader, Khamenei, who controls the armed forces, other security forces and the nuclear program. He serves as final arbiter.

But even Khamenei must be careful, lest he lose the support of the clerics who empower him. A rift in the high levels of the clerical structure could endanger even him, the supremacy of his position and the clerical system itself.

Some clerics in key institutions such as the Guardian Council, which vets the election, are lockstep backers of Khamenei. But others, such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a fierce critic of both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, are wild cards.

The concessions that have already come from the clerics, especially the decision to re-examine the vote tally, show that at least some clerics want to keep the protests from escalating.

A line never crossed

So far, Mousavi has made no direct threat to the Islamic system.

But he hinted at it during a massive rally of supporters Monday, telling them to stand up to "this astonishing charade ... Otherwise, nothing will remain of people's trust in the government and the ruling system."

In Iran's postrevolutionary history, protesters have almost never crossed that red line and demonstrated against the ruling clerics themselves.

If they do, it would leave the clerics in a difficult spot: Choose between making political concessions to reformists or watching the unrest grow to ever-more dangerous levels.

Revolutionary change like that is still far away. But the contours of the once-unthinkable are now taking shape.

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