Tehran Troubles

Alastair Crooke

An edited version has been published by the LA Times syndicate and also appears in The New York Times.

The troubles that followed the Iranian Presidential elections have – with rare exceptions – been misread by the Western press and policymakers; it was not an East European model ‘colour revolution’; nor was Presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi’s movement an uprising of liberal westernised sympathisers against the principles of the Iranian Revolution – albeit there were some who are hostile to the Revolution amongst his supporters. Iran’s Revolution is not about to implode as a result of this election, but we may expect changes at the top.

Recent events stemmed not from a genuine popular uprising, although plainly for some in north Tehran it was very real; but arose from a dispute between certain ‘Old Guard’ clergy, centred around Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who all assumed power in 1979, and who were deeply angered and threatened by President Ahmadinejad’s assault on their personal wealth, and by the latter’s claims that it was these senior clerics’ pursuit of their own narrow self-interest, at the expense of ordinary people, that was the root cause of Iran’s economic woes.

These prominent clerics, which included the circles around former President Khatami and Rafsanjani, wished to weaken and marginalise Ahmadinejad’s ability to pursue his populist attack on their privileged position – and to diminish too the political weight of the Revolutionary Guard, which they saw as increasingly at odds with their rôle and their interests.

It was this group of powerful clerics who stood behind the Mousawi challenge to Ahmadinejad. It was ex-President Khatami who was designated by this faction to propose to Mousawi that he stand; and who initially quietly offered the opposition leader the umbrella of their powerful political standing at the centre of Iran’s élite. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei was not party to the intent to prematurely declare victory by the opposition, and indeed gently questioned the wisdom of Mousavi’s candidature, but did not try to block it. There is a history of old tensions between Rafsanjani and Khameini.

Essentially, therefore, the events in Iran centred on a dispute about the role of some powerful clergy as well as an airing of old grievances between several strong personalities. This does not imply a leadership so ‘divided’ that it is about to fall. It has been a difficult clash; but Iran’s leaders have already begun to pull-together. Rafsanjani is well aware of the dangers of allowing himself to be isolated and excluded from the circle of power.

Both before, and during the election, Mousavi and his wife campaigned on the platform of their revolutionary credentials: They were ‘children of the Revolution’; they both participated in it, were ‘shaped by it’ and they remained disciples of Imam Khomeini. Their quarrel, they made clear, was with President Ahmadinejad and his conduct of government. They wanted changes in the government.

Mousavi’s casting of his mission as one of restoring the revolution to its original ideals was not only an internal message; it was also replayed widely in the Arab media. The problem has been that Mir Hussein’s discourse – as reflected by the West in its media – has been totally at odds with this interpretation. Signals received in the West have sustained the impression that Mir Hussein indeed was challenging Khamenei; was flouting the institutions of the Revolution, and was insisting on a re-run of the election – In short, that he was trying to mount a ‘colour’ revolution.

These two irreconcilable voices of the opposition have opened Mousavi and his prominent backers to the risk of severe repercussions internally. It has posed the question: Why was Mousavi deliberately using two discourses? Was the ‘colour revolution discourse’ just aimed at cementing the smaller pro-western anti-revolutionary parties to his main strands of support?

This seems unlikely: His two core support bases, reformist Islamist and the more secular ‘nationalist’ elements would have little stomach for any foreign involvement? Or, did he, or contacts of his eminent backers, with their international links, deliberately stimulate or orchestrate a ‘colour revolution’ style manifestation of western support for Mousavi?

If it was the latter, he is likely to face a backlash from many Iranians who will have resented a campaign that seemed to give ammunition to Iran’s enemies, and to further the desire of those in the West hoping for ‘soft regime change’.

In short, was Mousavi merely a victim of eminent clerics using him to pursue their objective of making it impossible for a ‘de-legitimised’ Ahmadinejad to become President; or was the true intention to emulate the pattern of an East European ‘Colour’ campaign? One Mousavi staffer is quoted by Fars Agency as saying that ‘It was a part of a pre-planned scenario by the Mojahedin Organisation and Musavi’s headquarters not to accept the result of the election, not abide by the law, to organise illegal gatherings, to try to influence people’s views and to allege that the election was not healthy. These tactics have resulted in people turning away from the reformists’.

These are, of course, the standard ‘colour revolution’ tactics: The movement planning a ‘colour revolution’ always declares itself successful in every election. It insists that anything which happens, that is not consistent with their victory claim, to be nothing more than further evidence of a rigged election, and Western media is marshalled in order to portray the opposition ‘victory’ as a fact to the people.

There are indications that some of Mousavi’s eminent backers directly encouraged Mousavi to pursue such tactics – It is to this evidence that Hussein Shari’atmadari, the influential editor of the conservative Keyhan newspaper on 4th July points in calling for both Mousavi and ex-President Khatami to face trial.

Paradoxically, these events undermine the western picture of Ahmadinejad as a mere tool of the clerical leadership, who stands with the repressive revolutionary guards and the Basij (the popular militia) against the liberalizing forces of Mir Hussein Mousawi. It is Ahmadinejad who is opposing the amassing of wealth and the pursuit of self-interest of some of the clerical élite; and it is a faction of that élite that sought to derail him.

There are clerics in both Qom and in Tehran however who, irrespective of their feelings towards Ahmadinejad, quietly share the latter’s view that some senior clerics may have failed to actualise the spirit of the Revolution – just as there are Rafsanjani allies in Qom too: the Assembly of Seminary Scholars and Researchers has rallied to the Mousavi side. The revolutionary guard, too, is probably much more radical in wanting genuine reform than is generally understood.  What we are dealing with here is a complex struggle – that divides classes – over the future course of the revolution; and it is a struggle for the future vision of Iran that is overlaid by deep personality differences, which in turn arouse deep passions.

All this however is unlikely to lead to a collapse in the ̩lite; or signal a coming end to the Revolution. More likely is a counter-reaction that will lead to Mousavi associates being isolated, and removed from power Рas emergent forces seek to inject new stimulus into the Revolution.

It remains to be seen how the recent events in Tehran will become understood by Iranians at the popular level; but already there is a public questioning of the veracity of such incidents such as the video of the death of the young woman Neda, and the authenticity of the ‘Twitter’ messages on which news outlets so heavily relied. A study by the website, www.chartingstocks.net, concluded that during three days after the election, the overwhelming majority of Tweets (over 30,000), were manipulated through a handful of accounts; all created within one day of the elections on June 13.

Initially, Rafsanjani expressed his unqualified support for Khamenei and distanced himself from further opposition illegal acts. It seemed that the Iranian leadership were pulling together; but on 4 July, Rafsanjani is quoted as saying that the election crisis reflected a power struggle at the ‘highest levels of the system’. In a carefully worded statement, he spoke both of the need to safeguard the revolutionary institutions, but warned that any ‘awakened consciousness’ could not be ignored. It is apparent that what is now pulling together is a powerful determination to exorcise the Rafsanjani-Khatami circles from power, fuelled by a growing anger as the evidence of their external links to the West is being carefully examined.

The impact of these events on Iranian foreign policy is likely to be the opposite of that foreseen by western commentators: The internal Iranian turmoil is unlikely directly to impinge on Iranian perspectives towards Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan or Syria. Policy on these issues lies with the Iranian National Security Council and, in terms of day-to-day management, lies mainly with the Revolutionary Guard under the control of the Supreme Leader. It is not likely that the Guards will feel paralysed by recent events, but rather the converse.

In many respects, the regional situation works to Iran’s advantage: Iraq remains at a crucial juncture; Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to be on the slide; Turkey has distanced itself from the European stance on Iran, and China never before has expressed such staunch solidarity with the Iranian regime. Neither Syria nor Hezbollah in Lebanon nor Hamas in Gaza are poised to disengage from Iran. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem questioned the legitimacy of the street protests in Tehran and warned that ‘Anyone betting on the fall of the Iranian regime will be a loser. The [1979] Islamic revolution is a reality, deeply rooted in Iran, and the international community must live with that.’

In practice, the impact is more likely to be apparent in western foreign policy than in Iranian policy. The narrative endorsed by so many in the West that the election was ‘stolen’ and that Ahmedinajad’s government therefore is ‘illegitimate’ has given ammunition to AIPAC and others in Europe to put obstacles in the path of President Obama. We shall need to wait and see how the President responds. He may be aware that what happened in Iran in recent weeks is unlikely to result in a contrite and less assertive Iranian attitude – as suggested by many commentators.

On 28 June, Ahmadinejad left hardly anything to interpretation when he stated in Tehran, ‘Without doubt, Iran’s new government will have a more decisive and firmer approach towards the West. This time the Iranian nation’s reply will be harsh and more decisive and will aim at making the West regret its ‘meddlesome stance’. Similarly, the Supreme Leader has made it clear that Iran will not easily forget the disparagement and condescension displayed towards the Islamic Republic in recent weeks. From the perspective of many in Iran, a ‘red line’ was crossed as western leaders seemed – from their perspective – to be trying to fan the dissent of Mousavi’s supporters into an instrument of de-legitimisation of the Revolution and of ‘soft regime change’.


  1. Seyavash R. wrote:

    Dear Mr. Crooke

    As an Iranian student I think you are misreading us too. The case is simple: I don’t like Ahmadinejad, So do many other Iranians who were in the streets these days. We know about the power struggle between different groups and we don’t care about this. We hate Ahmadinejad, we believe that the election was rigged, so we hate everyone who support Ahmadinejad and his (so called) election. It makes us angry when we think we voted for anyone but Ahmadinejad ad they didn’t care. This is the only reason of current events. Even the reformist couldn’t believe the reaction of people to the faked results and it lead them to the edge of the events. Right now, they are just following people, not because they like to, but because they have no idea about what is going on. It seems that all of elites are doing the same. Some (like feminists or student activists) tried to hijack the movement by adding some titles like “freedom” to it, but people clearly don’t accept them. they throw their printed placards away in the protests because that was not their goal. They just want their vote, and it’s not Ahmadinejad for sure.

  2. Samuel D'Souza wrote:

    Mr Seyavash you are certainly true to your name in terms of your ignorance and your unmitigated hatred for an honest man Ahmedinejad. My interpretation of Seyavash would be Black + Wahshee!!! Thats what your post portrays. You give no reason for your hatred of Ahmedinejad just like the Zionist jews who just hate him because he calls a spade a spade and lives a simple ordinary life inspite of holding the highest position in the government. You Mr Seyaposh or Black Wahshee cannot dream of achieveing a millionth of what Mr Ahmedinejad has achieved. You are like the lost souls who roam the streets of Niavaran aimless ignorant and longing to live like the Westerners when you just know not how blessed you are to be born in Iran but then who knows you may be Bahai or just a Zionist jew writing from Isra-ill.
    For an insignificant and miserable soul like you the advice is that if you are Muslim start practising the Islam of the Rahbar and if you are Zionist start praying that you are gone before Isra-ill vanishes from the face of this earth for it will certainly kill you hard to see your beloved Isra-ill dying most ignominiously.

  3. I Dukali wrote:

    Dear Mr. Crooke
    I find your reading of the Iranian situation to be very accurate. The events always struck me as more than the eye could see, yes there are midle and high class elite of people in Tehran, Shiraz, Asfahan… who would rather see the Islamic Revolution colapse, but in my opinion, they are a minority. The Islamic Revoluiton needed to convince the masses, that’s if they needed any more convincing that, the secularists rich elite living in the north of Tehran and other upmarket areas across Iran(Secularists and some reformists), do not hold Iran best intrest at hart, well atleast from the core values of the Islamic revolution perspective. I know that minds can run wild when it comes to conspiracy theories, but i think in this case the peaces of the puzlze are all there to be assembled. The strugle between some elements in the high clergy has been there for some time, and the difference of leadership between the likes of Mr Khatami and Mr Ahmadinejad is obvius, but only in means and not in ends, and it’s in this difference, that the westen media was in my opinion lead to believe the opposite,which only worked to expose the Secularists. I think that we will see a very anexed secularist and reformists in the future politics of Iran , and Just like Khomeini did with the comunist faction after the colapse of the Pahlavi Kingdom, it’s either the Isalamic Revolution’s way or the high way, and that is because 70% percent of the nation want it that way.

  4. Mehran wrote:

    Dear Mr Crooke

    I am an Iranian student too. I think your comment on Iranian election was one of the most accurate ones. I believe within the Western media and academia, you have the most reliable analysis. I have read your recent article in ‘red pepper’ about the Islamic Revolution and I was astonished by your deep understanding of the Iranian situation, Iranian philosophy, your points on Shariati, etc. Your point on the fundamental differences like Cartesian rationality and freedom of market are just brilliant.

    And by the way, I don’t hate anyone, neither am angry.

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