Iran's election debacle gives the ruling Ayatollahs a black eye

Published on Thursday, July 9, 2009

Iran's election debacle gives the ruling Ayatollahs a black eye 

A.H. Jaffor Ullah


Iran's ruling clerics may erroneously think that their nation elects its president democratically; however, it is far from that.  The only semblance of democracy lies in the fact that Iranians go to poll to cast their ballots.  And that is where the similarity ends.  After the ousting of Shah of Iran in 1979 the clergies have instituted a foolproof system of governance where a select few Ayatollahs are calling the shot.


Truly, Iranians are being ruled theocratically by a coterie of clerics.  At the apex is the ultimate arbiter of any dispute - the grand Ayatollah who thinks he was divinely ordained to decide what is best for 70 million Iranians.  He is so powerful that no one could dare to challenge his holy authority let alone disobey him. Underneath him is a council of twelve clerics that has multifarious duty.  The name of this powerful body is "Guardian Council" who by putting its seal of approval can make anything kosher in Iran. The Guardian Council is so powerful that it decides who could run in any national election.  In case you do not know, the members of the "Guardian Council" and the supreme Ayatollah are not elected by Iranians. In the recent presidential election that took place on June 12, 2009, the "Guardian Council" had openly sided with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare him the winner when the opposition had alleged that the election was rigged a big time.


The clerics have tacitly supported the candidacy of the hardliner candidate Ahmadinejad not only in this election but also in the previous election held four years ago in 2005.  In the last 30 years since when Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran, the clerics are calling all the shots.  Since 1988 a rift, which was not quite apparent, had developed among the ruling clerics in Iran.  A group of clerics favored openness in Iranian society.  This group also wanted to open dialogue with the West.  However, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took the baton after Ayatollah Khomeini had died, took a different posture.  The hardliner clerics who are members of the "Guardian Council" opposed the reformist clerics.  This rift was quite apparent when Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani ran unsuccessfully to become the president in 2005.  The hardliner clerics placed their man - a little known activist by the name Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  In the last 4 years, the tenor of Teheran had changed dramatically.  President Ahmadinejad spared no time to lambaste the West especially America, Great Britain, etc., along with Israel.  The hardliner president also questioned the veracity of holocaust during the WWII in which an estimated 6 million Jews were exterminated in occupied European nations by the Nazis.


In the aftermath of Iraq-Iran War Iranians had gone through a soul searching since an estimated 1 million Iranians had died and severely injured in the bloody war.  A reformist cleric, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, was elected as the president who instituted many pro-business policies to rebuild and strengthen the war-ravaged economy without sacrificing the ideology of the revolution.  Rafsanjani was in office until 1997. 


After Rafsanjani's term expired, another reform-minded clergy by the name Mohammad Khatami was elected as the president with the blessings of the "Guardian Council" and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Khatami advocated more reform in the Iranian society supporting freedom of expression, tolerance, constructive diplomacy with EU and Asian nations, etc. He also promoted foreign investment in Iran.  However, the ruling clerics have viewed Khatami's term as being mediocre because the economic growth was not robust and some clerics thought the Islamic Republic was heading in the wrong direction.  Therefore, both the Supreme leader and the members of the "Guardian Council" opted for a hardliner candidate during 2005 presidential election. 


The presidential election of 2005 was a watershed in post Khomeini Iran.  The reform-minded oligarchs (read clerics) had supported the candidacy of Rafsanjani but the hardliner oligarchs lent their support to Ahmadinejad.  Rafsanjani was soundly defeated by the hardliner candidate.  During Ahmadinejad's four-year rule the Iranians saw how the economy soured in a short span of time.  Also, the tough rhetoric of Ahmadinejad vis-à-vis the West was not liked by many reformist-minded Iranians.  In this age of "New World Order" many Iranians thought the nation had to open up to the rest of the world but they realized that under a hardliner president who was bogged down in an ideological war with the West the era of glasnost is not near.  Under this dire backdrop another reformist cleric, Mir Hussein Mousavi, announced his candidacy to run for the office of presidency in Iran.


The reformist Iranians especially in the urban area began to rally behind Mousavi.  The candidacy of Mousavi had received a jolt when the two former presidents namely, Rafsanjani and Khatami, joined forces with the reformist candidate.  Similar to what had happened to Barack Obama during the campaign in 2008, there was optimism among the liberal constituents in Iran who thought Mousavi may win the election because many Iranians were tired of the tirades made by Ahmadinejad against the West. These urbanites especially the young Iranians who are Internet savvy felt that their motherland needs a change and they naturally gravitated towards Mousavi camp.


The 10th presidential election was held on June 12, 2009 in which a handful of candidates had contested in all precincts.  However, all eyes were on 2 candidates, namely, Ahmadinejad who represented the hardliner constituents and Mousavi who represented the liberal constituents. Unlike other nations, there weren't any credible opinion polls taken before election to gauge in what direction the voters were swaying.  However, the western media were reporting that Mousavi may come out winner in the densely populated urban areas while Ahmadinejad may fare better among rural and traditional voters.


A day after the election, the department of interior, which conducted the election, came out with the results which put the hardliner candidate, Ahmadinejad, a clear winner with an astounding 66% of the popular vote.  The reformists however cried foul hearing the news.  Mousavi and his camp alleged that a massive rigging by the officials have decided the outcome of the election.  Also, the swiftness with which the election result was published by the authority also puzzled many Iranians.  On top of it, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had characterized the victory of Ahmadinejad as being a "divine assessment." Talk about impartiality on the part of Ali Khamenei! 


There were many a protest movement in which Iranians in Teheran took to the street and there was violence.  A conservative estimate puts the casualty over two dozens being dead and many more severely injured.  Thanks to the Internet for the mass scale distribution of protest against the Ayatollahs.  Many Iranians were savvy enough to upload the videos of the protest movement in YouTube and at Flicker site.  The government had clamped down on foreign press but Iranians with the help of the Internet kept uploading scenes from the "war zone." 


From the look of it we thought this bloody confrontation between Mousavi's force and the government's law and order department could continue; however, as the days wore by, the government force was able to diffuse the movement some how.  Mousavi was threatened by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who used some tough language to shift the blame for this debacle.  The winner, Ahmadinejad, was not sitting on the sideline either; he characterized the election as one of the fairest one.


When the entire world was viewing the police brutality in the streets of Teheran, the "Guardian Council" announced on June 16, 2009 that it would recount 10% of the votes, admitting that there were irregularities. However, Mousavi stated that a recount would not be sufficient because 14 million unused ballots were missing, giving the Interior Ministry an opportunity to manipulate the results.  Three days later on June 19, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the pro-Mousavi demonstrations as illegal and protesters the next day were met with stiff resistance from government forces, with many reported deaths.


On July 7, 2009 Mousavi renewed a demand for a complete re-run of the presidential election.  This appeal may have fallen into deaf air because there was no immediate reaction from the government.  President Ahmadinejad declared on national television that the contests were clean, fair, and marked the start of a new era.


As Ahmadinejad delivered his speech in national TV, Iranians in many parts of Tehran could be heard shouting from their rooftops, "death to the dictator" and "God is great."  These actions have become a symbol of defiance since the elections.  Mir Hussein Mousavi, who claims to have won the June 12 election, is struggling for a way to channel the widespread discontent since the vote but which has since been crushed by police, Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia's brute force and harsh measure.    Mousavi's speech came at a time when as the country's top three reformist leaders sought to rekindle their opposition movement, demanding that ruling Ayatollahs end the heavy "security atmosphere" imposed after the elections and free those detained during the protesting. 


Mousavi hinted on July 6, 2009 that he may move away from the tactic of protests and create a political party to push his liberal agendas in what he called "a legal framework." On the same day he met with the other top stars of the reform movement — former President Mohammad Khatami and Mahdi Karroubi, another election candidate — in a show of unity.  Jointly, they warned Iran's clerical leadership that if the security crackdown continues, it "will only lead to radicalization of political activities."


At this point it is difficult to predict in which direction the political wind will be blowing in Iran.  If the ruling clergy enforces Draconian measure to quell the protest movement organized by the reformist camp, a number of scenarios could be painted.  At its worst, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, a powerful clergy in Iran who sided with the Mousavi camp, may challenge the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Rough times are ahead for Iran, undoubtedly.


In summary, two groups of Ayatollahs are fighting to capture the seat of power in Tehran.  From the look of it, it seems as if the hardliners are in control at this point. Would the supreme leader annul the June 12 election to keep dissident clergies under his fold?  Stay tuned.  No one really knows what the next act would be like.  This is the fight between two groups of Mullahs what the West was looking forward to for a long time.  One thing is for sure —there will be casualties.  Will Iran implode as these two groups of clergies fight it out for the control of political power? --------------- Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

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