Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Khamenei rides a storm in a tea cup

By M K Bhadrakumar

Asia Times Online

Western capitals must make a difficult choice: how long to

pin hopes on the eruption of a "color" revolution in

Tehran? The burden falls almost entirely on Europe, since

Washington has different priorities.

The United States cannot afford to be spotted in the

barricades on the frontline of any attempt to prise open

the Iranian regime at this delicate point in Middle Eastern

politics. Tehran will not forgive for another quarter

century at least any such American folly, and the Barack

Obama administration has no intentions of committing

hara-kiri, either.

Within Europe, it is unclear who is spearheading the charge

of the light brigade. No country seems to want to be seen

up front - except the Czech Republic, which has no choice,

since it currently chairs the rotating European Union

presidency. But then, most European countries would

probably seldom fail the chance to be Tehran's bete noire,

but will, true to a pattern, swiftly fall back the moment

they estimate that the law of diminishing returns is at

work and continued tirades might jeopardize lucrative

commercial interests in Iran.

Tens of thousands of supporters of defeated presidential

candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi planned to keep up their

street protests in Tehran on Wednesday, even though the

authorities have promised a partial recount of Friday's

vote that saw incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad win another

four-year term.

No scope for a color revolution Europe has no real

experience in staging color revolutions. This has been the

forte of the Americans - conceptualized in the post-Soviet

space in Eurasia by the Bill Clinton administration and

subsequently grasped by the neo-conservatives in the George

W Bush team. Europeans were curious bystanders in Georgia,

Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. France to some extent might have

been on the inside track over Lebanon, but then the result

turned out to be a mish-mash.

At any rate, to borrow Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's

famous words in a philosophical context, staging a color

revolution in Tehran is not like breaking an egg. The signs

are that the color revolution struggling to be born on the

streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage. Ahmadinejad's

participation at the summit meeting of the Shanghai

Cooperation Organization (SCO) at Yekaterinburg, Russia, on

Tuesday was possible only with the tacit acquiescence of

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was an important decision

to take at a critical juncture. Earlier reports in the

Western media speculated that Ahmadinejad might stand down

in view of the developing political situation.

Evidently, the regime decided that Tehran should not in any

way project an atmosphere of crisis as that would only play

into the hands of the proponents of a color revolution

within Iran and abroad. To quote well-known Iranian

dissident Ibrahim Yazdi, "Certainly, the gap inside Iran,

politically, will be widened. Our main concern is how to

keep the enthusiasm that was created for the election

alive, in order to monitor and constrain the power of the

government. The only way to counter it is the power of the

people. We need to organize them."

How is the regime coping? Clearly, Khamenei is in the

driving seat and is in control of the state apparatus. He

is skillfully navigating the regime through the choppy

waters. Khamenei's meeting with the principal opposition

candidate in the election, Mousavi, merits attention. The

official statement makes out certain key points. First,

Khamenei indicated unambiguously to Mousavi that the regime

would not tolerate any street protests and he must

therefore "channel protests through legal bodies". It now

becomes extremely difficult for Mousavi to be seen as

defying the Supreme Leader's diktat.

Second, Khamenei suggested that there was nothing

extraordinary about the present situation, insofar as "in

previous elections also, there were some people and

candidates who had some problems". But they pursued the

matter through the Guardians Council, which in any case has

to approve the conduct of the presidential election in


Mousavi's existential choice However, it is the third point

made by Khamenei that is most crucial. He pointed a finger

at the "enemies' provocative actions" as well as "certain

behind-the-stage plots" which aimed to "create chaos in

Iran". Khamenei then went on most meaningfully to remind

Mousavi that "your [Mousavi's] character is different from

such people and it is necessary that you pursue the

problems through calm".

The highly personal remark had a touch of admonition, but

also the hint of a fulsome invitation to reasoning that

could open up doors leading into pleasant pathways along

which the two interlocutors known to each other for long,

after all, could take a stroll. It was a very Persian


Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of their old

association, when the latter served as Iran's prime

minister under him and the two were not only close

comrades-in-arms for the preservation of the Iranian

revolution through the critical years of the Iran-Iraq war

in the 1980s but also worked together to frustrate the

cunning ploys of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as the

powerful speaker of the Majlis (parliament) constantly

conspired to arrogate state power.

During that period, Rafsanjani constantly sniped at Mousavi

and tried to undercut him, although he enjoyed Ayatollah

Ruhollah Khomeini's endorsement. On numerous occasions,

Rafsanjani gave him hell on the floor of the Majlis,

embarrassing him when he sought parliamentary approval for

his moves, whittling down his authority to execute his

policy and systematically undermining his political

standing in public opinion.

Rafsanjani had already begun jockeying for position in

expectation of the post-Khomeini era. As Khomeini fell ill,

Rafsanjani became more assertive. Mousavi, in fact, found

himself identifying with the Iranian revolutionaries (like

Ahmadinejad), who were appalled by Rafsanjani's suggestion

to Khomeini to "drink from the chalice of poison" and order

a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war that effectively meant

allowing Saddam Hussein the escape route. Those were

tumultuous times when the fate of the Iranian revolution of

1979 hung by a thread.

The main sticking point was the economic policy of the

Mousavi government. Rafsanjani sought a policy that catered

to the Tehran bazaar, which would benefit his family

members as well as large sections of the corrupt clergy,

who were aligned with him. But Mousavi opted for state

control of the economy and insisted he was acting in

accordance with the ideals of the revolution and Khomeini's

wishes. What Rafsanjani proposed during those difficult

years was to have the latitude for his clan and other

hangers-on to do some war profiteering. Mousavi's answer

was a firm "no", and he stuck to the austere economic


When the eight-year war with Iraq ended in August 1988,

Rafsanjani proposed that Iran should dilute its

revolutionary ideals and take Western help for

reconstruction. (The Rafsanjani family initially made its

fortune by exporting Iranian products such as pistachio

nuts and carpets to the US.) But Mousavi firmly disagreed

and refused to go against the grain of the revolution.

Finally, when the levers of power were passed into his

hands as president, Rafsanjani's wrath knew no bounds.

Vindictive by nature, he literally drove Mousavi into

political exile. The ex-prime minister summarily abandoned

politics and returned to his profession of architecture and


Thus, Khamenei all but jogged Mousavi's memory at their

meeting in Tehran by suggesting that the latter should not

join hands with Rafsanjani against him. He suggested that

Rafsanjani and his circles are simply using him as a

political ladder. Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of

his old constituency. Indeed, as prime minister (1981-89),

Mousavi had an impeccable reputation as a hardliner - every

bit as much as the "international community" regards

Ahmadinejad today. In a memorable article penned in 1988,

the Economist magazine described him as a "firm radical".

Khamenei folded up his conversation with Mousavi by

"admiring" the massive turnout in Friday's election and

"once again underlining its healthy and calm nature". In a

subtle way, he allowed Mousavi to have a peep into his

thought processes about the current situation.

Meanwhile, Khamenei has directed the Guardians Council to

review the appeals about the election and to give its

opinion within a week to 10 days. He also held a joint

meeting with the representatives of the four candidates in

the election and officials from the 12-member Guardians

Council and the Interior Ministry. At the meeting, Khamenei

used harsh language describing the street protesters as

"vandals" for damaging state property. He told the

candidates' supporters to distance themselves from the

"vandals" and to support peace in the country as the

election "should not cause divisions".

Khamenei added, "If the election result had been different,

even then such incidents would have occurred" as "some

people" are against the unity of the Iranian nation and the

solidarity of the Islamic system. He offered that a partial

recount of the votes in the elections could be arranged, if

necessary. But he concluded by passing his own judgment,

"Those in charge of supervising the elections are always

trustworthy people."

Tehran rebuffs Europe Alongside, Tehran has rebuffed

European attempts to interfere. This has been done at the

appropriate diplomatic level with the Foreign Ministry

calling in the envoys of Britain, France, Germany, Italy

and the Netherlands. Besides, a "unity rally" held in

Tehran by supporters of Ahmadinejad condemned "enemies,

particularly the US, Britain and Israel ... [for]

interfering in Iran's internal affairs, plotting against

the government and giving media support to the enemy

groups, rioters and social and political hooligans who are

trying to fuel chaos in the Islamic Republic".

All in all, therefore, Western capitals will take note that

the hope that a color revolution might overturn

Ahmadinejad's victory or in a best-case scenario lead to

the toppling of the Iranian regime is far-fetched and

almost fanciful. The extent of the street protests has come

down in Tehran, although uncertainties remain. The hope

that there would be a countrywide popular uprising seems

also to be far-fetched.

If Rafsanjani's astute political temperament is any guide,

he will lie very low and generally avoid being noticed for

a while. Meanwhile, he will do some intense networking with

his contacts in the power apparatus, putting out his

extraordinary political antennae and making a careful

assessment as to the scope for compromise with the powers

that be and when he should make his move. He should first

live to fight another day. That may require making

compromises. After all, politics is the art of the

possible. So, without batting an eyelid, he may turn his

back on Mousavi and former president Mohammed Khatami, who

were, after all, his temporary allies in the recent saga.

Will he get another chance? That is a big question. Time

seems to have run out for Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad has

repeatedly projected an "anti-corruption" drive as a major

plank of his new presidency. Was that mere election

rhetoric, or will he go for the Rafsanjani family, which

has many skeletons in its cupboard? Everything depends on

what Khamenei thinks. He may assess that this time the

"Shark" went too far to plot a lethal attack that might

have succeeded. Or, he might let bygones be bygones.

Rafsanjani is undoubtedly the West's favorite poster boy

-and of the "pro-West" Arab authoritarian rulers in the

region. The difficult choice for European capitals is how

much propaganda mileage to extract at this stage before

moving on. Once US-Iranian engagement begins, European

companies will scramble for oil contracts. If the European

Union's ill-starred Nabucco gas pipeline project has a

fighting chance to materialize, that will depend primarily

on gaining access to Iranian gas.

Also, European capitals will have noted that there is great

reticence on the part of Middle Eastern countries to point

fingers at Tehran for not practicing Western style

democracy. Autocratic Arab regimes will be nervous that if

the contagious disease of the color revolution were to

appear in Iran, it might eventually spread on the Middle

Eastern political landscape. Unsurprisingly, the lone

exception has been Israel (and its media friends), which

has a vested interest in scuttling US-Iran engagement and

will not easily pass up an opportunity to malign


On the other hand, three important neighbors of Iran

-Pakistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan - promptly greeted

Ahmadinejad, quite ahead of protocol requirements to do so.

Ahmadinejad was warmly greeted at the SCO summit, too.

"Iran, Russia and China are three major economic and

political poles attending the [SCO] summit ... [They] play

important roles in dealing with the world's current and

upcoming developments," Ahmadinejad was reported as saying

in the People's Daily and it also highlighted Ahmadinejad's

tirade against the "unipolar world order" in his speech. On

its part, Moscow said in a structured statement, "The

Iranian elections are the internal affair of Iran. We

welcome the fact that elections took place, we welcome the

new president on Russian soil and see it as symbolic that

he made his first visit [as newly-elected president] to

Russia. This allows hope for progress in bilateral

relations." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev scheduled a

bilateral with Ahmadinejad at Yekaterinburg.

Khamenei has made it clear in recent weeks that the Obama

administration will meet a resolute interlocutor when

US-Iran direct negotiations begin shortly. No amount of

Western pressure tactics on the democracy plank is going to

soften up Khamenei. With Ahmadinejad continuing as

president for a second term, Khamenei has his chosen team

in position.

The Obama administration faces difficult choices. The stir

in Tehran is fast becoming a "Twitter revolution". No such

thing has ever happened there, despite the best efforts of

former US vice president Dick Cheney and his covert team

for well over four years for triggering "regime change".

The US is sensing the potential of a "Twitter revolution"

in Iran. Earlier, in Moldova, the potential of Twitter to

trigger convulsions in popular moods was studied. The US

State Department confirmed on Tuesday it had contacted

Twitter to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that would

have cut daytime service to Iranians. But a department

spokesman denied that the contacts with Twitter amounted to

meddling in Iran's internal affairs - US sensitivity about

causing annoyance to the Iranian regime is self-evident.

At the same time, Obama has to worry that unrest in Iran

may scuttle his plans to commence direct engagement with

Tehran within the coming days or weeks. On the contrary, he

must face the music from the influential Israel lobby in

the US, which is unhappy that Washington is not pressing

the pedal hard enough on a color revolution in Iran. But

Obama is treading softly. He said late on Tuesday there

appeared to be no policy differences between Ahmadinejad

and Mousavi. "The difference between Ahmadinejad and

Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as

great as has been advertised. Either way, we are going to

be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically

been hostile to the United States."

That's a cleverly drafted formulation. Prima facie, Obama

pleases the regime in Tehran insofar as he appears

"stand-offish" as to what ensues through the coming days by

way of the street protests or out of the deliberations of

Iran's Guardians Council. Fair enough. But, on the other

hand, Obama also is smartly neutralizing any allegation

that the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mousavi phenomenon is in any

way to be branded by the Iranian regime as "pro-US".

Obama's remark helps the Iranian opposition to maintain

that its motivations are purely driven by Iran's national


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