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Why people power won't reform Iran


more pictures of todays riots and injuries #iranelection Flickr image by .faramarzIs Iran in the grip of a colour revolution? Are we witnessing people power and the prospects of regime change? Reports and public declarations on the events can be misleading.

There are two very different objectives being pursued by those who reject the official outcome of the 12 June election.

The reformist candidate, Mir-Hussein Mousavi (who is reported to have received 34 per cent of the vote against the 64% of the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad) has not called for a revolution. As a matter of fact he is among the founders of the Islamic regime.

Mousavi was Iran's Prime Minister for eight years while Iran was engaged in a bloody war with Iraq. Some of the most aggressive foreign policy initiatives which won Iran a pariah status were carried out under his watch, including military and training support for Hizbullah in Lebanon. He was an ardent advocate of the hostage taking of US personnel at the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 which sent US-Iran relations into a nosedive.

People change, and Mousavi has clearly modified his views. He no longer advocates a confrontational course with the United States and has pointed to Ahmadinejad's foreign policy faux pas as an embarrassment to the Iranian nation. Mousavi's measured and dignified statements on Iran's international standing and social liberties have resonated among the population. But has Mousavi promised anything more than the past president Khatami had achieved?

Mousavi has not advocated any fundamental change. He has not questioned the supremacy of the Supreme Leader, who is the Head of the State and Commander in Chief of the armed forces and can overrule the three pillars of the state. He has not hinted at any change in Iran's nuclear policy or a rapprochement with the United States (or with the vaguely-defined international community). All he has promised is a more pragmatic approach in foreign and domestic policy making.

Given the choice between pragmatism and revolutionary idealism, it is no surprise that many observers and the Iranian electorate have become excited about Mousavi. But this does not explain the intensity of the street demonstrations in his support and the casualties that green-band protestors have suffered.

The explanation for the intensity of the riots and its underlying dynamics may be found in the pent-up energy and aspirations of the Iranian youth.

Mousavi's electoral campaign offered an opening for disenchanted youth to challenge the Islamic regime. Voting for Mousavi, wearing the green bands that have become the trademark of his supporters, and defying bans on public rallies are not simply the manifestations of the reform movement. This is going beyond reform. The demonstrators are now chanting 'down with the dictator' and 'down with Khamenei' [the Supreme Leader]. Street riots in Tehran are manifestations of an all-out revolt against the regime.

The internet-savvy youth in Tehran and other major cities who found a rare opportunity to express their desire for social and political freedom were terribly disappointed by the obviously rigged election results. That disappointment is now being played out in the streets in open, albeit suicidal, defiance of the regime.

Unfortunately for these brave souls, the Islamic regime is in no mode to compromise. Too much rides on the outcome of the riots. Granting a full recount of votes, as Mousavi has demanded, would be seen as a sign of weakness. Predictably the Supreme Leader Khamenei has warned that any blood shed as a result of continued protest will be on the hands of the reformists.

The Islamic regime, led by the hardline faction of the élite, has already demonstrated its willingness to use brutal force to suppress dissent. The regime enjoys the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards and the feared Basij militia. These forces are as much about security as about ideological indoctrination.

In addition, there are vast segments of society that have a vested interest in the survival of the regime and will be mobilised in its defence if necessary. To make matters worse for the anti-regime protestors, the reformist leadership is bound to betray them.

This is a hopeless situation for the protestors who have no leadership and no overwhelming popular support.

Shahram AkbarzadehA/Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne, and co-author of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East.

Topic tags: shahram akbarzadeh, iran, elections, reformist, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad, Khatami



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Existing comments

Thanks for the article to Prof Akbarzadeh. But I would appreciate some detail on the "obvious" rigging of the election. By whom? Where? To what extent? I understand that the Supreme Leader Khameni has conceded that there were irregularities but not enough to affect the result. And the daily press has given a couple of local examples. I am tempted to see this conflict as an old one between a somewhat slick urban youthful Teheran and conservative perhaps largely rural regions. It wouldn't be the first time the urban sophisticates have been stymied and frustrated by the weight of the rural masses and those who claim their mandate. Think China 1989, demonstrators who perhaps comported themselves with a little more dignity and who should not be forgotten. One does wonder about the quality of the leadership in Teheran. I see precisely what Prof Akbarzadeh means.

Brian Dethridge | 24 June 2009  

Thanks, Professor Akbarzadeh. It was enjoyable to read something other than the typical article on the current Iranian situation.

Ashlea | 25 June 2009  

What is really sad about the events is that some people get carried away with the idea that 'change is coming'. The youth are enthusiastic and full of energy. This can blind them to the formidable barriers to change. This probably sounds very pessimistic, and I suppose I would not have said this a few years ago. But this revolt was doomed from the beginning. I don't see how a middle/upper class revolt can shake a regime that still enjoys support in the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and has no shame in using the most extreme forms of violence against its own population.

Shahram Akbarzadeh | 30 June 2009  

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