With the historical Friday Prayer sermon given by former president and current chair of the Council of Experts and Expediency Discernment Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Jul. 17, and the riposte by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei three days later, lines have been drawn in unprecedented ways in Iran.
It is now clear that the Islamic Republic’s ever-present political frictions and cleavages can no longer be managed in ways they have been in the past, either through behind-the-scenes lobbying at the top or selective repression or some combination of the two.
Until the current crisis, politicians like Rafsanjani who have defined the political center in Iran have always sided with the security establishment because of their preeminent concern for the survival of the Islamic republic.
But, on Jul. 17, Rafsanjani made clear that, beyond his longstanding disagreements with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, he now believes that the approach taken by the government and security establishment in addressing the post-election crisis threatens the very survival of the system.
Recalling the vision of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani insisted that "without the people, there is no Islamic rule… The title of Islamic Republic is not used as a formality. It is both Islamic and a republic. They have to be together… If it loses its republican aspect, [the Islamic Republic] will not be realized. …[W]ithout people and their vote there would be no Islamic system."
That another former president, Mohammad Khatami, followed Rafsanjani with his own unprecedented call Saturday for a national referendum on the legitimacy of the election also signaled the crisis has moved to a new stage.
The inability of the Ahmadinejad government to put an end to or manage street demonstrations and elite dissent is matched by its intransigence in finding non-violent ways to address popular anger over the results of the election.
That intransigence was reaffirmed by Khamenei’s speech Monday.
In contrast to Rafsanjani’s call for unity, which appealed to the government to open the public space for dialogue, free prisoners, and redress the harm inflicted on the families of those whose loved ones have been killed or have disappeared, Khamenei issued threats.
His rebuke was directed not only to the protestors who have taken to the streets – "rioters", he called them — but also to those among the elite who have remained silent in the confrontation between Ahmadinejad’s government and what has transformed itself from a reformist into an opposition movement, and which, with the entry of Rafsanjani, has now incorporated the center of the political spectrum.
Khamenei’s warning to Iranian officials was unambiguous, demanding that they be careful about "what they say and what they do not say" and recognize that "they are facing a great test and not successfully passing the test is not only falling behind for a year; it is [their] downfall."
Adding to the drama was the immediate appearance on Rafsanjani’s personal website of a headline in which he recalled the early years of the revolution. "The term fear has no meaning for us," it said. "For every generation, there is a test. Issues related to society and people are the most important tests."
Khamenei and the hardliners he supports insist on seeing the ongoing crisis as the result of foreign machinations or the latest in a series of factional fights that have plagued the Islamic Republic since the beginning.
They fail to recognize the dangerous and widening rift that has opened up between a significant segment of the Iranian population and the state, a rift that Rafsanjani said can be mended only through a serious and concerted effort to overcome the "doubt" created by the election and its aftermath.
As such, lines have been drawn with each side standing its ground and effectively moving the country toward political paralysis.
At this point, the opacity of the Iranian political system makes the assessment of the resources that each side brings into this conflict difficult.
Clearly, Khamenei and his supporters feel they have enough firepower to manage and eventually overcome the crisis, which, as Rafsanjani noted, is the most significant since the inception of the Islamic Republic.
But their calculations have been wrong before. They clearly failed to anticipate the reaction of other candidates – not to mention a significant part of the population — to the election results. They may once again be underestimating the extent and determination of the forces arrayed against them, seemingly more united in opposition to Ahmadinejad’s presidency than a month ago, precisely because of the way they handled both the election and its aftermath.
Khamenei and his supporters seem to believe that they can ride out the current challenge through intransigence and repression, as the regime has done during previous crises.
In all likelihood, he is also haunted by events that culminated in the 1979 revolution, identifying the Shah’s eventual decision to stand down in the face of massive protests – when he famously said he had heard the voice of the revolution — as the decisive variable in the monarchy’s collapse.
Yet, the hardliners are now presented with two challenges for which their understanding of the past may not provide sound guidance.
Their short-term interest is to end the protests, something they have manifestly failed so far to achieve. Escalating the repression at this point, however, may risk creating or aggravating rifts within the security establishment itself.
Moreover, increased repression is likely to make the longer-term task of governing Iran in ways that address the deep grievances generated by the mismanagement of the election and its aftermath significantly more difficult.
It may also create deeper rifts, not only between the government and an increasingly unified, if eclectic, opposition that now includes presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, but also between the Islamic system in its entirety and a significant sector of the population.
According to Abbas Abdi, an astute observer of Iranian politics who supported Karroubi in the election, "The rifts that in the future are difficult and even impossible to repair can today be repaired at much lower cost."
To be sure, the opposition is not without its dilemmas, too. Clearly, the heavy hand of the state has not only deepened rifts between the state and society, it is also increasing on an almost daily basis demands by many protestors for fundamental changes in the Islamic system.
The power of the currently eclectic opposition derives from the unity generated by popular dissatisfaction with the election and its aftermath. That unity could suffer as various components become radicalized in the face of increased repression.
So far, though, it is the eclecticism and unity of the movement that has allowed it to weather the security establishment’s onslaughts far beyond anyone’s expectations.
(Inter Press Service)