x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Week in review - end of the beginning

After close to two weeks of civil unrest, Ayatollah Khamenei told Iran's parliament that he "insisted and will insist on implementing the law on the election issue," according to the state-run media. "Neither the establishment nor the nation will yield to pressure at any cost." Protests which have continued since the results of the disputed presidential election were announced, have exposed a widespread loss of faith in the government's legitimacy and opened a rift in Iran's political establishment.

While state security services have effectively but brutally clamped down on Iran's protest movement bringing to an end the mass rallies that marked the first days of unrest after a disputed presidential election, a resolution to the Islamic republic's political turmoil is nowhere in sight. After close to two weeks of civil unrest, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told parliament that he "insisted and will insist on implementing the law on the election issue," according to the state-run media. "Neither the establishment nor the nation will yield to pressure at any cost." Protests which have continued since the results of the disputed presidential election were announced, have exposed a widespread loss of faith in the government's legitimacy and opened a rift inside Iran's political establishment. In Newsweek, Fareed Zacharia wrote: "The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists were presumed to have divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality, but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea, velayat-e faqih, rule by the Supreme Jurist, was at its heart. Last week that ideology suffered a fatal blow. "When the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a 'divine assessment,' he was using the key weapon of velayat-e faqih, divine sanction. Millions of Iranians didn't buy it, convinced that their votes - one of the key secular rights allowed them under Iran's religious system - had been stolen. Soon Khamenei was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran's supreme constitutional body, promised to investigate, meet with the candidates and recount some votes. Khamenei has realised that the regime's existence is at stake and has now hardened his position, but that cannot put things back together. It has become clear that in Iran today, legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular will. For three decades, the Iranian regime has wielded its power through its religious standing, effectively excommunicating those who defied it. This no longer works - and the mullahs know it. For millions, perhaps the majority of Iranians, the regime has lost its legitimacy." An analysis in Time magazine said: "Despite fantasies of insurrection in some of the more fevered Western media assessments of the confrontation, the balance of forces appears to militate against a knockout blow by either side. US-based Iran scholar Farideh Farhi, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader may not have the majority of the people behind them, 'but they do have support. They also have the resources of the state - both financial and military. So that makes them quite robust.' "At the same time, Farhi noted, the opposition coalition includes some very powerful figures from within the regime, who together command the support of a large section of the population. Thus, she warned, 'To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence.' More likely, she argued, is the pursuit of some sort of compromise that allows the regime to back down to some extent, without necessarily surrendering." In The Washington Post, David Ignatius noted: "[the protesters] have exposed the weakness of the clerical regime in a way that Iran's foreign adversaries - America, Israel, Saudi Arabia - never could. They have opened a fundamental split in the regime. The rulers will try to bind this wound with force, and salve it with concessions, but neither approach will make the wound heal... "As the mullahs' grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalise relations with Syria, and there's talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: 'Iran's allies in the region have to be wondering, "Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?" '" In The New York Times, Roger Cohen saw a weakening of the Islamic republic in terms of five principal factors. "The first is that the supreme leader's post - the apex of the structure conceived by the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - has been undermined. The keystone of the arch is now loose. "Khamenei, far from an arbiter with a Prophet-like authority, has looked more like a ruthless infighter. His word has been defied. At night, from rooftops, I've even heard people call for his death. The unthinkable has occurred. "The second is that the hypocritical but effective contract that bound society has been broken. The regime never had active support from more than 20 per cent of the population. But acquiescence was secured by using only highly targeted repression (leaving the majority free to go about its business), and by giving people a vote for the president every four years. "That's over. Repression will be broad and ferocious in the coming months. The acquiescent have already become the angry. You can't turn Iran into Burma: The resistance of a society this varied and savvy will be fierce. "The third is that a faction loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fiercely nationalistic and mystically religious, has made a power grab so bold that fissures in the establishment have become canyons. "Members of this faction include Hassan Taeb, the leader of the Basiji militia; Saeed Jalili, the head of the National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator; and Mojtaba Khamenei, the reclusive but influential son of the supreme leader. "They have their way for now, but the cost to Iran has been immense, and the rearguard action led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a father of the revolution, and Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader, will be intense. "The fourth is that Iran's international rhetoric, effective in Ahmadinejad's first term, will be far less so now. Every time he talks of justice and ethics, his two favourite words, video will roll of Neda Agha Soltan's murder and the regime's truncheon-wielding goons at work. The president may prove too much of a liability to preserve. "The fifth is that, at the very peak of its post-revolution population boom, the regime has lost a whole new generation - and particularly the women of that generation - by failing to adapt." Meanwhile, Rami G Khouri observed: "Most Arab governments dislike the current Iranian regime, so you would think they would be pleased to see it toppled, or tempered by its own people. Yet, if such change were to occur through street demonstrations choreographed via a web of digital communications, whispered messages, and rooftop religious chants in the middle of the night, Arab leaders of autocratic regimes would be unhappy - because they would sense their own vulnerability to similar mass political challenges. The fact is not lost on anyone that the Iranian regime effectively withstood and defied American-Israeli-European-UN pressure, threats and sanctions for years, but found itself much more vulnerable to the spontaneous rebellion of many of its own citizens who felt degraded by the falsification of election results by the government."

pwoodward@thenational.ae