x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Week in review: Iran's conflicted republic

While Ayatollah Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the allies retrain a firm grip on the levers of state power, an important group of religious leaders have said the disputed presidential election and new government are illegitimate. Although President Ahmadinejad said the "people who claimed there was fraud didn't even have one document" to prove it, opposition leaders have published a dossier of accusations.

A month after Iran's contested presidential election, the forceful use of state power had shut down the most visible expressions of opposition, yet opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami remained defiant and on Thursday protesters once again took to the streets in their thousands. "Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr Ahmadinejad and their allies still have a monopoly over the most powerful levers of state," The New York Times said. "They control the police, the courts and the prosecutor's office. They control the military and the militia forces. And they retain the loyalty of a core group of powerful clerics and their conservative followers: for example, a hard-line cleric who heads the Qum Seminary, Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadai, said on Tuesday that 'the case is closed.' No one, not even restive clerics, is in a position to strip this group of its power in the short term. "But the long term is what is in play as this conflict evolves. " 'In the short term, the dictatorial aspect of the regime is going to have the upper hand,' said Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who has a network of contacts in Iran to keep him up to date. 'If there is a next election, I don't believe a lot of people will vote, simply because they don't trust the system. But at the same time, this reinforced the reform movement and democratic movement, which already existed, and really made them stronger, in my view, in the long term.' "For now, Iran's most hard-line forces have been emboldened. Mr Ahmadinejad's spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, has said elected institutions are anathema to a religious government and should be no more than window dressing." The Washington Post reported that in a televised national address "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged continued defiance of Western powers Tuesday and blamed foreigners for unrest following his disputed reelection, as opposition leaders demanded an end to a government crackdown and the release of detained protesters. " 'Our arrogant enemies tried to interfere in our domestic affairs in order to undermine these great elections,' Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast live on state television. 'What they did was very wrong, and some of our people were, unfortunately, hurt.' He was referring to post-election violence in which at least 20 protesters were reported killed and more than 100 injured by security forces.[...] "Ahmadinejad struck a conciliatory tone on domestic issues, saying that everyone is allowed to voice criticism in Iran. But he made no mention of the political opponents arrested over the past three weeks. And he said his challengers lacked proof for their allegations that the election was rigged. " 'The people who claimed there was fraud didn't even have one document' to prove it, he said, sitting in the garden of his presidential palace. 'We have no expectations from normal people, but we didn't expect politicians to question this great epic.' " The Wall Street Journal said: "Ahmadinejad pledged Tuesday to make changes to his team and 'respect' young people when his new government takes office after his disputed re-election. " 'The structure of government should change. The changes in the government will be considerable,' Ahmadinejad said in a televised address to the Iranian people. "He said his new government will put 'housing, employment and economic reform' on its agenda. " 'I am against police confrontation with people... We must respect people's tastes, especially the youth,' said Ahmadinejad." The Los Angeles Times reported: "A day after commanders of the Revolutionary Guard warned there was no middle ground in the dispute over the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the political party of one of Iran's most powerful clerics Monday defiantly issued a statement dismissing the vote. "The statement by the Kargozaran party all but cleared away weeks of ambiguity about the stance of the cleric, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. "Rafsanjani, who heads two government councils that oversee the supreme leader and mediate disputes between branches, openly backed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. "But he has not spoken definitively about the June 12 vote, which was validated after a partial recount by the powerful Guardian Council. " 'We declare that the result is unacceptable due to the unhealthy voting process, massive electoral fraud and the siding of the majority of the Guardian Council with a specific candidate,' the party's statement said. "It followed a declaration by a senior Revolutionary Guard commander that 'no one is impartial' in the dispute. " 'There are two currents - those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it,' Gen Yadollah Javani said at a Sunday news conference, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency." The Washington Post said: "Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate in last month's disputed election, released documents Saturday detailing a campaign of alleged fraud by supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that assured his reelection, while an adviser to Iran's supreme leader accused Mousavi of treason.[...] "In a 24-page document posted on his Web site, Mousavi's special committee studying election fraud accused influential Ahmadinejad supporters of handing out cash bonuses and food, increasing wages, printing millions of extra ballots and other acts in the run-up to the vote." The New York Times said: "An important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country's supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country's clerical establishment. "A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult. " 'This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,' said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. 'Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.' " Meanwhile, remarks by the US vice president were interpreted by some as sending a signal to Israel that the US would not object to an attack on Iran. Reporting from Washington Foreign Policy said: "As White House and Office of the Vice President aides formed a united front against widespread media speculation about a change in policy signaled by Vice President Joseph Biden's statement on a Sunday news show that Israel is a 'sovereign nation' that could 'determine for itself' how to deal with threats from Iran, analysts said that Israel may be wary of any such green light in any case. "In e-mails and phone calls today, administration officials insisted that Biden's comments were neither a signal of any change in policy, nor any sort of freelancing. Asked if Biden's remarks might have been part of an intentional messaging campaign to step up pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, officials gave an emphatic 'no.' But for all that, the remarks were widely seen both in Washington and abroad as a message intended less for Jerusalem than for Tehran. "Israel's 'biggest nightmare' is that one day the US government 'would call it and say "OK guys, take care of it,"' said Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri in a call Monday arranged by the Israeli Policy Forum, a US nonprofit organisation that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." In a commentary for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman considered the combined foreign policy challenges posed to the US by Russia and Iran and wrote: "Just a few months into his presidency, Mr Obama's policy of engagement with Iran has also been all but wrecked by the violent crackdown in that country. His advisers once day-dreamed about a dramatic presidential trip to Tehran, a speech before cheering students, a disarming smile for Mr Ahmadinejad. All of that is unthinkable now. Instead, Mr Obama is left having to cope with a wounded and aggressive Iranian government, intent on pressing ahead with its nuclear programme. The US president will now have to fend off the 'bomb Iran' lobby - but without being able to point to a plausible diplomatic alternative. [...] "[Faced with critics who see him as weak, naive and pushed around by foreigners,] the president will be under pressure to prove that he can be tough. But that can be a dangerous trap for a young, liberal president: similar pressures led John F Kennedy to take the first steps into Vietnam and President Carter to launch the disastrous effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. "The Bush administration tested to destruction the idea that American foreign policy should be based on confronting 'evil'. So this is indeed a moment for Mr Obama to be tough on foreign policy. He needs to be tough enough not to be panicked into macho gestures by the setbacks he has suffered in Russia and Iran."

pwoodward@thenational.ae