‘I am not a speck of dirt, I am a retired teacher’

Ervand Abrahamian writes about the protests in Iran

Iran has a healthy respect for crowds – and for good reason. Crowds brought about the 1906 constitutional revolution. Crowds prevented the Iranian parliament from submitting to a tsarist ultimatum in 1911. Crowds scuttled the 1919 Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which would have in effect incorporated the country into the British Empire. Crowds prevented General Reza Khan from imitating Ataturk and establishing a republic in 1924 – as a compromise he kept the monarchy but named himself shah. Crowds gave the communist Tudeh Party political clout in the brief period of political pluralism between 1941 and 1953. Crowds in 1951-53 gave Mohammad Mossadegh, the country’s national hero, the power both to take over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and to challenge the shah’s unconstitutional control of the armed forces. Crowds – aided by clerics – provided a backdrop to the 1953 military coup organised by the CIA and MI5. Crowds in 1963 began what soon became known as Khomeini’s Islamic Movement. And, of course, crowds played the central role in the drama of the 1979 Islamic Revolution – with the result that the new constitution enshrined the right of citizens to hold peaceful street demonstrations.

It was an awareness of the importance of crowds that prompted the regime to rig the presidential elections last month and thus inadvertently trigger the present crisis. In the months before the elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had seemed to be a shoe-in for a second four-year term. He enjoyed easy access to the mass media; his competitors were limited to websites and newspapers that were closed down at any provocation. He had won his first term after running a populist campaign against Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who for many epitomised the regime’s worst features – nepotism, cronyism and financial corruption. He enjoyed the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who shared his deep distrust of the West and probably his ambition to pursue a nuclear programme at all costs.

Ahmadinejad also had the backing of much of the military-clerical-commercial complex running the country: the Revolutionary Guard and the affiliated Basij militia with more than three million members; the clerical ‘foundations’, quasi-state organisations that employ hundreds of thousands; and the bazaar merchants with their lucrative contracts with central government. He had placed so many former colleagues from the Guard in key positions that some claimed he had carried out a quiet coup d’état. He had consolidated his support among the evangelicals, known in Iran as the ‘principalists’, by courting Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, an influential rightwing cleric in Qom who sits on Iran’s Assembly of Experts; by often referring to the imminent return of the Mahdi (the Messiah); by generously patronising the Jamkaran shrine where the Mahdi was supposedly last seen; and by claiming he had felt his divine presence when denouncing the US before the UN General Assembly. He had channelled the money from the recent oil bonanza into mosque construction, rural projects, government salaries and even cash handouts. He boasted that he was putting the oil money on people’s dining tables. Some American presidents win elections by cutting taxes. Ahmadinejad tried to win by handing out potatoes.

What is more, the reform movement seemed divided and disillusioned. In the 2005 elections, faced with a choice between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, many reformers had stayed at home. This time, Mohammad Khatami, the reform president between 1997 and 2005, was poised to run, but then withdrew, leaving the reform field to Mir Hussein Mousavi and Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi. The former, an architect turned academic, had not been seen in the political arena since 1989: between 1981 and 1989 he had served as Khomeini’s prime minister. In 1997, reformers had privately asked him to run for the presidency but he had deferred to Khatami. Like many members of the intelligentsia in his generation, Mousavi had entered politics fired by a mix of Islamic fervour and Fanonist anti-imperialism. But once the revolution had achieved its main goals – the overthrow of the shah and the declaration of independence from the US – many of these militants gradually came round to the view that the Islamic Republic would wither unless it allowed greater democracy, pluralism and individual rights. The reactionary clergy, they realised, now posed the main obstacle to Iranian modernity. Karroubi, a close associate of Khomeini who had served as the speaker of Parliament, head of the Association of Militant Clergy, and director of the Martyrs Foundation, shared many of these sentiments and in one respect was even more liberal, advocating greater privatisation of the economy. He had run in the 2005 elections, gaining much support in his home region, and after the elections had lodged an official complaint that the Revolutionary Guard had manipulated the vote in favour of Ahmadinejad. It was generally suspected that the Guardian Council, which has the authority to vet presidential candidates, permitted Karroubi and Mousavi, as well as Mohsen Rezai, the moderate-conservative former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, to run this time because it was confident that they had little chance.

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