07.23.09

Momentum Shifts to Iran's Reformers

Tehran’s opposition has regained its edge with smarter, more creative protests and even some senior army officers. Reza Aslan on why the regime is beginning to fear a repeat of the 1979 revolution.

It seems the momentum in Iran is once again shifting toward the reformists.

A week after Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, lambasted the regime’s handling of the election crisis and demanded the release of demonstrators detained by the Revolutionary Guard, fresh protests have again erupted throughout the country.

The reformists in the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition are getting bolder in their quest to turn the tide against the regime.

On Monday, hundreds of people gathered in Daneshjou Square in the city of Shiraz, about 500 miles south of Tehran, to chant “Down with the Dictator!” and set fire to photos of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thousands more marched to the tomb of Shah Chiragh, one of Shiraz’s most magnificent mausoleums, to light candles in memory of those who have lost their lives in the uprising.

The next day, huge protests broke out on the streets of Tehran in commemoration of another mass uprising that took place in Iran almost 60 years ago. On July 21, 1952, Iranians of all religious and political stripes banded together behind the country’s charismatic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, to challenge the autocratic rule of Iran’s decidedly uncharismatic king, Muhammad Reza Shah.

Mossadegh, who a year earlier had been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year for his efforts to democratize Iran, had just been forced out of office by the shah. When tens of thousands of Mossadegh’s supporters poured onto the streets to demand his reinstatement, the shah ordered his military to fire on the protesters. The military refused the order, and the shah was forced to flee the country the following year. Mossadegh became Iran’s first democratically elected leader and promptly moved to nationalize the country’s oil.

Every schoolchild in Iran knows what happened next: The CIA sent Kermit Roosevelt to Tehran with a suitcase full of cash to launch a coup d’état against Mossadegh and put the shah back on his throne.

Mossadegh is still a hero to all Iranians, and it was in his memory that Tuesday’s protests were held, though in truth, the anniversary was nothing more than an excuse to take to the streets en masse. Although protesters are increasingly challenging Iran’s police and paramilitary (Basiji) forces, the protests themselves are becoming more creative and harder for the regime to control. On Tuesday, activists organized a coordinated power surge at exactly 8:55 p.m., meant to consume enough electricity to create a power outage throughout Tehran (a similar protest a couple of weeks ago interrupted a nationwide speech by Ahmadinejad). At the urging of Mir Hossein Mousavi, protesters have also begun to withdraw all deposits from state-run banks in an effort to further cripple Iran’s already damaged economy.

It is now clear that what began as a protest against a stolen election has become a war of attrition between two increasingly polarized camps—the pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad coalitions—over the very legitimacy of the Islamic republic.

The reformists in the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition are getting bolder in their quest to turn the tide against the regime. Rafsanjani, who has emerged as the principal leader of the movement, capped his Friday remarks by traveling to the conservative shrine city of Mashhad in northern Iran. There, he met with a group of high-ranking clerics—some of whom had publicly snubbed Ahmadinejad when he visited the city a few days earlier—in a bid to build support from the religious establishment against the pro-Ahmadinejad coalition, which includes the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

While Rafsanjani was in Mashhad, his ally, former President Mohammad Khatami, issued a statement calling for a national referendum to decide once and for all the legitimacy of the new Ahmadinejad government.

“If the majority of people accept the [election outcome],” Khatami said, “we also will accept it.”

Because the Guardian Council, which usually oversees all elections, can no longer be trusted as a neutral body (as a result of its overt support for Ahmadinejad), Khatami suggested that the referendum be carried out by the Expediency Council, an independent arbitration group chaired, not coincidentally, by Rafsanjani.

This was a clever bit of politicking on Khatami’s part, as the constitution of Iran explicitly provides for the opportunity to launch national referenda to decide all matters of state. Of course, the constitution also stipulates that all domestic affairs must be administered “on the basis of public opinion expressed by means of elections,” and obviously that has been totally ignored. Nevertheless, Khatami’s suggestion is part of a new strategy by the reformist groups to work within the legal framework of the state to challenge and even overturn the Ahmadinejad administration.

It is not likely that the referendum will actually take place, but Khatami’s proposal is an indication that confidence among the reformists is high—so high, in fact, that Mehdi Karroubi, Ahmadinejad’s other reformist challenger, has begun to directly attack the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Karroubi mocked claims by the Guard that it had not attacked any protesters.

“They kill the youth in front of people’s eyes and then say that they didn’t have firearms,” Karroubi told Iran’s Aftab News Agency. “It reminds me of the time just prior to the victory of the Islamic revolution.”

Karroubi went on to explicitly compare the Ahmadinejad regime to the dictatorship of the shah, saying, “Now it seems that all those events are repeating themselves.”

Speaking of events repeating themselves, the Los Angeles Times reported this week that a group of senior army officers, including majors, captains, lieutenants, and sergeants, was arrested when the Revolutionary Guard got wind of their plan to attend Rafsanjani’s Friday sermon in full military uniform in what a Persian news site, Peiknet, called “a sign of protest against the cruel massacre of people by the Basij and Revolutionary Guards and to show their objection against this process and support for the people.”

This is the regime’s worst nightmare. After all, it was the defection of the army that ultimately brought down the shah…twice (first in 1953, then again in 1979). Indeed, the Revolutionary Guard was created precisely to guard against another mass rebellion by the military. If a rift opens up between the Guard and the military, the threat of an all-out civil war may be greater than most analysts think.

And still, every single night, the call of “God is Great!” echoes through the darkness…

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.