The worlds gaze was already fixated on the Iranian presidential elections like never before. Iran, as an emerging regional powerhouse with nuclear aspirations, has been a firm item on the international agenda. The global focus on the elections only intensified with the ensuing crisis around the election results, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected by a surprising margin with 63% of the vote, well ahead of his nearest rival Mir Hossein Mousavi who managed 33% of the vote.
The election results were almost immediately condemned and opposed by Mousavi and the other two rival presidential candidates, Mohsen Rezaee and Mehdi Karroubi, alleging electoral fraud and corruption.
The opposition refused to acknowledge the election results and demanded a full re-run of the election.
What ensued on the streets of Iran thereafter turned a brewing political crisis into a symbolic clash of society, contested largely between conservatives and reformists that could determine the future orientation of the country.
Pro-Mousavi supporters have orchestrated a number of demonstrations in Tehran, which has fast spread to other cities, with the largest protests staged on Thursday. The rallies so far have been largely peaceful and have mainly seen tens of thousands of people march in silence through the centre of the cities. This “silence” has been carefully organised in order to underline the peaceful message of the protests, that the people are voicing their legitimate demands and that the rallies are not common opposition against the ruling system of Iran.
However, history has shown how quickly such situations can turn into wide-scale anger and hostility. The government forces have been careful not to be perceived to be violently suppressing the rallies. However, common resentment has already been stoked with a number of protestors shot last Monday by members of the pro-government Basij volunteer militia. A number of arrests of politicians, journalists and protestors have also been made.
Members of the Basij militia have also allegedly been involved in retaliatory attacks in a number of Iranian cities through university raids and beatings of students.
However, as much as the ruling elite in Iran have urged calm and tried to maintain control, the current crisis threatens to divide the very foundation of the Islamic Republic.
The most powerful figure in Iran, with control of armed forces, police and intelligence services, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has fast become engulfed at the centre of a deepening crisis.
Succumbing to broad pressure, Khamenei has agreed to a re-count of the votes in disputed areas, a sharp shift from his initial stance, but falling some way short of opposition demands.
Undoubtedly, it is the nature of the rallies, some of the largest since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 itself that have added to the fierce climate and ensured anxiety amongst figures in the establishment.
Reformists, particularly Mousavi are not an especial threat to the Islamic government. However, with the opposition keen to obtain nothing short of a full re-run of the elections, the current tense environment will not die down too easily.
This places the government into a very difficult corner. If they do nothing, than the perception of their deep grip, especially that of the ruling elite will be challenged. Regaining of control is paramount in these circumstances and the government may offer further concessions under a continuation of a “carrot and stick” approach. However, any form of a violent crackdown, may well turn an election dispute into a challenge against the very foundations of the Iranian Islamic republic, which may well go beyond the influence of Mousavi.
After all powerful figures in Iran will be well-aware of the circumstances that led to the historical events under the Shah, which ultimately culminated in the Islamic revolution. A crackdown pits influential Iranian security forces against the people, this itself is a very dangerous ploy since behind the scenes, the forces may well be divided to some extent and many are openly supportive of reformists. How they would react against their fellow sympathisers if any suppression gets out of hand, may open new doors and challenges in the current conflict.
Supporters of Ahmadinejad have also been out in force in a show of support, and if the situation escalates, this may result in direct confrontation between rival supporters.
The ruling clerical elite may try to employ a neutral view, but in reality in these circumstances this is almost impossible. A great example is Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who is chairman of one of the most powerful institutions of the regime, the Assembly of Experts, which ultimately selects the Supreme Leader.
Whilst such figures have tried not to stoke any fires, Rafsanjani was involved in a recent confrontation with Ahmadinejad who accused him of corruption. More importantly, Rafsanjani, who has been a key cog of the Islamist regime from the outset of the revolution, is a supporter of Mousavi. He may have been less vocal but his more activist daughter, Faeza Hashemi, gave a speech in one of the “illegal” demonstrations.
Iranian officials have accused foreign media and governments, particularly, Washington, on an “interventionist approach” on the election issue. Such accusations of meddling have led to a foreign media blackout on coverage of the crisis.
The White House may unsurprisingly deny any charges of meddling, insisting on the surface that their may not be a great difference to them or in terms of Iranian policy who becomes the next Iranian president. Quietly, would it be any secret that they would prefer to see a long-time nemesis in turmoil and to witness events that challenge the very essence of the Islamic Republic?
All this begs the question of just how “illegitimate” the elections were. Although, it is hardly an indication of wide-spread fraud, some of elements of the election were rather unusual. For example, the votes were not announced province-by-province as in past elections but in percentages via blocks of votes, which seemingly changed very little as they were announced.
Such little changes in counting patterns would indicate that Ahmadinejad would have done well in rural and urban areas and even in home regions of the positioning candidates.
Ahmadinejad has support across Iran, but mainly in more rural and less off areas. But the middle-classes of the major cities, acknowledged to be main supporters of Mousavi, are probably more integral components in deciding any election outcome.
All eyes are now on the conservative body, the Council of Guardians that has to sign-off on the election results within 10 days and is currently tasked to look into the electoral complaints.