Over 2 weeks since the contentious presidential elections, Iran remains firmly on the news. The national fall out, which came as a result of a wide disagreement over the election results that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected by a landslide, has intensified with streets protests been met with crackdowns by the government that has seemingly only encouraged and increased the international spotlight.
Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Friday 19th June that a continuation of protests would not be tolerated and would be broken-up by security forces. Relative silence from the ruling elite was effectively broken with Khamenei providing public backing to Ahmadinejad and denouncing any notion that the infamous elections were rigged.
Ensuing violence on the streets of Iran, as protestors defied government warnings, increased the stakes and the deepened the national divide that has clouded Iran. Scores have been killed as a result with many more injured.
With the Guardian Council firmly dashing any hopes of a re-run of the elections, but admitting that a number of electoral irregularities did in fact take place, this only begged the question of what would happen next.
Splits within the ruling elite
The mass public demonstrations over past two weeks have been unprecedented as they have occurred in parallel with evident splits within the ruling elite. This has placed leading Iranian figures in a difficult predicament, with parliamentarians and the Assembly of Experts not appearing united in how to move to forward in this stand off.
Reports that some family members of influential former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, were briefly detained further, underlined tensions even if ruling members have maintained relative silence.
The timeliness of the government in terms of responses and public rhetoric, suggests that leaders have been divided not just on the political row, but also how to combat the protestors. Limited concessions in the face of such mass-scale and well highlighted protests were always likely, but the government is unlikely to cave-in wholesale to public demands. The Iranian leadership will clearly look for ways at calming tensions and appeasing at least a section of the protestors, but at the same time they do not want to appear weak or losing grip of power.
The open admission that voting irregularities did occur is seen as a positive step, but a fundamental admittance that elections were flawed or a rerun of elections that significantly changes results at this stage, and thus proves the general “reformists” protestors right, would be hugely embarrassing.
What is certain is that Ahmadinejad is the new Iranian president and the stance of the revolutionary guard and ruling elite only emboldens this reality.
There have been public demonstrations before since the advent of the Islamist revolution of 1979 that established the Islamic republic, however, fractions within the ruling elite have never been channelled in a public way as this time around. Any quarrels or fractures within the powerful institutes in Iran have always been careful in preserving the very foundations of the republic, thus even reformist campaigns in the past, including that of Mousavi have generally supported this view.
Mousavi, a powerful aide of Ayatollah Khomeini, high-profile public break with the Iranian Supreme Leader has only led to an entrenchment of views in each camp.
So what now?
In the short-term, some violence and protests will continue but the size of any such movements moving forward is unpredictable. What is certain is that continuing defiance of the orders of highest powers in Iran, will fuel a bigger clampdown from the revolutionary guard this time around.
Iranian people, in the face of severe restrictions and clampdowns, may decide to take their protests to another level. Acts of civil disobedience, in terms of strikes and general disruptions that may harm the interests of the government are likely.
Although, protestors have already defied government orders, at the beginning they were clearly mindful to appear as peaceful citizens and held many demonstrations in relative silence. The message of the organisers of the demonstrations was that they only wanted to express their legitimate demands and wanted to be “heard”.
Further demonstrations, fuelling the wrath of the security forces, will take the battle to a new stage if protestors decide to retaliate en-masse or large-scale killings are witnessed. Such circumstances will turn the current events into much the same circumstances under the Shah.
However, it is much more likely that violence will eventually wane and it is unlikely that election results will change a great deal if at all, however, the political consequences of this saga will echo for years longer.
The aftermath of the presidential elections, will serve to symbolize the fracture present in Iranian society that the Iranian government would do well to contain. What is certain is that the Iranian leadership have been undermined in one way or another by the public consequences of this bitter stand off. Iranian leadership have shown that they would rather lose support of the population in the short-term than appear weak to the Iranian people, lest to the outside world, who have had Iran firmly under their radar for many a year.
Such large scale demonstrations and public protests are not simply attributable to western intervention. There has clearly been an ideological battle simmering between the conservatives and reformists within Iran for many years, and the size of the public discontent spells an underlying division that Iranian leaders must resolve.
The recent events will certainly provide a level of encouragement to those in Iran seeking change or indeed to Western powers. If Ahmadinejad second term was going to be difficult, this has made it even more intriguing. Underground reformist movements are likely to see a surge and Ahmadinejad, fulfilling his second term, will have to sufficiently appease reformists and contain their ambitions.
Straining of relationships with the West
The Iranian government has ubiquitously accused western governments of fermenting unrest and meddling in its affairs.
Of all the countries, Britain appears to be taking a brunt of the Iranian backlash, after Khamenei described them as the ‘most treacherous’ of their enemies.
Compounded with expulsion of two UK diplomats from Iran, Britain’s tentative diplomatic channels with Iran have become heavily strained. In a tit-for-tat move, the UK ordered the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown refuted Iranian allegations and stated that “the onus is on Iran to show the Iranian people that recent elections have been credible and that the repression and curtailment of democratic rights that we’ve seen in the last few days will cease.”
The “neutral” stance of the US has been changing steadily and the events of the past week or so that have seen increasing violent crackdowns, has given US President Barack Obama plenty of reason to speak out and condemn “unjust actions” of Iranian leaders, and praise the “courage and dignity of the Iranian people”. Obama denied any meddling in Iranian affairs, but the general US view was best summarised by the White House spokesman who stated, “We’ve seen the beginnings of change in Iran.” It is hardly a great secret that general change in Iran or indeed regime change, would amount to sweet tunes in the ears of the US.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon was no exception to criticism of meddling after the Iranian Foreign Minister stated he had “damaged his credibility”, after Ki-moon had expressed worry and openly urged Iran to respect fundamental civil rights and the “will of its people”.