Western capitals must make a difficult choice: how long to pin hopes on the eruption of a “color” revolution in Tehran? The burden falls almost entirely on Europe, since Washington has different priorities.
The United States cannot afford to be spotted in the barricades on the frontline of any attempt to prise open the Iranian regime at this delicate point in Middle Eastern politics. Tehran will not forgive for another quarter century at least any such American folly, and the Barack Obama administration has no intentions of committing hara-kiri, either.
Within Europe, it is unclear who is spearheading the charge of the light brigade. No country seems to want to be seen up front – except the Czech Republic, which has no choice, since it currently chairs the rotating European Union presidency. But then, most European countries would probably seldom fail the chance to be Tehran’s bete noire, but will, true to a pattern, swiftly fall back the moment they estimate that the law of diminishing returns is at work and continued tirades might jeopardize lucrative commercial interests in Iran.
Tens of thousands of supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi planned to keep up their street protests in Tehran on Wednesday, even though the authorities have promised a partial recount of Friday’s vote that saw incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad win another four-year term.
No scope for a color revolution
Europe has no real experience in staging color revolutions. This has been the forté of the Americans – conceptualized in the post-Soviet space in Eurasia by the Bill Clinton administration and subsequently grasped by the neo-conservatives in the George W Bush team. Europeans were curious bystanders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. France to some extent might have been on the inside track over Lebanon, but then the result turned out to be a mish-mash.
At any rate, to borrow Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s famous words in a philosophical context, staging a color revolution in Tehran is not like breaking an egg. The signs are that the color revolution struggling to be born on the streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage. Ahmadinejad’s participation at the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Tuesday was possible only with the tacit acquiescence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was an important decision to take at a critical juncture. Earlier reports in the Western media speculated that Ahmadinejad might stand down in view of the developing political situation.
Evidently, the regime decided that Tehran should not in any way project an atmosphere of crisis as that would only play into the hands of the proponents of a color revolution within Iran and abroad. To quote well-known Iranian dissident Ibrahim Yazdi, “Certainly, the gap inside Iran, politically, will be widened. Our main concern is how to keep the enthusiasm that was created for the election alive, in order to monitor and constrain the power of the government. The only way to counter it is the power of the people. We need to organize them.”
How is the regime coping? Clearly, Khamenei is in the driving seat and is in control of the state apparatus. He is skillfully navigating the regime through the choppy waters. Khamenei’s meeting with the principal opposition candidate in the election, Mousavi, merits attention. The official statement makes out certain key points. First, Khamenei indicated unambiguously to Mousavi that the regime would not tolerate any street protests and he must therefore “channel protests through legal bodies”. It now becomes extremely difficult for Mousavi to be seen as defying the Supreme Leader’s diktat.
Second, Khamenei suggested that there was nothing extraordinary about the present situation, insofar as “in previous elections also, there were some people and candidates who had some problems”. But they pursued the matter through the Guardians Council, which in any case has to approve the conduct of the presidential election in Iran.
Mousavi’s existential choice
However, it is the third point made by Khamenei that is most crucial. He pointed a finger at the “enemies’ provocative actions” as well as “certain behind-the-stage plots” which aimed to “create chaos in Iran”. Khamenei then went on most meaningfully to remind Mousavi that “your [Mousavi’s] character is different from such people and it is necessary that you pursue the problems through calm”.
The highly personal remark had a touch of admonition, but also the hint of a fulsome invitation to reasoning that could open up doors leading into pleasant pathways along which the two interlocutors known to each other for long, after all, could take a stroll. It was a very Persian remark.
Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of their old association, when the latter served as Iran’s prime minister under him and the two were not only close comrades-in-arms for the preservation of the Iranian revolution through the critical years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but also worked together to frustrate the cunning ploys of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as the powerful speaker of the Majlis (parliament) constantly conspired to arrogate state power.
During that period, Rafsanjani constantly sniped at Mousavi and tried to undercut him, although he enjoyed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s endorsement. On numerous occasions, Rafsanjani gave him hell on the floor of the Majlis, embarrassing him when he sought parliamentary approval for his moves, whittling down his authority to execute his policy and systematically undermining his political standing in public opinion.
Rafsanjani had already begun jockeying for position in expectation of the post-Khomeini era. As Khomeini fell ill, Rafsanjani became more assertive. Mousavi, in fact, found himself identifying with the Iranian revolutionaries (like Ahmadinejad), who were appalled by Rafsanjani’s suggestion to Khomeini to “drink from the chalice of poison” and order a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war that effectively meant allowing Saddam Hussein the escape route. Those were tumultuous times when the fate of the Iranian revolution of 1979 hung by a thread.
The main sticking point was the economic policy of the Mousavi government. Rafsanjani sought a policy that catered to the Tehran bazaar, which would benefit his family members as well as large sections of the corrupt clergy, who were aligned with him. But Mousavi opted for state control of the economy and insisted he was acting in accordance with the ideals of the revolution and Khomeini’s wishes. What Rafsanjani proposed during those difficult years was to have the latitude for his clan and other hangers-on to do some war profiteering. Mousavi’s answer was a firm “no”, and he stuck to the austere economic policy.
When the eight-year war with Iraq ended in August 1988, Rafsanjani proposed that Iran should dilute its revolutionary ideals and take Western help for reconstruction. (The Rafsanjani family initially made its fortune by exporting Iranian products such as pistachio nuts and carpets to the US.) But Mousavi firmly disagreed and refused to go against the grain of the revolution. Finally, when the levers of power were passed into his hands as president, Rafsanjani’s wrath knew no bounds. Vindictive by nature, he literally drove Mousavi into political exile. The ex-prime minister summarily abandoned politics and returned to his profession of architecture and teaching.
Thus, Khamenei all but jogged Mousavi’s memory at their meeting in Tehran by suggesting that the latter should not join hands with Rafsanjani against him. He suggested that Rafsanjani and his circles are simply using him as a political ladder. Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of his old constituency. Indeed, as prime minister (1981-89), Mousavi had an impeccable reputation as a hardliner – every bit as much as the “international community” regards Ahmadinejad today. In a memorable article penned in 1988, the Economist magazine described him as a “firm radical”.
Khamenei folded up his conversation with Mousavi by “admiring” the massive turnout in Friday’s election and “once again underlining its healthy and calm nature”. In a subtle way, he allowed Mousavi to have a peep into his thought processes about the current situation.
Meanwhile, Khamenei has directed the Guardians Council to review the appeals about the election and to give its opinion within a week to 10 days. He also held a joint meeting with the representatives of the four candidates in the election and officials from the 12-member Guardians Council and the Interior Ministry. At the meeting, Khamenei used harsh language describing the street protesters as “vandals” for damaging state property. He told the candidates’ supporters to distance themselves from the “vandals” and to support peace in the country as the election “should not cause divisions”.
Khamenei added, “If the election result had been different, even then such incidents would have occurred” as “some people” are against the unity of the Iranian nation and the solidarity of the Islamic system. He offered that a partial recount of the votes in the elections could be arranged, if necessary. But he concluded by passing his own judgment, “Those in charge of supervising the elections are always trustworthy people.”
Tehran rebuffs Europe
Alongside, Tehran has rebuffed European attempts to interfere. This has been done at the appropriate diplomatic level with the Foreign Ministry calling in the envoys of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Besides, a “unity rally” held in Tehran by supporters of Ahmadinejad condemned “enemies, particularly the US, Britain and Israel … [for] interfering in Iran’s internal affairs, plotting against the government and giving media support to the enemy groups, rioters and social and political hooligans who are trying to fuel chaos in the Islamic Republic”.
All in all, therefore, Western capitals will take note that the hope that a color revolution might overturn Ahmadinejad’s victory or in a best-case scenario lead to the toppling of the Iranian regime is far-fetched and almost fanciful. The extent of the street protests has come down in Tehran, although uncertainties remain. The hope that there would be a countrywide popular uprising seems also to be far-fetched.
If Rafsanjani’s astute political temperament is any guide, he will lie very low and generally avoid being noticed for a while. Meanwhile, he will do some intense networking with his contacts in the power apparatus, putting out his extraordinary political antennae and making a careful assessment as to the scope for compromise with the powers that be and when he should make his move. He should first live to fight another day. That may require making compromises. After all, politics is the art of the possible. So, without batting an eyelid, he may turn his back on Mousavi and former president Mohammed Khatami, who were, after all, his temporary allies in the recent saga.
Will he get another chance? That is a big question. Time seems to have run out for Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly projected an “anti-corruption” drive as a major plank of his new presidency. Was that mere election rhetoric, or will he go for the Rafsanjani family, which has many skeletons in its cupboard? Everything depends on what Khamenei thinks. He may assess that this time the “Shark” went too far to plot a lethal attack that might have succeeded. Or, he might let bygones be bygones.
Rafsanjani is undoubtedly the West’s favorite poster boy – and of the “pro-West” Arab authoritarian rulers in the region. The difficult choice for European capitals is how much propaganda mileage to extract at this stage before moving on. Once US-Iranian engagement begins, European companies will scramble for oil contracts. If the European Union’s ill-starred Nabucco gas pipeline project has a fighting chance to materialize, that will depend primarily on gaining access to Iranian gas.
Also, European capitals will have noted that there is great reticence on the part of Middle Eastern countries to point fingers at Tehran for not practicing Western style democracy. Autocratic Arab regimes will be nervous that if the contagious disease of the color revolution were to appear in Iran, it might eventually spread on the Middle Eastern political landscape. Unsurprisingly, the lone exception has been Israel (and its media friends), which has a vested interest in scuttling US-Iran engagement and will not easily pass up an opportunity to malign Ahmadinejad.
On the other hand, three important neighbors of Iran – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan – promptly greeted Ahmadinejad, quite ahead of protocol requirements to do so. Ahmadinejad was warmly greeted at the SCO summit, too.
“Iran, Russia and China are three major economic and political poles attending the [SCO] summit … [They] play important roles in dealing with the world’s current and upcoming developments,” Ahmadinejad was reported as saying in the People’s Daily and it also highlighted Ahmadinejad’s tirade against the “unipolar world order” in his speech. On its part, Moscow said in a structured statement, “The Iranian elections are the internal affair of Iran. We welcome the fact that elections took place, we welcome the new president on Russian soil and see it as symbolic that he made his first visit [as newly-elected president] to Russia. This allows hope for progress in bilateral relations.” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev scheduled a bilateral with Ahmadinejad at Yekaterinburg.
Khamenei has made it clear in recent weeks that the Obama administration will meet a resolute interlocutor when US-Iran direct negotiations begin shortly. No amount of Western pressure tactics on the democracy plank is going to soften up Khamenei. With Ahmadinejad continuing as president for a second term, Khamenei has his chosen team in position.
The Obama administration faces difficult choices. The stir in Tehran is fast becoming a “Twitter revolution”. No such thing has ever happened there, despite the best efforts of former US vice president Dick Cheney and his covert team for well over four years for triggering “regime change”.
The US is sensing the potential of a “Twitter revolution” in Iran. Earlier, in Moldova, the potential of Twitter to trigger convulsions in popular moods was studied. The US State Department confirmed on Tuesday it had contacted Twitter to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that would have cut daytime service to Iranians. But a department spokesman denied that the contacts with Twitter amounted to meddling in Iran’s internal affairs – US sensitivity about causing annoyance to the Iranian regime is self-evident.
At the same time, Obama has to worry that unrest in Iran may scuttle his plans to commence direct engagement with Tehran within the coming days or weeks. On the contrary, he must face the music from the influential Israel lobby in the US, which is unhappy that Washington is not pressing the pedal hard enough on a color revolution in Iran. But Obama is treading softly. He said late on Tuesday there appeared to be no policy differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised. Either way, we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States.”
That’s a cleverly drafted formulation. Prima facie, Obama pleases the regime in Tehran insofar as he appears “stand-offish” as to what ensues through the coming days by way of the street protests or out of the deliberations of Iran’s Guardians Council. Fair enough. But, on the other hand, Obama also is smartly neutralizing any allegation that the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mousavi phenomenon is in any way to be branded by the Iranian regime as “pro-US”. Obama’s remark helps the Iranian opposition to maintain that its motivations are purely driven by Iran’s national interests.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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