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


London Review of Books


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

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 Guards 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 Guards  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  right  wing 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  Jam  karan 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 between1997 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 elect  ions had lodged an official complaint
that Revolutionary Guards 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-conservati
ve former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, to run this time
because it was confident that they had little chance.

This confidence was reinforced by a pre-election poll taken by a
Washington-based organisation called Terror Free Tomorrow: The  Center
for  Public  Opinion.  The  poll found  that of 1001 Iranians
interviewed by phone from outside Iran, 34 per cent favoured
Ahmadinejad;  14 per  cent Mousavi;  50 per cent had not yet made up
their minds; 80 per  cent wanted  the  constitution  to be   altered
so  that  the Supreme Leader would be elected directly by the public; 70
per cent wanted to give the UN greater access to the country’s nuclear
facilities; and 77 per cent wanted better  relations with  the US.
Apologists for the regime who continue to cite this  survey  ignore
these  findings,  as well as the significance of the name and location
of the polling organisation.

Once the actual electoral campaign – by law restricted to just ten days
– got started, the  race became much  tighter. A similarly dramatic
shift in public opinion also occurred  in  1997. Then  the general
expectation had been that the well-known conservative candidate would
win  an  easy  victory  over Khatami, the little known reformer. Yet the
latter’s campaign had suddenly caught fire: 80  per  cent  of  the
electorate  came  out  to vote, and more than 70 per cent supported him.
Such volatility  is understandable  in a country which doesn’t have any
deep-rooted political parties.

This time three major factors converged to  produce  a  shift  in
public  opinion.  The first was the series of six prime-time televised
debates, which were watched by almost every household  in  the country.
These debates  galvanised  the whole  electorate.  Instead of attacking
each other, the challengers   focused their fire on Ahmadinejad,
concentrating  on  his  economic  record.  They took  turns  in
showing  that  reliable  statistics –  in sharp contrast  to  those
produced by  the  president  –  put  inflation  at  25 per cent,
unemployment at 30 per cent, and the number of  those  living  in
poverty at a record high. Ahmadinejad  tried  to change the subject,
harping on Rafsanjani’s wealth and falsely accusing Mousavi’s wife of
pulling  strings  to  obtain  her  doctorate.  This   angered women and
reminded viewers that four of Ahmadinejad’s own ministers had claimed
phony foreign degrees.

Ahmadinejad was also sharply criticised for damaging national ‘honour’ –
through, for example, his denial of the Holocaust – and  for  pursuing
adventurist  foreign  policies  that  isolated  Iran and  jeopardised
its security. His opponents all favoured better relations with  the
outside world. Ahmadinejad had won the 2005 election by running not only
against Rafsanjani but against Bush. This  time  he  had  neither.
Instead  he had to contend with Obama, who had removed the main
stumbling-block  to negotiations – the prerequisite that Iran should
stop all uranium enrichment. He had accepted the right of Iran to have a
nuclear programme. He had stopped all talk of ‘regime change’. He had
apologised for the  1953  coup. He had ended the irritating practice
of differentiating between  the  Iranian government and the Iranian
people, and addressed himself  to  the  ‘Islamic Republic of  Iran’. And
he had offered  to end economic sanctions if Iran would give verifiable
guarantees that it  would  not  build  nuclear  weapons.  For many
Iranians,  foreign relations were  tied to domestic bread-and-butter
quest  ions. It was clear  that  there would not be  jobs  for the ever
increasing number of high school and college graduates unless the
country’s vast untapped gas and oil reserves were developed.  It was
equally clear  that  these reserves would not be developed unless
relations with the West – and especially the US – improved. Karroubi
made fun of Ahmadinejad  for  boasting  that  the  Iranian  educational
system  was  so  good  that  a  high school pupil had achieved nuclear
fusion in her  basement. At  one  point Ahmadinejad lost his cool and
called Karroubi a ‘Hitler’.

The second factor was Mousavi’s ability to challenge Ahmadinejad on his
own turf. Once  Mousavi  had  returned  to  the  limelight,  he  was
quick  to  remind  the  public that  he  had  been Khomeini’s  prime
minister  in  the  ‘heroic days’ of war and revolution. Besides his
reputation as a competent administrator, he had nationalised a host of
industries, launched a rural construction programme, drafted a
progressive labour law, advocated land reform, and introduced war – time
price controls and rationing, thereby, for the first and probably only
time in Iranian history, narrowing the  income gap between rich and
poor. He wasn’t just a populist talking ecstatically about the good old
days: he had been a key figure in those days. His Mir title also helped
– ‘Mir’ is the Azeri version  of  ‘Sayyed’  and  signifies  descent from
the Prophet and the 12 Imams. An impressive number of organisations and
personalities prominent in the early days of the revolution threw their
weight behind him. They  included  the  labour  unions;  the
Association  of Qom  Seminary  Teachers;  the Association  of Mil  it
ant Clerics;  the Mujahedin  Organisation  of  the  Islamic  Revolution;
Grand  Ayatollah Montazeri,  at  one time the designated Supreme Leader;
Ayatollah Taheri,  the  senior  cleric  in  Isfahan; Hojjat  al-Islam
Khoeni, the mentor of  the students who  took  over  the US  Embassy;
Hojjat  al-Islam  Mohtashemi,  Khomeini’s main  troubleshooter  in
Lebanon when  the Revolutionary Guard presided over the creation of
Lebanese Hizbullah; and relatives of Revolutionary Guards martyred in
the Iraqi war. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s own populist  credentials  were
tarnished  when  a member  of  his  inner  circle  told  the  press that
he had placed many  family members and  associates  in  high
positions.  To woo secular nationalists and the old left, Mousavi
brandished on his campaign trail a large portrait  of Mossadegh  –
anathema to the right wing clerics.

The third factor was the women’s movement. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra
Rahnavard, a scholar and artist who  is a prominent champion of womens’
rights, entered the fray and campaigned  alongside  her  husband  –  the
first time this had happened in Iranian history.  This galvanised the
women’s movement – especially the One Million Women Campaign, which
takes in a wide spectrum from Islamic feminists to liberal nationalists
to leftist and even Marxist activists. The women’s  movement  had been
crucial  to Khatami’s victories. It was poised to be just as important
to Mousavi.

By the last days of  the campaign, good-natured  crowds were  pouring
into  the  cities, threatening  to  turn the world upside down, and most
serious of all, mocking those on high – Ahmadinejad was pictured with
Pinocchio’s nose. The government  appeared  to  be  losing  control  of
the streets. The Washington polling agency that had expected an easy
Ahmadinejad victory admitted that its predictions were probably out of
date. Eyewitnesses re  ported that the  election  had  turned  into  a
‘real  race’, that  the demonstrations were  ‘rattling’  the government
and  that  the  Revolutionary Guards were fearful of a ‘velvet
revolution’. Some polls taken by the opposition predicted a victory for
Mousavi. Even if these polls were  too optimistic,  they did  indicate
that Ahmadinejad’s  lead  had  been  drastically cut – perhaps to the
point where he would not win the required 50 per cent in the first
round  and  would  therefore  have  to  compete against his main
opponent in a second round, as required by the constitution.

A  second  round  would  have  posed  a serious  threat:  it would
have  led  to more campaigning  and  more  unruly  street
demonstrations.  It  would  have  accentuated the  shift  in  public
opinion.  And  it would have strengthened Mousavi – Karroubi had made it
clear that he would endorse him in a  second  round.  It was  generally
thought that Ahmadinejad wouldn’t be able  to  improve on the number of
votes he gained in the first round and so would enter any second round
at a clear disadvantage. To preempt this, the Interior Ministry, which
was running  the election and was headed by a millionaire  friend  of
Ahmadinejad,  acted decisively,  giving  Ahmadinejad  not  just a
majority  but  such  a  resounding  one  that dwarved the votes gained
by his opponents. The minister  purged  unreliable  civil  servants from
the electoral commission – some even claimed  that Ayatollah Mesbah
Yazdi had  issued a fatwa allowing the faithful to miscount  votes. He
restricted  the number of  permits  issued  to  poll  observers;
prevented  some  of  them  entering  the  45,000 polling  stations;  set
up more  than  14,000 mobile  electoral  trucks  (making  the  vote easy
to fiddle); printed far more ballot papers  than  there were eligible
voters; cut off communications to Mousavi and Karroubi’s headquarters
on  the  day  of  the  elections (Mousavi’s offices in Qom were torched
in a mysterious attack); and, as a clincher, at the end of election day,
broke precedent by not having the ballots tabulated on the spot but
instead  rushed  to  the ministry where  they were ‘counted’ by his aides.

Within hours of the polls closing, the interior minister declared
Ahmadinejad to be the winner with  66  per cent of  the vote. Mousavi,
he said, had won only 33 per cent. The  minister  also  declared  that
a  record number – 85 per cent of the electorate – had voted.
Congratulating the nation on the   victory,  Khamenei  described  the
result  as ‘divinely inspired’. Three days later, the ministry issued
more detailed statistics with provincial breakdowns: Ahmadinejad had won
24.5 million  votes, Mousavi  13.2 million, Rezai  678,240  and
Karroubi  333,635. According  to Chatham House,  there are serious
problems with these statistics. In two provinces, more  than 100 per
cent of    eligible  voters  voted.  Karroubi, who  received more  than
five million  votes  in  2005, got fewer than 340,000 this time, and
lost even in his home province. For Ahmadinejad to have won more than 24
million votes, Chatham House found,  he would  have  had  to keep all
the votes he got in 2005, win over those who had voted for Rafsanjani on
that occasion,  all  of  those  who  had  stayed  at home, and, on top
of that, up to 44 per cent of the voters who backed reform candidates.

This  decisive  ‘victory’ was  intended  to put an end to street
demonstrations, but it had  the  opposite  effect,  outraging  many who
felt  not  only  cheated  but  insulted  –  especially when Ahmadinejad
described those who questioned the results as ‘specks of dirt’. There
were  vociferous protests  in many parts of the country and Mousavi and
Karroubi called for a silent rally to be held at Azadi (Freedom) Square
in Tehran on Monday, 15 June. The call was heeded by around a million
people – the conservative mayor of the capital put the number at three
million. The  scene  was  reminiscent  of  the  rallies held  in  the
same  square  during  the  1979 revolution. As  in  1979,  the
security  forces were kept away to prevent clashes. The rally drew all
kinds of protester: old and young, professionals  and  workers,
bazaaris and students, men and women with sunglasses and headscarves as
well those with the full length chador. Lines of protesters nine
kilometres long converged on the square from the northern, better-off
districts as well as from the southern, working-class ones. Volunteers,
many  of  them  election  workers, gave the procession a semblance of
organisation. Students marched from Revolution Square, near the
university campus, to Freedom Square under a banner reading ‘From
Revolution to Freedom’. Others – many wearing green, the colour of Shia
Islam, dis  played banners saying  ‘What Happened  to My Vote?’ or
‘Ahmadinejad, you could not see our  votes  but  you  could  see  the
divine  light’ – an allusion  to  the president’s supposed  experience
at  the UN.  An  old man carried a sign saying:  ‘I am not a speck of
dirt, I am a retired teacher.’ Eyewitness accounts agree that feeling
was not so much against the Islamic Republic as against the stifling
of  the  reform  movement.  It  was a mass protest against vote-
rigging. Exiled groups, not surprisingly, hail  ed these scenes as
amounting to a revolutionary challenge to the Islamic Republican
interpretation peddled,  for different  reasons, by  the  regime.
However one  interprets  it,  it was  the  largest rally held in Tehran
since the height of the Islamic Revolution. Similar rallies were also
held  in many provincial capitals, notably Isfahan and Shiraz.

Government spokesmen tried to control the damage by arguing that the
opposition might have some support  in  the cities but that Ahmadinejad
had carried the countryside. This argument was soon picked up by Western
policymakers – especially State Department  diplomats  – who  had
argued  in favour  of  striking  a  ‘grand  bargain’  with Iran in the
fashion of Nixon in China, and were  worried  that  a  potential
rapprochement would be sabotaged by the unrest. But the  few reliable
accounts we have  from the countryside dismiss the not  ion that
Ahmadinejad  has  a  strong  rural  base.  Although the  Islamic
Republic  is strongly sup  ported in the countryside, many people there
– rural inhabitants  constitute only  35 per  cent of the country’s
population – dislike Ahmedinejad  because  of  his  broken  promises,
and because he funnelled benefits to Revolutionary Guards and Basijis,
and those with connections  to  the  clerical  foundations. Eric
Hoogland, who has studied rural Iran for many years and cannot be
described as an opponent of  the  Islamic Republic, has claimed  that
in  the  region  he  knows well outside  Shiraz  –  a  region  that
should  be Ahmadinejad’s  heartland  since  it  is  Shia and
Persian-speaking  – only  between  20 and 25 per cent supported him.
Out  rage when the  interior ministry  took  away  the  ballot boxes
before  the  votes  could  be  counted turned into open anger and
protests when the election results were announced.

Shaken by the 15 June rallies, the regime launched a massive crackdown,
the full extent of which remains unknown. It banned all
demonstrations,  threatened  to  execute anyone participating  in or
calling for such protests,  and  sent  out  tens  of  thousands of
Revolutionary Guards and Basijis armed with assault weapons as well as
motorbikes, knives and truncheons. It sent vigilantes into university
dormitories.  At  least  20 people were killed  in  the  clashes and
more  than 4000  associates  of Mousavi  and Karroubi were  arrested –
their main  strategists and campaigners, as well as  journalists
sympathetic  to  the  opposition.  It  jammed  foreign broadcasts, shut
down newspapers and websites, disrupted telecommunications and expelled
many  foreign  journalists  –  others were  confined  to  their
offices,  and  some were jailed. It broke into private homes and
arrested those suspected of shouting ‘God is great’ from their rooftops.
It launched a media campaign claiming  that  the opposition was
inspired, financed and organised by a sinister ‘foreign hand’: Britain,
and the BBC,  tended  to  be  singled  out  here.  (The regime put  less
blame on the US probably  in order  to dangle  the possibility of future
negotiations. ) It also    tortured prisoners, including prominent
figures, who were made to confess before TV cameras that they had
participated  in a Western plot  to  launch a velvet  revolution. As a
sop  to public opinion, Khamenei asked the Guardian Council –  12
conservative  judges  –  to  investigate complaints  of  electoral
irregularities.  The Guardian  Council  found  a  discrepancy of three
million votes, but concluded that this would  not  have made much  of
a  dent  in Ahmadinejad’s 11 million  lead. States  that orchestrate
99.5 per cent support for their candidate in elections can always claim
that 10 or 20 per cent here or there will not make much of a difference,
but  Iran has a  tradition of relatively competitive, if controlled
elections. Mousavi and Karroubi, endorsed by  many  prominent  clerics,
rejected  this verdict, called  for new elections, and even declared the
presidency of Ahmadinejad to be illegitimate.

The regime appears to have weathered  the storm, at  least for  the
time being. The revolt has not turned into a revolution, even though
these events have much in common with those of 1979 – similar rallies,
similar slogans (‘God is great’), similar  tactics  and  similar
griping  about ‘foreign  interference’. But  there are major
differences:  the monarchy  had  almost  no support, but the republic
has a solid base – the 25 per cent of the population who consider
themselves  true  believers.  The  shah had lost the allegiance of the
armed forces. The  republic  is  fully  equipped  with  three million
Revolutionary Guards  and Basijis, trained to deal with civil
disturbances. The monarchy had been challenged by a mass revolutionary
movement.  The  Islamic  Republic faces a mass reform movement that
wants to strengthen its democratic features at the expense of its
theocratic ones.

The  crisis  has  created  two  long-term dangers  for  the  regime.
First,  the  presidency continues  to be held by a demagogic politician
who does not shy away from confronting the US, and who seems to have
little grasp of his  limits. He claims  Iran  is a major power – maybe
even a superpower – and dismisses the US as a spent force that ‘can’t do
a damn thing’. It’s not for nothing that  the  other  candidates
consider  him a dangerous adventurist. Nuclear negotiations are
unlikely  to  go  anywhere. On  the  contrary, they are likely to
degenerate into acrimony,  leaving  the US  in  a much  stronger and
Iran  in  a much weaker  position  than ever be  fore. Not surprisingly,
the Israeli government  cheered Ahmadinejad’s  victory  – a Mousavi
victory would have been an obstacle  to  a  possible  Israeli  strike
on  Iran’s nuclear  facilities. Second,  the  crushing of the reform
movement has closed off avenues for change, and dampened hopes for
peaceful evolution.  By  denouncing  children  of the  revolution  as
foreign-paid  ‘counter-revolutiona ries’, Khamenei,  Ahmedinejad and
their allies have alienated  a  considerable proportion of the
population – maybe even the majority – and could end up transforming
reformists  into  revolutionaries. By moving  away  from  democracy
towards theocracy,  the  regime has  removed an important component of
its original legitimacy. Some would argue the country has ceased to be a
republic and has become a military-backed  theocracy a Shia  imamate
equivalent to the medieval Sunni caliphates.



Ervand Abrahamian’History of Modern Iran came out in July.



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