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Iran votes again

What is happening in Iran now, after the election, should indelibly change external perceptions of the country and its discontents
By Rosemary Righter
July 1, 2009

Whether or not “revolutionary” enforcers at the command of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei bludgeon to a halt the protests against a blatantly falsified election “result”, there is no way that the extraordinary Iranian presidential election campaign of 2009, or its still more extraordinary aftermath, can be made unreal by mere fascists. Thirty years after the Shah’s overthrow, the revolutionary façade has cracked, exposing chasms within the establishment between those who, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insist that Iran is still not Islamic enough and those who, while not questioning the system of rule by divine law, unwittingly put the revolution in question by seeking to move on to something more closely resembling a “normal” state.

As in previous elections, Khamenei, wali e faqih of the Islamic Republic since Khomeini’s death twenty years ago and thus theoretically above politics, had taken due precautions to secure the right result before a single vote was cast. Before campaigning could begin, the twelve handpicked revolutionary zealots who form the Council of Guardians, currently dominated by radical supporters of Ahmadinejad, had disqualified all but four of 475 would-be candidates. As in previous elections, only trusted male stalwarts of the regime survived the cull.

Three of the four, so the script ran, were to act as foils to the favoured son, President Ahmadinejad. On parade were the mullah Mehdi Karoubi, a former Speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s equally well-vetted parliament, who is close to ex-President Muhammad Khatami, the mild-mannered but ultimately “reliable” cleric who a decade ago embodied but ultimately betrayed reformist aspirations; also General Mohsen Rezai, who commanded the Revolutionary Guards from 1981 to 1997 and has an Interpol warrant against him for the 1994 Hezbollah suicide bombing that killed eighty-six people at a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires; and Mir-Hussein Mousavi, in his youth a leftist who, like many others in 1979, flocked to Khomeini’s banner because he knew that the “street” could be mobilized only in the name of religion. Mousavi earned a reputation for competence as prime minister during the 1980–88 Iraq–Iran war (but not for tolerating dissent – at the war’s end an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were massacred by the regime he served), and subsequently became a leader of the Holy Warriors of the Islamic Revolution, a small but influential faction on the Khomeinist Left.

“Not exactly a list”, observed Con Coughlin, the author of Khomeini’s Ghost, as the line-up was announced, “that will give Iranians a chance to vote for change they can believe in.” In any event, Tehran wits joked, Ahmadinejad’s campaign slogan, “We can” (note to Barack Obama: having already used it in the 2005 Iranian elections, Ahmadinejad holds the political copyright), meant simply Yes, We Can tear up your votes. With characteristically elegant understatement, Amir Taheri points out, in The Persian Night, that “in Khomeinist Iran, voters form only part of a more complex mix that produces the results”. If necessary, “ballot boxes could be filled or emptied, and even the dead could be made to vote in thousands”, and the announcement of results postponed until the Supreme Guide had decided how big a margin “divine assessment” would award the victor.

So confident this year were the established powers that they allowed unprecedented live debates between the chosen four on Iran’s unendurably dull state television. That prime-time battle of ideas was a miscalculation that may yet prove to be historic.Ahmadinejad is a populist demagogue who does a passable imitation of a fundamentalist warrior, the “outsider” son of a poor (in fact, well-to-do) blacksmith battling on behalf of the “dispossessed” against the Islamic Republic’s corrupt and profiteering ruling caste. Better known abroad for demanding the excision of the “cancerous tumour” Israel and announcing imminent Islamic victory over the “Great Satan”, his domestic pitch relies on projecting himself as the pious servant of Allah dedicated to relieving the sufferings of the devout poor. It is a great act, but one difficult to square with his persecution of trade unionists, his hostility to the minimum wage, paid holidays and other “infidel” relics of unIslamic class warfare, as well as the spreading poverty, unemployment and inflation attributable to his reckless mishandling of what should be a rich economy. For a few brief hours, he now had to share the stage, in exchanges that gave him a taste of his own blistering rhetoric. Iranians witnessed, electrified, a regime at loggerheads, openly trading blame for its loss of credibility.

Karoubi rebuked Ahmadinejad’s vehement denials of the Holocaust, saying that it was “not an issue for Iran”. Rezai not only poured scorn on wastrel economic policies, but laid out a detailed plan for détente with the West. From left field, the stolid Mousavi unexpectedly became the voice of millions of Iranians as he accused Ahmadinejad of “adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism and superficiality” in dealing with the world, conduct that had, he contemptuously asserted, reduced the standing of an Iranian passport to that of Somalia. An election that had been deliberately engineered to bore came abruptly alive.

Iran’s voters, suddenly daring to hope, headed to the booths in huge numbers – certainly far larger than in 2005, even if the official 84 per cent all-time record is no more to be trusted than the result. And that is all, at the time of writing, we know for certain about the June 12 election. That, and the fact that the Ministry of the Interior sent many of its counters home that night, yet managed the unprecedented feat of totting up a decisive portion of almost 39 million votes, by hand, in just three hours – less than the time required to open all the ballot boxes.

“No one in their right mind”, as the greatly revered Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri observed from the holy city of Qom, could believe results that, for example, swelled the Ahmadinejad first-round vote from 198,417 in 2005 to 1,113,111 in East Azerbaijan, where he comfortably outpolled Mousavi, an Azeri from Khamein; and from 69,710 to 677,829 in Karoubi’s home province of Lorestan (where the popular native son’s vote shrivelled from 55.5 per cent to 4.6 per cent and the 14,920 who voted for him were fewer, he complained, than the volunteers in his campaign). In Isfahan and Tehran itself, Ahmadinejad more than doubled his support. Most suspect of all was the 113 per cent swing to Ahmadinejad in rural provinces. Contrary to Western assumptions, Ahmedinejad’s base is in cities and their poorer suburbs; in the countryside, voters have a history of going against hardliners.

Khamenei had not merely stolen the election; he had engineered a coup against the “republican” element of the Islamic Republic. It was maybe a misreading of a national mood that sought greater personal freedoms within but not, as yet, in opposition to the Islamic regime; or it was an intriguer’s intuitive judgement that any relaxation of Khomeinist rigour would be fatal and that it was time to crack heads. Whichever is closer to the truth, the display of contempt for the electoral process aroused near universal disgust, split the establishment as never before and brought millions on to the streets, this time in open defiance of the regime. Khamenei dug in, hailing trickery as a “triumph for Islam” and ordering Iranians to unite under the man who, the Supreme Guide in effect confirmed ex cathedra in Friday prayers a week after the election, “won” because his views were “closer to mine than the views of others”.

The contrast between the insults, clubs and bullets flying within Iran itself, and the tones of sweet reason that Western politicians have for years thought wisest to adopt with the Islamic Republic, illustrate how far adrift is what passes for Western policy from Iran’s grim but far from monolithic reality. American leaders nervously stammered their hopes that Ahmadinejad’s “landslide victory” was a true reflection of the will of the Iranian people well after the streets of Tehran and other cities had filled with hundreds of thousands from all walks of life brandishing “Where is my vote?” placards, who knew full well that it was nothing of the kind.

The fervour of those protests and the despotic malevolence with which Ayatollah Khamenei girded himself to snuff it out, are the reference points in a fight that has finally burst into the open between two Irans: one obscurantist, undeniably oppressive, and intrinsically belligerent, the other a proud, culturally sophisticated and overwhelmingly youthful Islamic nation that, now if not before, yearns to be delivered from the “Persian night” of Khomeinism.

What is happening should indelibly change external perceptions of Iran and its multiple discontents. In the overdue and necessary departure from diplomatic clichés, Amir Taheri’s many-layered exposition of the origins, goals and nature of a messianic regime that he convincingly dismisses as “neither Islamic, nor republican, and . . . certainly not Iranian” is an indispensable guide.

The Islamic label, he argues, “has impeded a proper understanding of what has happened to Iran”. There has never been an “Islamic model of government”; not in the Koran, which deals mostly with ritual and personal conduct and contains “not a single mention of such terms as ‘government’”; not in the notion of rule by the clergy, which is alien to a religion that dispenses with a clerical hierarchy; and not in Khomeini’s inchoate writings, for all their insistence on “contamination” by the West as the cause of Islam’s decline. In 1979, Taheri points out, three of the six Grand Ayatollahs of Iranian Shiism openly rejected as “unIslamic” Khomeini’s claim to be Allah’s all-powerful regent, and his adoption of the title Imam did indeed play fast and loose with the core Shiite belief in the “Hidden” twelfth Imam, the Lord of Time who went into “occlusion” in the tenth century and whose return will usher in “the end of days”. Khomeinist Iran may be a theocracy, in the sense that all power is avowedly of divine source: he quotes Khomeini that “all international laws are the produce of the syphilitic minds of a handful of idiots. And Islam has obliterated all of them”. But it is best seen as a messianic mixture of elements of Islam, half-understood ideas drawn from Western radicalism and fascism, and a dose of “tiermondiste rage”.

Khomeinism’s appeal to fellow Muslims, initially including the Sunni majority, is associated with the fundamentalist rejection of modernity as a Judaeo-Christian conspiracy (the supposedly moderate Khatami, speaking at the University of Florence in 1998, described the Renaissance as the starting point of “human decline into barbarity”). But that, Taheri asserts, makes “republic” also a misnomer, despite an elected legislature and president, and references in the 1979 constitution – which harks back to the “modern” Iranian constitution of 1906 and which may now assume greater significance – to a “people-based” form of government.

“To understand a civilisation,” Taheri writes, “it is important to understand its vocabulary; if it was not on their tongues, it was not likely to have been on their minds either.” Taheri points out that until the end of the nineteenth century neither Farsi nor any of the other main Muslim languages had words for republic, let alone democracy. That is true but relevant only up to a point: it was once also true of many other cultures, and millions of Iranians, bellowing defiance from rooftops and dodging thuggish Baseej militias and live fire on the streets, most decidedly have democracy “on their minds” today.

Taheri is on firmer ground when he asserts that Khomeinism is by definition “not Iranian”. As Khomeini’s chartered Air France plane from Paris touched down in Tehran in February 1979 – in safety, since the Shah had fled the previous month, and to a tumultuous welcome from millions of his countrymen – an eager journalist asked the old exile how he felt about coming home. Khomeini, as Con Coughlin reminds us, notoriously responded: “Nothing”. The self-styled Imam derided patriotism as unIslamic. Undaunted by the sectarian arithmetic – Shiites account for no more than 15 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims – he aspired to lead the entire Islamic ummah. And he explicitly stated the goal of his Islamic revolution in global terms, pitching the Muslim City of God against the infidel City of War led by the Great Satan and its Zionist agents. His successors have not substantially deviated from these core tenets of Khomeinism; not, at least, until now.

Khomeinist Iran’s obsessive demonizing of the United States and the Jews is, Taheri argues, born of calculation rather than of emotion or Iranian experience. The Khomeinist dream of conquering the world for Islam is obstructed even within the Islamic ummah by Shia–Sunni antagonism and deep-rooted Arab distrust of Iran, obstacles that can be overcome only by creating an Islamist movement united by the only things capable of uniting it, resentment of the alleged Judaeo-Christian conspiracy symbolized by US support for Israel, and the claim that (although it did not get far along the road to Jerusalem in the Iran–Iraq war) the Islamic Republic is the only power that can destroy Israel. Hence the billions lavished on Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Syria and Palestine; and hence in large part Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Much of this goes against the Iranian grain; Jews were a large and generally tolerated minority in Iran and the US was seen by Iranians as a friend. Washington came to Iran’s aid in 1945 when the historically meddlesome British, “up to their old tricks”, were scheming to hive off oil-rich Khuzestan into a separate emirate, and when Stalin, instead of withdrawing the Red Army as agreed, was busy setting up breakaway Soviet republics in Iran’s Azeri and Kurdish provinces.

In a pointedly revisionist account of the Mossadeq years, Taheri records that US aid to Iran rose from $5 million to more than $23 million during Mossadeq’s premiership; that both directly and at the UN, the US sided with Iran against Britain in support of his campaign to nationalize Iran’s oil; and that Washington tried for two years to broker an agreement, only for Mossadeq to reject every offer, including a 50:50 profit-sharing deal the US considered to be fair. By 1953, he writes, the great democrat Mossadeq had quarrelled with the Shah, dissolved the Majlis, postponed elections, declared martial law and was governing by decree. With some difficulty, the Shah obtained a guarantee of US support should he dismiss Mossadeq; but then fled the country when Mossadeq rejected as a forgery the firman dismissing him. By this time, Taheri writes, the CIA, working with British agents, was without doubt “engaged in a number of dirty tricks designed to incite public opinion against the prime minister by creating the impression that the Communists were about to seize power”. But, as Pravda gleefully reported at the time, the US botched the job because its plans hinged on Mossadeq’s dismissal and fell apart when he refused to go. The CIA cable to Washington read: “The operation has been tried and failed”.

What actually happened, Taheri asserts, is that having got rid of the Shah, “Mossadeq appeared to be paralysed, spending most of the day in bed in his pajamas and refusing to see his ministers”. Momentum was lost, the crowds’ mood turned, and as pro-Shah demonstrators headed towards his home “he climbed his wall with a ladder, still in his trademark pajamas, to seek refuge in the headquarters of the American Point Four [Aid Programme] next door”. Mossadeq, he adds, never himself blamed his fall on the US.

It is a hilarious account, extensively documented, and is highlighted here not only because it will sharply be contested but because the CIA’s “overthrow” of Mossadeq is a central myth informing, and inhibiting, modern American policy on Iran. Hence there came a sequence of American official mea culpas and hands outstretched to the Ayatollah, beginning with Carter’s letter to Khomeini as one “man of God” to another, including the farcical Iran–Contra business under Reagan, George W. Bush’s pledge that a law-abiding Iran would have “no better friend than the United States”, and the apologies for past American misconduct in Obama’s Cairo speech. Then there was Bill Clinton’s extraordinary public depiction, soon after leaving office, of Khomeinist Iran as a place “where the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority” and “the guys I identify with” get most of the votes. These are “Guys”, Taheri notes, like Ayatollah Ali-Akhbar Mohtashami-Pour, creator of Lebanese Hezbollah.

An equally misleading myth is the notion that Khomeini created a homogeneous Islamic system. He certainly had no time for the Pahlavi dynasty’s “inherited Satanic state” and set out to replace the cabinet with an Islamic Revolution Council answerable to him alone as chief priest of the revolution; and to supplant the armed forces with the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), one of his first creations. But, not least thanks to Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade when the revolution was only eighteen months old, much of the state apparatus survived.

The resulting dual system, Taheri shows, is riven by contradictions – not between moderates and hardliners, as the West tends to frame them, but between “revolutionary organs, state organs, hybrid organs . . . secret societies operating in parallel with both state and revolution [and] para-revolutionary and para-state organs”. Parallel sharia and Roman law courts are forever overturning the rival legal system’s verdicts. So constant are the struggles between the regime’s various power centres that even the absolutist Khomeini found it necessary to create an “expediency council” to adjudicate in “the Interests of the Established Order”. A nation divided against itself emerges from Taheri’s detailed description of the multiple interlocking institutional wheels within wheels that drive on and drag back the Khomeinist juggernaut.

Con Coughlin’s crisp account of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution is more successful at explaining why and how it came about, and why it took the form it did, than it is when he examines the man himself, or when he turns to the assessment of Khomeini’s legacy. He has a journalist’s sure feel for what it is that most non-Iranian readers will not know, how the land reforms of the Shah’s White Revolution menaced the clerics’ wealth, for example, or why the outcry over the Shah’s first attempt to give women as well as non-Muslims votes in local elections (Khomeini denounced the move as a Zionist plot “to corrupt our chaste women”) was so strident that the Shah thought it best to beat a tactical retreat. He gives a good summary of the Shah’s sins of commission and, not least, omission – in particular, his failure to see that rapid modernization minus accountability or open debate equals trouble. His account of the revolution’s birth and Khomeini’s seizure of absolute power is fast-moving yet gratifyingly detailed, not least on the first grim show trials at Khomeini’s temporary revolutionary headquarters at Refah school, and on the making of the revolutionary constitution, a moment of truth for the revolution’s Kerensky figures, who only then realized that the dour curmudgeon they had hailed as Iran’s deliverer held liberal democracy in odium and was bent on a totalitarian theocracy. He reminds us how the revolution then turned on its own, in “a ruthless reign of terror that would have done the Jacobins proud”, with revolutionary courts ordering the execution of 8,500 and the imprisonment of many thousands more.

But who was Khomeini? Despite drawing much useful material from Baquer Moin’s authoritative 1999 biography (Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah), Coughlin himself seems unsure. By the mid-1940s, he writes, Khomeini was “one of the country’s leading Islamic figures”; yet the 1953 Mossadeq crisis, he writes a few pages later, demonstrated “the limits of Khomeini’s authority . . . his views were of little consequence”. In 1961, Coughlin is again describing him as one of “the country’s top twelve clerics”; yet in the following paragraph he writes, accurately, that “what Khomeini lacked in religious stature was more than compensated for by his militant political agenda”. Coughlin presents Khomeini as a serious student of Islamic mysticism in both Persian and Arabic, and a poet of talent; whereas Taheri gives examples of the Ayatollah’s poor Arabic, ungrammatical Persian, and the swift pulping by the regime of a volume of his poems, published just after the revolution, because people were poking fun at them.

More seriously, it is surely an overstatement to claim that, even within Iran, the revolution’s legacy is “as powerful today” as it was either in 1979, or at the Imam’s death in 1989 when 2 million mourners mobbed his funeral and those who got near the coffin tore his shroud into reliquary strips. Recent events throw doubt, to put it mildly, on the “uncompromising devotion to . . . revolutionary Islam” which Coughlin ascribes to Iran’s people. Islam yes, revolution no, would be more like it; born after 1979, Khomeini’s multitudinous great-grandchildren have grown sick of corrupt mullahs spouting stale ideology, getting overexcited about a strand of hair floating free from the compulsory Islamic headscarf and messing up the economy. In the name of Islam, they seek a return to a distinction between the source of law (divine) and its exercise (temporal), returning theologians to the seminaries and leaving governing to governments. As for the revolution’s continued prowess “in holding up the banner of radical Islam” abroad, its reach has always exceeded its grasp. Khomeinism was and is an inspiration to radical Islamists, and the regime is a major paymaster and trainer of terrorist groups in the Middle East and beyond; but Coughlin almost certainly overstates the multiplier effect of the links he alleges between the Islamic Republic and (Sunni) al-Qaeda. Iran will work with any enemy of America, infidel North Korea, heretic (Alawite) Syria, or Communist Cuba; and there is evidence of Iranian support for Sunni as well as Shia insurgents in Iraq and more recently of weapons shipments to the Taliban. But in the pursuit of an Islamic millennium, al-Qaeda is more rival than ally.

More doubtful still is Coughlin’s insistence that Iran’s “quest for the atom bomb” is “a central part of Khomeini’s legacy”. In evidence, he presents, “published here for the first time”, a letter from Khomeini to Mohsen Rezai in 1988 – a letter written four days before, in a decision that Khomeini described as more bitter to him than drinking poison, he accepted the UN resolution that halted the Iran–Iraq war. The letter (available on the BBC website since 2006) does indeed mention “atomic weapons which are the requirements of war in this day and age”; but Coughlin could usefully have added that the letter was in response to one from Rezai, who, as Commander of the Guards, was trying to get into the old man’s head just how desperate Iran’s military situation then was by listing the hardware Iran would need to prevail. Khomeini was throwing Rezai’s words back in his face, with the comment, “this is nothing but sloganeering”. That does not mean that we should believe Iran’s rulers when they insist that they are bound by religious fatwa not to build nuclear weapons; not even Mohammed el-Baradei, the cheek-turning head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is so naive. But for smoking guns, look elsewhere.

A useful starting point is Emanuele Ottolenghi’s Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the bomb. This in many ways admirable essay is somewhat broken-backed. At one level, it is a primer on Iran’s nuclear research centres, uranium mines and uranium enrichment activity, heavy water plant, nuclear reactor and other suspect facilities. There are twenty-five separate sites and centres. Not all are acknowledged; the purpose of some has not been ascertained; and some are legitimate nuclear research centres that may have dual use. Unfortunately without documentary references, Dr Ottolenghi brings together a considerable body of IAEA pronouncements that gives a good idea of what we know so far. This is not an alarmist book. Ottolenghi observes that even when Iran succeeds in enriching uranium to weapons grade, it must still turn that material into metal, shape the metal into hemispheres and fit these into a device that will trigger a nuclear chain reaction, fit that device into a missile warhead and ensure that it can reach the target before exploding. Iran, he says, is still at the dough-making stage of producing bread. At the same time, he makes a persuasive case that as a revolutionary power, missile-launched nuclear weapons would be Iran’s logical “instruments of ideological coercion and intimidation”; and that because Arab governments understand this perfectly, “the face of the Middle East will change well before Iran actually proves to the world it has a bomb”.

Ottolenghi’s second and less than wholly convincing theme concerns what, “if diplomacy does not work and war is considered to carry an unacceptably high risk”, can be done to stop Iran getting that far. In essence, this boils down to sanctions, mainly European sanctions. His case is that, short of invasion, military action is “extremely problematic”: there are too many installations, and they are too well hidden or well protected, for bombing to be militarily feasible, even disregarding the risks of political collateral damage. Talk of “regime change” might convince the mullahs that continued pursuit of nuclear weapons would precipitate the regime’s fall. But it could equally spur them to go full speed ahead to “protect the revolution”. How then to convince the regime that the nuclear game is not worth the candle? His argument for sanctions is that Iran is hugely dependent on trade with Europe, that the regime controls around 70 per cent of the economy, and that trade sanctions could damage the business empires of the religious foundations, the oil and petrochemicals sectors and Iranian banks and cut off the petrol that Iran imports for lack of sufficient refinery capacity. Taking into account “spare parts and equipment for everything European companies have sold to, and built in, Iran over the past 30 years, imports are so critical that the sudden cessation of European supplies would have a devastating effect on the Iranian economy”. Although Iran would turn to Russia and China, it could not, he argues, switch suppliers in a trice. And although it would threaten to cut oil sales to the West, it could not afford the loss of revenue.

If only this were true. Even supposing that sanctions worked better in Iran than they did in Iraq, there is an acknowledged mismatch of time frames here. Sanctions notoriously take time: much time. And time, on the nuclear front, is running out. Regime change, Taheri acknowledges, is a term that “drives some people up the wall”; but there are plenty of Iranians who may themselves now see that as their only hope. “Successive Khomeinist administrations”, he writes, “have systematically dismantled the vast multiform coalition that made the [1979] revolution possible.” The 2009 election campaign has revealed just how rancorous the divisions now are. The campaign pitched the 1979 generation against what it sees as the dangerous adventurism of Ahmadinejad, adventurism with which, stepping vengefully from his pedestal, the Supreme Guide has explicitly associated himself. Some key requirements of regime change exist within Iran: a sense of betrayal by the powers that be; the outline of a political alternative; social discontents, not least among educated but thwarted women; economic hardship; weariness of isolation; and finally, the circumvention of censorship by a computer-savvy new generation.

The contest between Khomeinism and Iran’s constituencies for change is certainly an unequal one. In law and in despotic fact, Khamenei has unlimited powers. The only constraint is that he is elected and can in theory be removed by the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of ninety-two mullahs. But that previously hypothetical proposition has suddenly become thinkable. The Assembly is headed by the billionaire ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khomeini’s éminence grise and the man who, in exchange for the presidency for himself, engineered Khamenei’s elevation to Supreme Guide. Nicknamed “The Shark”, Rafsanjani is the closest Iran comes to a political “godfather”. He has been circling his rival Khamenei for decades; and he is now up against Ahmadinejad, who has publicly accused him of corruption, in a fight for survival. At the command-performance Khamenei sermon a week after the election, Rafsanjani and many other Assembly figures were conspicuously absent; he was widely rumoured to be in Qom counting heads.

The determining voice, however, is likely to be the Revolutionary Guards, the dominant force at the command of the Supreme Guide. And on June 22, the day the Guardian Council affirmed Ahmadinejad’s victory to be beyond doubt, the IRGC declared for Khamenei. Protest rallies were, it announced, a “conspiracy” against Iran that would be met with “a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Baseej and other security and disciplinary forces”.

The IRGC is a state within a state that, in addition to its responsibilities for Iran’s nuclear programme, for exporting the revolution through its terrorist Quds (Jerusalem) corps, and for crushing dissent with the fearsome Karbala brigades, has accumulated a vast business empire and holds a third of the seats in the Majlis along with two-thirds of provincial governorships. Ahmedinejad joined the Baseej Mustadafeen (the paramilitary wing of the IRGC with an active strength today of 400,000) in the war with Iraq, was seconded to the IRGC’s Ramadan brigade and other Guards units, and has, as president, lodged his own men in key commands and transferred $18 billion worth of “privatised” state enterprises to the IRGC. His strategy appears to have paid off – for now.

The unknown factor is how the “revolutionary” IRGC, in reality a hugely wealthy power with assets to protect, would act were its commanders to conclude that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad had split the elite, paralysed the state and damaged the regime’s cohesiveness as well as its legitimacy. To save the system that created them, praetorian guards have been known to turn against the ruler of the day. Repression, at the time of writing, is pervasive and ferocious. But on June 21, Taheri reported this Twitter to Iranians from Professor Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s dauntless wife:

Let the wolves know that in our tribe If the father dies, his gun will remain. Even if all the men of the tribe are killed A baby son will remain in the wooden cradle.

The battle for the future of Iran has only just been joined.

Amir Taheri
Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution
414pp. Encounter Books. $25.95.
978 1 59403 240 0

Con Coughlin
370pp. Pan Macmillan. £25.
978 0 230 71454 0

Emanuele Ottolenghi
Europe, Iran and the bomb
278pp. Profile Books. Paperback, £9.99.
978 1 84668 282 7

Rosemary Righter is an Associate Editor of The Times. She has worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review and Newsweek in Asia, as development and diplomatic correspondent of The Sunday Times and as chief leader writer at The Times. She has written four books, including Utopia Lost: United Nations and world order, 1999.

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