Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cracks in the conservative façade?

Roger Cohen's eloquent essay in the New York Review of Books is must reading. He portrays a budding and resolute social movement that reaches across socio-economic categories, at least in Tehran, but probably elsewhere as well.

As others have noted, and I have stated here weeks ago, the big loser in Iran is Khamenei, whose reputation seems to have been badly and perhaps permanently tarnished. His threats--"It is examination day," he said. "But anyone who flunks the exam cannot retake it the next year. Failing in this exam is not flunking, it is collapse"-- seem to have only limited effect. Some of the best U.S. reporting on Iran has been by Borzou Daraghi and his colleagues at the LATimes. They have reported that the Leader has become fair game for reformists' barbs. The following passages are from their July 23 article:

At a meeting with families of political prisoners Tuesday night, Abdullah Nouri, a former interior minister, compared Khamenei to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the revolution that established the Islamic Republic 30 years ago.

"In the 1970s, nobody imagined that limited struggles would drive the shah out of the country," he said, according to a reformist website.

Meanwhile, two high-ranking reformist clerics declared support for the protest movement and openly challenged Khamenei's leadership. They also gave tacit permission for government officials and clerics to boycott Ahmadinejad's inauguration.

"The supreme leader's confirmation of a president born out of a rigged election could not grant him any legitimacy," Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani said in a religious edict. "Both the supreme leader's confirmation and the president's swearing-in are acceptable if and only if the president is elected in a clean vote."

Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Dastgheib Shirazi called on other top clerics to support those protesting the election results.

"Using firearms and crude weapons against people and incarceration of the revolutionaries will never help safeguard Islam and the establishment," he said, according to several websites.

The resolve of the status quo forces may be cracking a bit. Evin prison officials announced the release of 140 prisoners captured during or after the demonstrations. The BBC reports 200 more remain in custody, and other sources claim the number has been as high as 500. The Iran Labor News Agency reports that those released had been arrested for lighter offences. Meanwhile the government has acknowledged that 30, not 20 as previously claimed, demonstrators were killed. Reformists claim the real number is about 100. Accounts from a variety of sources reveal significant differences in the conservative camp over how to respond. I am not aware of any evidence, however, that the leadership of the Pasdaran has fractured. Certainly, the commander M. Ali Ja'fari has talked a tough game.

Meanwhile, Mir-Hossein Musavi seems to have grown into being a real leader. Musavi, along with fellow candidate Kharoubi, applied for a permit to hold mourning ceremony on July 29, 2009 for the victims of government force, but the Interior Ministry refused to issue a permit. Now Musavi is calling for his followers to go into the street next week, when Iranians celebrate the birthday of the missing Imam. The Twelfth Imam, who many Shi'i Muslims believe will emerge from occultation to rein on Earth during an age of peace and justice, a time just preceding the Day of Judgment, is awaited by Shi'i Muslims. I suspect that few of the reformists share the fervent belief of President Ahmadinejad in the Mahdi, but the commemoration of the Imam's birthday will provide an excellent occasion for multitudes to fill the streets. Ahmadinejad is a fervent believer in the Mahdi, who he believes already, plays an active role in steering Iran's destiny. He believes that the return of the Mahdi is imminent, and he has spoken publicly of the importance of hastening the return of the Mahdi, most famously when he spoke before the General Assembly in September 2006.

Ahmadinejad is to be installed for his second term in office on August 5, 2009. Many of the reform-oriented heavy-weights will not be there, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, who reportedly plans on being in Kerman. Even the conservative former Speaker of the Majlis Nateq Nouri, who opposed Khatami for President in 1997, may be absent.

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