mulling the mullahs: prelude to the next iranian revolution?

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mulling the mullahs: prelude to the next iranian revolution?

Ahmadinejad was elected to thePresidency on a traditionalist, nationalist,and populist platform, His anti-corruptionstance won him favor, but it wasoften conflated with antagonism towardeducated elites and professionals.Iran had indeed become a dividedcountry. Forty percent were living belowthe poverty line, to whom Ahmadinejadpromised much in the way of welfare.But the middle class was wholly alienatedfrom government. Clearly, a ruralurbansplit had emerged.On religion, a form of culture warhad emerged over day-to-day observationof the conservative mullahs’tedious rules about visible proprietiesand the separation of the sexes, andthe widely detested public disciplinaryadmonishment for petty infractions.Modern Iranian urban women resentthe mullahs’ rural view of suitable traditionalroles. By the end of the 90’smillions of educated women werealienated. A million women signed apetition to have women’s rights underinheritance and property law restored.Possibly most important was thefact that two-thirds of Iranians hadbeen born since the 1979 Revolution.Youth wanted more of what youtheverywhere enjoys, especially a clearerlook at a brighter future. The “martyrdom”of Iranian youth in the waragainst Iraq was a generation ago.Ahmadinejad’s economic policieswere widely seen as disastrous, drivingup inflation. His international roleembarrassed educated Iranians, andnotably his ignorant denials of theHolocaust as he mused publicly aboutthe annihilation of Israel.And yet, he is again Iran’s president,to the disbelief of many millionsof citizens. Signs his renewed tenure iscontested even from within theMulling the mullahs: prelude to the next Iranian revolution?In 2005, once reform candidates had been screened out ofthe race by the clerics, Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejadwas elected to the Presidency on a traditionalist, nationalist,and populist platform, His anti-corruption stance won himfavor, but it was often conflated with antagonism towardeducated elites and professionals.regime are multiple. Ironically, he wasrecently heavily criticized by religiousconservatives for having appointed asvice-president a man who had spokenwith tolerance of Israel. That is smallcomfort for reform opponents, butthey note that several important clericshave withheld their supportbecause of the tainted election andthe harshness of the crack-down, especiallyas it took the lives of the sons ofprominent conservatives. Two ex-Presidents and several major clericalfigures have stayed away from theinauguration and the various stagedcelebrations. In the holy city of Qom,a growing number of dissident clericssay outright that Ahmadinejad is anabomination.Still, the ruling clique aroundAyatollah Khamanei holds the whiphand through power over the policeand security services, as well as theprosecutors and courts. A test of arepressive regime’s capacity to crushprotest has always been whether itcould command its security forces toshoot fellow citizens. After more than20 killed on the streets of Tehran andan unknown number tortured or beatento death in prison cells, the questionappears to be moot. The regimecan count on its basij militia, basicallytrue believers from poorer milieux whobenefit from privileges in return forbrutal handling of dissidents and protesters.Behind them are the 125,000elite Revolutionary Guard whosealumnus, Ahmadinejad, holds theposition that sustains the power andnot incidentally, the wealth, of theregime’s principals.A few commentators like Britishmid-east expert Alistair Crooke arguethat Ahmadinejad can re-energize theIslamist side of the Revolution with hisanti-corruption campaign that couldturn the public against wealthy clericslike Rafsanjani and Khatami who supportedMousavi.My contacts scoff: the bulk of peopleare too sophisticated to buy thenear-farcical lies — that the shooting ofNeda was organized by the BBC, andthe rest of the nonsense the show trialshave put forward.There is a chillingly eloquentirony involved. Inreading the indictmentagainst the accused citizenreformersin shackles,Deputy Prosecutor Mohebattimade the case clearthat this by now paranoidregime sits squarely amongthe tyrants of our times. Charging thatthey sought “a soft overthrow and velvetcoup adopting so-called civil methods,”he identified as “arms of thevelvet revolutionthe women’s movement,the human rights movement,the labour-syndicate movement, nongovernmentalorganizations, and“civil-ethic” movements, in short, civilsociety — or in other words — the Iranianpeople.There is a decisive confidenceissue at stake and Ahmadinejad hasseemed to have lost it from below.On the other hand, the reformmovement is not well organized. Theregime has now locked up its principalthinkers and organizers.Can the largely urban reformersand optimists actually reverse thesubtraction of democracy? Millions ofmiddle class and professional Iranianshave emigrated in the last 30 yearsbecause they couldn’t stand the theocraticdiktat from power-hoardingmullahs in charge.It is possible Tehran’s marchers representjust a dispensable remnant forpopulist rulers convinced they can relyfor support on tradition-bound ruralIran, and can tough it out without havingto cater to calls for reform from citizensand elites that may be essential toIran’s future, but who can be kept intheir box. But it sounds delusional.POLICY OPTIONSSEPTEMBER 200979

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