A ribbon runs through it: Iran's 2009 presidential election has sundered the regime's illusion of legitimacy. But notice the ribbon's color: still establishment, Islamist green. (Getty Images)
The Times calls it "the largest antigovernment demonstration here since the 1979 revolution," which is promising: hundreds of thousands of people marching through central Tehran, making a mockery of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim that he won the election by a landslide, but more pointedly, showing the Iranian regime for the farce that it is--and that, with every skull it crushes and ballot it burns, it is proving to have been all along.
The Tehran demonstration took place against state orders to stay home, and after the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is becoming less supreme by the hour, switched from terming the re-election of Ahmadinejad a "divine assessment" to calling for an inquiry.
Don't see in Khamenei's call more than what it is: a pre-emptive move to diffuse what's obviously more than a protest against the election. He's discovering that his regime is in danger. He needs to deflect attention, regain the legitimacy Ahmadinejad's clumsy power-grab (and, let's not forget, dismal governance) bumbled away. Khamenei also needs to pay the price of his miscalculation. He backed Ahmadinejad, thinking him the easier candidate to manipulate and use as a foil. Now he sees that Ahmadinejad isn't even the cracked-up foil he appeared to be in the past four years. He's just cracked up. His value as a foil has crumpled to nothing. But he wasn't, isn't, the power in Iran. Khamenei is. Now that power is under attack, and Khamenei can't use his standard foil to repel the attack. The inquiry is his next-best trick.
Who'll conduct the inquiry? The Council of Guardians, six of whose 12 members Khamenei appointed. The Council of Guardians is a gatekeeper: next to the supreme leader, it decides who may run for president, parliament or the Assembly of Experts, and it decides whether to hold referendums, and on what matters, essentially nullifying the democratic aspects of those three, popularly elected institutions.
Not exactly an independent inquiry. But an inquiry isn't the point anymore than the election was the point. Appearances is all. Ahmadinejad demolished the appearance of legitimacy, because, as Reza Aslan wrote, "despite what most Americans think, Iran boasts among of the freest and fairest presidential elections in the whole of the Middle East (a pathetic statement, but nevertheless true)." Boasted. Ahmadinejad messed that up with "the brazenness with which this presidential election was stolen."
Khamenei is merely trying to clean up--not rethink--the results. It's his septuagenarian gluteus maximus on the line (supremely diminished as that maximums has become, thanks to the twin spanking of Ahmadinejad's stupidity and the demonstrations' vibrancy).
Will it work? That tantalizing question didn't seem like it could be asked a couple of days ago, when the regime looked in control regardless. Not anymore. There's an opening here. The next few days, maybe the next few hours, are key: how well the demonstrators sustain their assault, how cleverly Khamenei outflanks them, and how brutally the military puts them down, will decide Iran's next leap: past the farce and tragedy of the Islamic revolution, or back in its claws.
Personally, I don't see the demonstrations turning into a counter-revolution. There is no chucking of veils, no rejection of the regime's establishment figures here--and Mir Hossein Mousavi, for all his symbolism of change, is no revolutionary candidate. He's not even a moderate. He's a different kind of establishment. He's a different shade of green, but the same green that has arrested Iran's development and made of it a repeat of the shah's regime: same repressions, different allegiances.
- What Is Iran's Council of Guardians?
- Fear and Loathing in Tehran
- Dashing Fabricated Hopes: The Meaning of Ahmadinejad's Victory
- Iran Goes Florida? Not Quite: Ahmadinejad Wins
- What's a "Supreme Leader"?
- Ali Khamenei: Profile