The announcement of the election results, according to which outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has won 62.6% of the vote, triggers massive protests in Tehran and other cities by supporters of the moderate conservative candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who are demanding the cancellation of the consultations, denouncing fraud. Popular uprisings are severely repressed by the Revolutionary Guards.
A key date
According to best-medical-schools, the thirty-year history of the Iranian Islamic Republic has unfolded in alternating phases: the revolutionary chaos characterized its birth in 1979; in the same year the coup d’état of the Khomeinist students, who occupied the seat of the US embassy in Tehran, opened the prolonged and ostentatious hostility towards the United States and also caused the ouster of the moderate wing of the revolution from the top of the Republic; then there were the eight years of war with the Iraqis, followed by the phases of pragmatism and reformism with the arrival of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami as president of the country, a long experience interrupted with the first four years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, characterized by radicalism and isolation from the international community.
However, the Iranian Islamic regime has never undergone a radical change as in 2009, when the presidential elections of 12 June turned into a violent, extensive and profound showdown between the different souls of the system which, with ups and downs, had nevertheless preserved the its legality and legitimacy among the majority of the population. June 12, 2009 therefore remains a fundamental date in recent Iranian history, from which we must inevitably start to envisage what may evolve in the phases following that event.
A usurped vote
On 12 June there are endless lines at the polls since the early hours of the morning, even before the polls open. The vote is extended until 24 and from the Ministry of the Interior let it be known that the turnout exceeded 83%: an extraordinary and unprecedented event. An hour after the polls closed, first Mousavi and then Ahmadinejad declared themselves the winners. At dawn the next day, June 13, the official Iranian agencies announce Ahmadinejad’s clear victory, with 63% of the votes of the electorate. It is the beginning of the end of the credibility of the institutions of the Islamic Republic. The successive moves of the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, contribute to raising the tension to the point of discrediting the very legitimacy of the system and opening a dramatic crisis in the regime.
On the same evening of June 13, the supreme leader appears on television next to Ahmadinejad to announce that his victory “is a celebration for the nation”, ignoring that in the meantime Mousavi has contested the regularity of the vote and denounced the fraud that took place during the elections. Meanwhile, several thousand people take to the streets to ask for the verification of the vote and with them there is also the third candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, who is also critical of the heads of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of counting the ballots and votes. The day after Ayatollah Khamenei receives Mousavi and Karrubi and convenes the Council of Guardians, one of the highest organs of the Republic, giving orders to recount the votes. His decision wants to appear as a gesture of equidistance, but shortly afterwards we learn that the revision will concern only 10% of the ballots, an absolutely insufficient percentage for the in-depth verification requested by the opposition. From that moment on, oceanic demonstrations began to take place in the streets of the capital and in the most important centers of the country, demonstrations that were brutally repressed by the militiamen of the Basiji paramilitary corps. However, the protest does not stop and in the following days millions of young people, women and men of all social categories take to the streets and this time they are no longer asking for a review of the ballots, but for the right to return to the polls. There are still violent clashes with the Basiji and the death toll is very heavy: officially twenty dead, but eyewitnesses and opposition bodies speak of hundreds and hundreds of victims, thousands of arrests and an unknown number of disappeared. And here is the third move of Ayatollah Khamenei: he presents himself to prayer on Friday 19 June in the University of Tehran and reaffirms Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory, threatens to severely repress all forms of protest, attributes responsibility for the riots to the external enemy and announces the censorship of all the means of communication, of the press, above all that of the correspondents of theforeign media, the Internet, cell phones and control of telephone lines.
The clear alignment of the supreme leader with the contested president radicalizes the political climate and widens the opposition front, to which, in different forms and from different positions, the reformists, those of the moderate conservative area, but above all a growing number adhere of influential ayatollahs in the theological schools of the holy cities of Qom and Mash-had. The break with the top of the regime now seems irremediable. Beyond appearances, who are the real winners and who are the losers in the aftermath of the elections on 12 June? A reflection on this question is closely linked to the prospects that have matured in the meantime in the country. And we must start again from the figure of the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom the Constitution attributes the Velayate-e-Faghih, that is, the management and control of politics and the right of veto over all the decisions that the organs of the state adopt: the tragic post-electoral events say that Khamenei is no longer a super partes figure, as the Constitution itself wants, but is fully deployed with Ahmadinejad, the most isolated and contested character in the country at this time. Khamenei,
not having the charisma of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, has won his legitimacy over the years by mediating between the different souls of the regime. On this occasion, however, he refused to mediate, losing a considerable portion of his power, first of all with the dignitaries of the Shiite theocracy, who are and have been up to now the true architects of the regime and its guarantee of survival.
But, with different arguments, the question of the loss of credibility also concerns Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the trusted man of the powerful Pasdaran corps and the political expression of the emerging military caste. His electoral victory, imposed with violence, is not only contested by millions of Iranians in the streets, but risks being no longer functional to the needs of the militarist caste and to the top of the Pasdaran. If in 2005 Ahmadinejad came to power enjoying the broad consensus of the population and circles of the Armed Forces, in 2009 he is a president forced to impose his authority through the exercise of repression and violence. And this, in the long run, transforms him into a character no longer strategically functional to the needs of the emerging forces and the strong powers of the regime, but in a threat to the survival of the system itself. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the two strongmen of the political system, are in reality two halved characters, two obstacles for the regime itself. Paradoxically, however, the survival of the Islamic Republic in this phase is also a puzzle for the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s government. The movement born around Mousavi during and after the elections of 12 June began with the contestation of the result of the votes, subsequently asked for a return to the polls and finally proposed a popular referendum to verify the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s government. But up to this moment he has shouted in the streets “Death to the dictatorship”, he called the falsification of the popular vote a “coup d’etat” and went so far as to criticize Ayatollah Khamenei and his authority as supreme leader. But he never questioned the very existence of the Islamic system.
The protest, despite its drama and its breadth, remained within the boundaries of the regulations sanctioned by the Constitution of the Republic. Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei by the opposition is that he violated the Constitution during the elections.
The credit for managing the protest movement within the Islamic Republic system goes to Mousavi, Karrubi, Khatami and Rafsanjani, who step by step adapted to the demands of the square, managing them with the aim of keeping them in the legality of the Islamic regime. The most insidious question, however, remains to what extent the square will obey the opposition leaders. How long will the square just shout “Death to the dictatorship” and not “Death to the Islamic Republic”?
The survival of the regime is the issue that is also debated with insistence by the dignitaries of the Islamic Republic, by the various organs of the state, by various councils that have the task of safeguarding the system and protecting it from dangers. But this question is also the essential reason for the clash between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, the only two exponents of the Khomeinist old guard who occupy top positions: the first as leader of the revolution, the second as manager of the Council of Experts, the body to which the task of electing the Guide is reserved, but also to remove it.
The complexity of the Iranian case derives from its geopolitical position, but also from the ability of this country to rapidly transform itself into a regional power, dominating some neighboring territories, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the uncertainties about Iran’s future come from almost exclusively internal factors, starting with its incomplete democracy, which in 2009 proved to be blocked by the limits set by its Constitution – based on the undisputed authority of the supreme leader, the Guide of the revolution – and above all by the changes in the internal political geography. In recent years this has in fact been transformed, with the appearance on the scene of an emerging and all-encompassing force, that of the military and the Pasdaran, destined for a conflictual confrontation with the traditionally present caste, the Shiite theocracy which for 30 years has hegemonized and controlled the Islamic Republic. 2009 was the year in which all these contradictions emerged in an extremely dramatic and disruptive way, posing a heavy question about the future and survival of the system born with the Khomeinist revolution of 1979 and now probably reaching its epilogue.