Monday, 20 July 2009

The Iranian ruling class - fall out!

Basij militiamen on bikes with sticks!

The Iranian security forces on Friday, fired tear gas to repel tens of thousands of protesters near Tehran University, as one of the regime's top ecclesiastics castigated the government for its handling of post-election unrest.
Crowds drawn to a university campus for Friday prayers presided over by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, heard this fierce critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, call the post-election period a "crisis" bluntly criticizing the election and its aftermath.

Following the events as they have unfolded in Iran and with some intensive interest, ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner four weeks ago, has left me in no doubt that this amounts to nothing more than a squabble that has broken-out amongst the Iranian ruling class. The run-up to the elections had proved to be one of the liveliest and deadliest campaigns in Iran's recent history. Streets full of young people clamouring for reform, emboldened by the olive branch extended by Bareck Obama in his inauguration speech.

The regimes approved the idea to hold US style televised presidential debates with the candidates arguing their cases head to head, must have seemed a good idea at the time. In-house critics would be seen to show the world, that Iran had no fear of transparent debate, whilst President Mahmoud Adindinejad, the favoured hard-line incumbent would have a good chance to poor cold water over his rivals. Alas, they should have known better than to trust the import from the land of the Great Satan. The nightly debates descended into unpprecedented in-house criticism of acrimony and name calling, the dishing of the dirt not just on each other but on numerous other senior politicians. Iran's entire political class has undergone an overnight image crash. It was Adindinejad, who started the mud-slinging, claiming that the wife of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his nearest opponent had faked her degree certificate. The gloves came off and ordinary Iranians became transfixed by the debates.

While the contending candidates were divided into reformist and hard-line camps, they are all long-time stalwarts of Iran's religious establishment to a man. Nobody can even stand for office if they oppose the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatallah Ali Khameini. In effect, then, the contest opened up cracks in a once-unified political class. This may have dameged the cohesiveness of the general Islamic family tree that runs Iran.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani comments on fridayr are said to directly challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had previously endorsed the announced re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in June 12 polls. Mr. Rafsanjani also called for the release of detainees rounded up in weeks of post-election protests.

Anticipating big crowds, the authorities deployed security in force, in and around the university. Rows of plain-clothes Basij militiamen, riot police and camouflaged security officers kept watch over attendees. Helicopters buzzed overhead, according to witnesses, and police erected roadblocks and forced some pedestrians on their way to the prayers to turn back.

"It looked like a human chain of police," said one witness.

On top of all this,Iranian authorities have clamped down hard on local and international media in Iran, and the seriousness of a number of reported clashes and scuffles were unclear late on Friday. Reuters reported 15 arrests early in the day.

Several witnesses have said in reports coming out of Iran, that the militiamen and police fired large amounts of tear gas into crowds, which chanted opposition slogans, including "death to the dictator," a now-familiar refrain amid weeks of post-election protests.

A couple of weeks ago, I had thought, that the hands upon the levers of power within Iran had managed to stamp out the green revolt, and I say revolt as it would not be appropriate to call it a green revolution, given that all the main players are or have been prominent within the higher élite of Iranian society following the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Rafsanjani is one of the founders of the Islamic Republic one of the few politicians who enjoys an independent power base inside Iran, occupying two of the highest clerical positions in the country. As a bitter rival to Mr. Ahmadinejad, he has been widely seen as a voice of moderation in the post-election crackdown. Friday's sermon was his first public statements about the polls, and clearly put him in the camp of the reformers!

While supporters of Messrs. Ahmadinejad and Mousavi clashed in the streets, the election has also split Iran's clerical leadership. Several top clerics have criticized the election and the crackdown, appearing to break from Mr. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. Whilst not being in the business of making predictions this seems on the surface to be quite a serious split amongst the rulers, reinforced today by the reported arrest of 36 army officers who planned to attend last week's Friday prayer sermon in their military uniforms as an act of political defiance, according to Farsi-language websites.

The officers intended the gesture to show solidarity with the demonstrations against last month's presidential election result.

The mass uprising against the results of the June 12 election by supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad's challengers has for the time being largely died down. Demonstrations now though still heated, drew thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Iranian officials have said between 17 and 20 people have died in the monthlong protests. Independent organizations tracking human-rights violations in Iran put the death toll closer to several dozen while hundreds languish in jails. This falling out of the Iranian ruling class may prove to hard to shake off. Whilst writing this blog entry, it is being reported around the world that Mr Mousavi, the presidential candidate, said it was "insulting" to suggest that foreigners had organised mass demonstrations against the outcome of last month's election and demanded the release of all political prisoners.

His words showed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose bitterly controversial re-election sparked the crisis, has failed to suppress the popular challenge to his rule. Mr Mousavi's latest intervention also amounts to open defiance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and shows yet again the deep divisions within the regime.

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