Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Explaining Obama’s “Double Standard” Regarding Iran and Honduras

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A number of Obama’s critics have pointed out a disparity between Obama’s treatment of Iran on the one hand – and Israel and Honduras on the other.

In their view, Obama has refused to take a side in Iran even though he clearly should be on the side of the protesters if he values life, liberty, and the American way. In Israel, Obama has pressured the Israelis while giving free reign to the Palestinians who are really at fault. While in Honduras, Obama has clearly taken the side of the leftist friend of  Hugo Chavez who was removed from office with the endorsement of courts and Congress of Honduras as they sought to protect their democracy from the president’s power grab. In all of these cases, they claim, Obama has taken the side of anti-democratic forces – and only interfered with our “friends” – presumably because Obama is desperate for the approval of the European Union, which is in itself anti-democratic and leftist. This portrayal of Obama is based on their observation that in Iran Obama has reacted to major violations of the values he claims to hold with muted tones – but in Israel and Honduras he has reacted to minor violations with strident tones.

This caricature of Obama presumes he is acting in bad faith at all times, which is increasingly the sole item of agreement among the Republican opposition; and it attributes to Obama a nonsensical and inconsistent worldview. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to notice the sharp differences in tone between Obama’s cautious approach to Iran and his more aggressive approaches in Honduras and Israel.

David Rothkopf proposes one explanation – that frankly seems a bit too Beltway for me, but I’m sure is a factor in Obama’s change in tone between the Iranian coup d’etat and the Honduran one:

[A] reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

While I’m sure the law of prior incident played a role, it seems to me that there is a more basic explanation for this disparity – which likewise explains the difference between Obama’s approach towards Israel. The difference in how Obama dealt with these various crises comes from how Obama understands power in foreign relations. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, in Power Rules, defines it:

Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do. It is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically….And American leaders would do well to learn, finally, that power shrinks when it is wielded poorly. Failed or open-ended wars diminish power. Threats unfulfilled diminish power. Mistakes and continual changing of course also diminish power.

Teddy Roosevelt understood this implicitly when he said:

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Alternatively, George W. Bush used grand language, made many threats:

From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

What Bush did not seem to realize – and what right-wingers today still do not seem to realize – is that it weakens the United States to declare, “We are all Georgians!” as Russia invades Georgia and we do nothing – as happened under Bush. Yet the rhetoric is not the problem – as it actually strengthened America when John F. Kennedy declared, “We are all Berliners” and the Soviet Union, given the lengths Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had gone already to protect West Berlin, believed the young president was willing to protect Berlin at high cost. Many right-wingers have cited Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” as a model for what Obama should say to Iran. But what made Reagan’s exhortation more than mere empty rhetoric and bluster was the personal relationship he had with Gorbachev after years of meeting with him. And when Reagan made this statement, he was not demanding it – he was rather challenging Gorbachev to live by the values he claimed he held. Reading the actual speech this challenge is prefaced by an “if.” This is a very different proposal than what right-wingers want Obama to say: which is to endorse one side in an internal conflict and refuse to negotiate with this member of the “Axis of Evil.” Reagan on the other hand negotiated with the “Evil Empire” and stayed out of internal Soviet politics – realizing that the endorsement of an enemy could be toxic.

What Obama has shown in the past several weeks is an impatience with hollow rhetoric which presumes conflicts in other countries are really about us. The striking oratory he does use always seems to have a specific purpose – to reach out to Muslims angered by what they see as a war against them, for example – or to call on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama sees words in foreign policy as tools to be used rather than ways of expressing our feelings about other nations. Thus, despite his apparent feelings about Iran – and his great sympathy for the Green Wave – he does not feel the need to express this publicly if he does not see what it will accomplish. With many Iranians publicly saying they did not want Obama to take the side of the protesters publicly as it would undermine them (for example, here and here), he had little reason to do so.  So far he had not been willing to undermine his and America’s power by using puffery and empty threats on Iran just to please his domestic audience, despite pressure from the right-wing.

But Obama did speak more forcefully on Israel and Honduras. Why? Because in these two places he has significant leverage – and his words can have an impact. Also – in neither of these places was America regularly called “The Great Satan.” (Imagine if Ahmadinjad had endorsed Obama in our election. Would that have helped Obama?) With regards to these nations, Obama can say what America wants and put pressure on those in control there for it to happen as America supplies significant funds to both nations – and has diplomatic, economic, and military alliances.

Speaking about Iran, on the other hand, Obama can only offer wish lists – which he would not be able to pressure Iran to fulfill – and when Iran ignored him, America would look weaker.

I also believe there is another factor at work. I have already stated that I believe the Obama Doctrine – that will and is guiding his foreign policy – is a focus on creating and maintaining states of consent. One of the basic principles which is necessary to create a state of consent is Rule of Law; another is the freedom of people to peacefully protest and speak freely. Obama has limited himself to condemning those actions which have violated the principles underpinning a state of consent. Not having direct knowledge of the election results in Iran, he remained quiet – though the administration raised questions. When confronted with evidence of the violent suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on free speech, he condemned these in strong terms – though he still refused to take a side, saying the battle was internal. In the case of Honduras, the State Department had been working with opponents of President Zelaya as he took illegal and unconstitutional actions to see how Zelaya could be checked. This is why they knew so quickly that the coup d’etat was a clear violation of the Rule of Law. The American State Department had been working with the Honduran Congress and other leaders to determine what the constitutional steps would be to remove Zelaya. At the same time, the intervention of the military set a bad precedent, undermining ability of the people to consent to their government. As Der Spiegel explained:

Anyone who sees the coup as some sort of effort to rescue democracy must ask themselves what version of democracy involves removing the elected leader of a country from office while holding a pistol to their head.

Obama has here still neglected to side with either party – instead insisting both parties follow their commitments to the law of their land, which the military violated. The American position is that Zelaya should resume his place as rightful president – and impeachment or other proceedings could then occur, although the deal being negotiated instead merely ties his hands to prevent him from any further dictatorial actions (demonstrating that the military actually weakened their hand in dealing with Zelaya in overreacting.)

In each of these cases, Obama displays a common goal – to maintain and allow the space for states of consent – free from military or other violent forms of coercion.

What right-wingers are declaring inconsistency is one of results – not goals. The differences in responses can be quite clearly explained by looking at what leverage Obama had and by a consistent moral demand that the nations of the world govern by consent and not force.

[The above image is a product of the United States government.]

Michael Jackson’s Gift to the Ayatollah Khamenei

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

David Rothkopf makes a good point:

Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption…celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery…ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution’s flame in Tehran needed to direct the world’s attention away from their abuses of their own people.

A “Smart” Girl’s Partisanly-Selective Indignation

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I know the blogosphere has a reputation as a place where any idiot can have a voice. That’s why I’m here.

But I have trouble respecting someone’s opinion when it so slavishly follows the party line as Dawn Kelli Hochhalter-Krauss of “Smart” Girl Nation in a piece posted by Dawn.1 Her article on the “U.S. Foreign Policy Circus” seemed to be of potential interest – though the picture of Obama in clown shoes labeled “Appeaser” was less promising. But her insistent and partisanly-selective indignation quickly lost me. An article that talks about our ballooning structural deficits which fails to mention they stem more from the actions of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than the current White House occupant – that expresses shock at the fact that a liberal was chummy with a dictator without referencing Bush’s weekends at the ranch with Saudi Arabia’s tyrant and the countless chummy encounters between other prominent right-wingers and dictators; that professes outrage at opening up lines of communication with an enemy – as every President in history save George W. Bush did2; that presents Obama’s response to North Korea as a sign of weakness, while neglecting to give an alternate policy – which George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and presidents going back in history would have appreciated – as there are no good options there.

In short, in another piece posted by Dawn on Smart Girl Politics (in which the author confesses he is incapable of understanding the grammatical complexity of the phrase, “The Audacity of Hope” while trafficking in bizarre anti-Obama conspiracy) is anything but a “smart girl.” She does though have the audacity to attack Obama for not understanding the situation in Honduras and Iran while neglecting to take the time herself to catch up on these matters. It was a bit difficult for me to figure out she didn’t know what she was talking about – as she so rarely cites any sources or facts, instead relying on the gospel of her own opinion. She does give a few indications where she is coming from though – as she cites Fouad Ajami’s clueless op-ed on the Iranian crisis and refers to those opposing the demonstrations as “Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs” – when in fact, Ahmadinejad’s support comes mainly from the Revolutionary Guard and Basiji - and a large number of the mullahs are being rallied against him by Rafsanjani. This “smart girl” also dismissed out of hand the suggestion that the Bush administration’s action enhanced Iranian influence – despite the near-unanimity that it did so, if unintentionally. After all – we did take out two regimes that had opposed Iran, including their mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein.

I think what Hooman Majd (an actual expert on Iran, and indeed an Iranian with an actual stake in the Green Revolution) explained to Jeanne Carstensen of Salon also applies to Smart Girl Politics:

The John McCains of the world, they’re Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots. They’re doing a great job for him.

  1. The article was posted by Dawn but written by Kelli. Several other edits made given this. []
  2. Including Reagan over the objections of his right-wing staff. []

A Positive Indicator in Iran?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I’m not in a position to judge how significant this is, but this (in a Times piece by Michael Slackman) seems like a promising indicator of the situation in Iran:

European security experts, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, confirmed reports in Italian and Turkish newspapers that large sums of money had been sent to havens outside the country from banks controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.

A Different Take on the Iranian Situation

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

M. K. Bhadrakumar writing in the Asia Times last week seemed to have an entirely foreign take on the Iranian crisis. It’s unclear to me if he has a different perspective or if he is just plain wrong. Supporting the idea that he is just wrong is the predictive statement he made about the protests dying out, as he wrote last Thursday – the 18th:

The signs are that the color revolution struggling to be born on the streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage.

He also seems to vaguely suggest that the Iranian Green Revolution is foreign-sponsored – but in a vague way that may just be the result of a poor translation.

Bhadrakumar states that:

Rafsanjani is undoubtedly the West’s favorite poster boy…

I’m not sure where he gets that. Or even what he means by it. But I am pretty certain this isn’t true.

Bhadrakumar also speaks of a Mousavi-Rafsanjani animus which I wasn’t aware of – as most news reports have only mentioned on the Khamenei-Mousavi rivalry – and how Rafsanjani’s timely intervention actually led to Khamenei becoming Supreme Leader.

Finally, he praises the one statement by Obama on the matter that I have seen condemned virtually everywhere:

But Obama is treading softly. He said late on Tuesday there appeared to be no policy differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised. Either way, we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States.”

That’s a cleverly drafted formulation. Prima facie, Obama pleases the regime in Tehran insofar as he appears “stand-offish” as to what ensues through the coming days by way of the street protests or out of the deliberations of Iran’s Guardians Council. Fair enough. But, on the other hand, Obama also is smartly neutralizing any allegation that the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mousavi phenomenon is in any way to be branded by the Iranian regime as “pro-US”. Obama’s remark helps the Iranian opposition to maintain that its motivations are purely driven by Iran’s national interests.

John McCain’s Hip-Shooting Onanism

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Joe Klein has had enough (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

McCain’s bleatings are either for domestic political consumption or self-satisfaction, a form of hip-shooting onanism that demonstrates why he would have been a foreign policy disaster had he been elected.

To put it as simply as possible, McCain – and his cohorts – are trying to score political points against the President in the midst of an international crisis. It is the sort of behavior that Republicans routinely call “unpatriotic” when Democrats are doing it. I would never question John McCain’s patriotism, no matter how misguided his sense of the country’s best interests sometimes seems. His behavior has nothing to do with love of country; it has everything to do with love of self…

The protesters admire our freedom, but…[they] consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran – a crude, unsophisticated demagogue…

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout “Allahu Akbar” in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program…

Klein’s exactly right on all counts. Except perhaps the “hip-shooting onanism” – that’s an image too far. For those unfamiliar with the biblical term, it refers to the story of Onan who was struck dead by God for “spilling his seed” on the ground. Onan was actually having sex with his dead brother’s wife at the time – but that was okay as his duty was to impregnate her. But he attempted to avoid impregnating her by “spilling his seed” – which wasn’t okay – and thus he was killed by God.
Despite the disturbing image, I can see why Klein found it hard to resist labelling McCain’s foreign policy views mastubatory. The compelling argument for the necessity of the President taking the side of the Iranian protestors is the same as the rationale for masturbation: It feels good, so do it.

Obama, meanwhile, has reiterated his position today:

This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

Obama realizes this is not about us – but about Iran. And though his comments equating Mousavi and Ahmadinejad may have gone too far, it is important to realize that we are not likely to see a Western-style democracy coming out of Iran. Many of the protesters in the street want more freedom – but they still support the nuclear program and political Islam and see the 1979 revolution as a positive event. But the rising up of the people helps to demonstrate why I believed – and still believe – “Iran and America are natural allies on most issues.” It’s why I find Les Gelb’s assertion that “Within ten years, Iran will be our closest ally in the region,” to be convincing despite our history of conflict over the past three decades.

The High Point of Web Journalism

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I’d like to echo Henrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker:

Iran’s Gandhian uprising is one of those mesmerizing stories that some of us want to follow minute by minute, like Watergate or the fall of the Berlin Wall. As many have noted, cable TV news has turned out to be useless; it’s little more than talk radio with pictures of the hosts…The best way I’ve found to stay informed has been Andrew Sullivan’s pioneering blog, the Daily Dish

He aggregates not just the news coming out of Iran but also the domestic debates over what it all means and what the President ought to be doing about it…What really makes the Dish’s coverage of this story so compelling, though, is that its impresario brings to it the same engagé passion that he has brought to the torture revelations and the gay marriage fight. This is a high point of Web journalism. [my emphasis]

For what it’s worth, Sullivan quotes another blogger who suggests CNN may have turned a corner:

After taking it on the chin from the blogosphere for several days, it’s time to applaud CNN.  Last weekend, CNN was basically dead air on Iran.  This weekend the full power of CNN is on display, in what amounts to a team effort to duplicate what only Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney have done from their laptops up to now.

It Will Be a Revolution

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Andrew Sullivan has mined the internet for information coming from Iran in the past few weeks. One thing that becomes clear in reading Sullivan’s site is that – if the assorted tweets, videos, images, blog posts, and messages are in any way representative – something new is in the offing in Iran. Sullivan quotes one young Iranian on his blog on Friday night, after the Supreme Leader has set out his demand that the protests stop, with the promise of violence in his words:

I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to get killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow! There are a few great movie scenes that I also have to see. I should drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read the poems of Forough and Shamloo again. All family pictures have to be reviewed, too. I have to call my friends as well to say goodbye. All I have are two bookshelves which I told my family who should receive them. I’m two units away from getting my bachelors degree but who cares about that. My mind is very chaotic. I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so they know we were not just emotional and under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children…

Later on Friday, in the night, a woman videotaped the sounds of shouts from the rooftops of Tehran of “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to the Dictator” as she explained the poetry of the moment:

Then, from Saturday I believe, there is this thrilling video from the Persian BBC:


The theme of the coverage of the Iran in the Times and other papers this morning – and indeed since Saturday – has been: “There is no going back from here.” Mousavi has made it clear he is not compromising on his core terms – and is prepared to martyr himself. On the other side, sources suggest the regime is preparing to label Mousavi a terrorist – as official media sources have hinted he is working with a small terrorist group within Iran.

What has become clear – given these sentiments of Mousavi and his supporters – is that what follows will be either a revolution or a crushed rebellion. The legitimacy of the regime has been questioned – and even if Mousavi is able to maneuver his way into taking power without removing Khamenei or the current power structure, the result is still a revolution. Because, as the system is set up, Iran’s democracy is designed to merely provide an outlet for frustrations – not to create a government with the consent of the people.

The candidates are chosen in advance by the ruling class – and alternate candidates are not just shunned, they are excluded. The votes are tabulated in secret – and the results of the election can be invalidated by the Supreme Leader if he deems the result to be improper. What the Iranian people have made clear in the past week is that their consent is required for the state to function. This fundamentally changes the social bargain at the heart of the Islamic republic – and directly challenges the more authoritarian vision of Ahmadinejad and his faction.

All About Iran: Iran’s Social Bargain, Maximal Uncertainty, and Breaking News

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Now for the best reads of the week – all Iran-related:

Iran’s Social Bargain. Mark LeVine for Al Jazeera describes “Iran on the Brink” – with a “?” His piece offered insights none of the mountains of commentary seemed to have touched on. As an added bonus, he comments on questions of how a state legitimizes itself and how China’s response to its democracy movement in 1989 is not open to Iran today:

Cultural liberalisation became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist party.

Needless to say, no such safety valve exists in the Islamic Republic, where a cultural perestroika is precisely what Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the leadership and among the people want to prevent…

In China the government struck a bargain with the people, telling them: “You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t challenge the power of the state.”

The Iranian government has over the last two decades negotiated a very different and more narrow bargain with its citizens: “You can do what you want behind closed doors, as long as you keep the music down. But we own the street and the public sphere. So put your headscarf on before you leave the house, and don’t think about challenging cultural or political limits publicly.”

That bargain has now collapsed as hundreds of thousands of Iranians have, at least for the moment, reclaimed the streets…

Iran long ago lost the singular, collective will that enabled the revolution; the protesters are no longer imbued with the idea of bi-kodi, or self-annihilation, martyrdom and complete self-sacrifice that toppled the Shah and helped the country withstand eight years of brutal war with Iraq.

A maximally uncertain future. David Brooks’s column this morning tries to look at the past week’s events in Iran from an historical perspective:

At these moments — like the one in Iran right now — change is not generated incrementally from the top. Instead, power is radically dispersed. The real action is out on the streets. The future course of events is maximally uncertain.

The fate of nations is determined by glances and chance encounters: by the looks policemen give one another as a protesting crowd approaches down a boulevard; by the presence of a spontaneous leader who sets off a chant or a song and with it an emotional contagion; by a captain who either decides to kill his countrymen or not; by a shy woman who emerges from a throng to throw herself on the thugs who are pummeling a kid prone on the sidewalk.

Brooks quotes on of Obama’s advisers commenting years ago:

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.

Keeping Up To Date on Iran. Andrew Sullivan, the Tehran Bureau, and the Times’ The Lede have made themselves indispensable sources for breaking news and insights on what’s going on in Iran.

How Does the Iranian Conflict End?

Friday, June 19th, 2009

The stories in the Times and elsewhere turn today to the question of how this stand-off in Iran will end. None of the three most likely scenarios have unfolded in the past week – as the protests have not petered out – and in fact seem to be growing in strength; the government has not tried to put down the protests with violence (on a large scale); and Mir-Houssein Mousavi has not backed down – as Robert F. Worth in the Times quoted a relative of Mousavi’s:

Mr. Moussavi says he has taken a path that has no return and he is ready to make sacrifices.

This last comment – and the growing strength of the crowds – suggest that no resolution is in the immediate offing. Despite this, it’s hard to see how long the type of drama overwhelming day-to-day concerns can last. Eventually, one needs to get back to the business of living. It is this prospect most of all that seems to undercut the ferment for change. I’ve seen 5 basic scenarios outlined for how this could end, listed in order of descending likelihood:

  • Violent government crackdown. This is what everyone is preparing for – and what the Revolutionary Guard is warning about.
  • Power-sharing. Mousavi seems to have ruled this out, and this compromise seems unlikely to satisfy many of those protesting, but enormous pressure is being put on Mousavi to accept some sort of arrangement, and he has always been a man of the status quo. The prospect of a President Ahmadinejad and a Foreign Minister Mousavi, for example, has been speculated.
  • Protestors stop showing up. Eventually, the movement just dies out – as people get on with their lives. It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s hard to imagine any ending to these protests. This seems to have been the initial hope of Khamenei – and the reason for his superficial attempts to appease the protestors by allowing a review of a small percentage of the votes.
  • A new election. This is the demand of the protesters and Mousavi. But to allow a new election because of massive voter fraud would call into question the leadership of Iran – and probably implicate leaders from Khamenei to Ahmadinejad to the Interior Department to the Revolutionary Guard. The storyline supporting this demand calls last Friday’s election a coup d’etat – and thus demands a new, more fair election. After this controversy, it seems necessary that Iran allow some transparency in their vote-counting process – rather than having it all centrally controlled and secret.
  • A revolution. The protesters could overthrow the current regime – but the tenor of the current protests has deliberately stayed away from this idea. Mousavi has been encouraging his supporting to chant generic Islamic slogans – rather than more charged ones.

There are a few wild cards at work in all of this however.

Neither Mousavi nor Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad are completely in control of the forces supporting them. Both Mousavi and Khamenei are considered uncharismatic power brokers (with Mousavi even being compared to an “Iranian Michael Dukakis“) – and both have achieved what they have by positioning themselves cleverly rather than by articulating a vision, winning over the people, or the other traditional measures of leadership. Ahmadinejad is charismatic – and has many supporters – but he is generally seen as, not a true leader, but a front-man for the second-generation revolutionaries who are seeking to purge all of the first-generation revolutionaries from power (except Khamenei). It’s unclear what would happen if Khamenei were to push for a new election – would the more radical elements overthrow him? It’s also unclear what would happen if Mousavi were to tell the crowds to go home – he seems to have gained their confidence, but he freely admits this movement is not about him. Mousavi’s external spokesperson admitted to Foreign Policy yesterday:

[T]he young people in the streets are more modern [than the 1979 Iranian revolutionaries]: They use SMS; they use the Internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.

The power struggle among the Iranian elites has finally come into partial view. There seem to be three basic factions: the Reformers – including former President Khatami, former Prime Minister Rafsanjani, and Mousavi; conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamenei; and the far right-wing religious cultists fronted by Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani is generally considered to be the second most powerful person in Iran as he leads the council which can remove the Supreme Leader, has thrown his support behind Mousavi. In the run-up to the election, he was providing logistical support to Mousavi – and was accused of corruption in a public debate by Ahmadinejad. It is widely rumored that Rafsanjani is now trying to round up clerics to support Mousavi in Qom.

At the same time, the Hojjatiyeh now led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (who seem to have a set of beliefs similar to the Christian millenialists who are trying to create the conditions for the end of the world) have been gradually infiltrating the government and the Revolutionary Guard, and at this point have many of leadership positions, including the presidency held by Ahmadinejad. Yazdi rejects the idea of elections – and wrote a fatwa two weeks before this election condoning fraud and cheating in an election to achieve the proper ends. Ahmadinejad himself apparently does not refer to Iran as the “Islamic Republic” as it is officially called – but as the “Islamic Government.” The Hojjatiyeh’s views are in many ways antithetical to some of the founding ideals behind the 1979 revolution – which is why the Hojjatiyeh did not join the revolution and did not assume positions of power until recently.

Khamenei has generally opposed the reformers – and has historical bad blood with Mousavi from when they both were in positions of power in the 1980s. But he is of a different generation and background than the Hojjatiyeh. He has tended to support them, but also has sought to check their power. It’s unclear at this point whether Khamenei is simply accepting their position of power or actively promoting their interests.

How this ends is still unclear. Khamenei’s remarks this morning have been described as “ominous.” That seems to point to a forthcoming government crackdown – but is far from clear that this crackdown will be successful – and it could possibly destabilize the regime, forcing many clerics who are suspicious of the Hojjatiyeh and who think the election was fraudulent to come off the fence and back Mousavi. The social bargain that underlied the Iranian government’s rule though seems to have come undone – as the people, in anger at hypocrisy and being robbed of their votes, have braved the wrath of the government, defying clear orders not to assemble. What they have demonstrated, with their massive, non-violent civil disobedience so far has been exceptional – and whether they succeed or not is an example for the world.

[Image by Hamed Saber licensed under Creative Commons.]