Is a Counter Coup in the Works in Iran?

A news report from Al Arabiya and analysis from EurAsiaNet suggests that a power struggle may be occurring behind the scenes in Iran. The battle seems to be centered on control of the Assembly of Experts, or the Majlise Khobregan. The Assembly of Experts has 86 Islamic scholar members. Candidates are chosen from the ulema. All Assembly of Experts candidates are vetted by the 12-member and appointed Guardian Council. Candidates are elected by direct public vote. They are charged with electing and removing the Supreme Leader of Iran and supervising his activities. It meets for at least two days, twice annually.

The current chairman of this assembly is the former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered a pragmatic conservative and the strongest rival to the Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reports suggest that Rafsanjani may control as many as 65 Mujtahid, as members of the Assembly of Experts are known.

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"No One in Their Right Mind Can Believe"

The comments are frankly stunning.

"No one in their right mind can believe" the official results from Friday's contest, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said of the landslide victory claimed by Ahmadinejad. Montazeri accused the regime of handling Mousavi's charges of fraud and the massive protests of his backers "in the worst way possible."

"A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy," he declared in comments on his official Web site. "I ask the police and army personals (personnel) not to 'sell their religion,' and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before God."

More from McClatchy:

Montazeri's pointed public comments provided fresh evidence that a serious rift has opened at the top of Iran's powerful religious hierarchy after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed the official election results and the harsh crackdown against the opposition.

A leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution who's often feuded with Khamenei and once vied with him for the supreme leader's position, Montazeri accused the government of attacking "the children of the people with astonishing violence" and "attempting a purge, arresting intellectuals, political opponents and scientifics."

"He is questioning the legitimacy of the election and also questioning the legitimacy of (Khamenei's) leadership, and this is the heart of the political battle in Iran," said Mehdi Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. "This is very significant. This is huge support for Mousavi and the demonstrators on the reformists' side."

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, the 12-member Guardian Council, part of the ruling theocracy, announced that it would conduct a partial recount of the balloting, which the government said Ahmadinejad won with more than 24 million votes, to 13 million for Mousavi.

Government-funded Press TV, an English-language news service, reported that at a meeting Tuesday with the council and the candidates' representatives, Khamenei said a recount could take place if an investigation found there was a need for one.

"Those in charge of supervising the elections are always trustworthy people, but this should not prevent an investigation into possible problems and clarifying the truth," he was quoted as saying.

The recount announcement, however, didn't appease Mousavi, reform presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi or their supporters. Tens of thousands filled the streets of Tehran for a fourth day carrying signs and wearing scarves and ribbons of Mousavi's trademark color of green to demand that the results be annulled.

"We are ready to recount those boxes that some presidential candidates claim to have been cheated," council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei told Iranian journalists. Despite a lapsed deadline for complaints, "the body is ready to receive complaints and probe into the issue and build more confidence," he said.

It wasn't clear how many ballot boxes -- or which ones -- would be recounted. Mousavi has demanded an annulment of the vote.

It bears reminding that when Ayotollah Sayeed Ali Khamenei was selected as the second Supreme Leader, he jumped over more senior clerics. At the time, Khamenei was described as "a dedicated opponent of reform, more political hack than revered theologian." And though he had served as President, Khamenei did not a have power base in the ulema. Thus over his now two decades in power, he has sought to cultivate and deepen his ties with the Iranian military and the militias such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the basij militias under its control in an effort to shore up a power base. Still, these are not monolithic institutions.

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The Conservative Restoration & Limits to Democracy in Iran

There are no independent election monitors in Iran as the Islamic Republic does not permit international monitoring of its elections. Still, those of us who study and monitor elections can discern a number of abnormalities from afar. To begin with, no one would describe the Iranian electoral process as being "free, fair and transparent." Nonetheless, Iranian elections have been competitive within the rules proscribed by the Guardian Council that is composed of clerics and judges. Candidates must be approved by this body. For the 2009 cycle, Iran's tenth presidential elections overall, four candidates were allowed to run. In the 1997 cycle, 1,014 candidates registered to run, six were selected.

Iran's various elections are governed by both the Iranian constitution of 1979 and specific electoral laws that have been enacted over the 30 year history of the Islamic Republic. According to the Presidential Election Law, Iran has two main bodies involved in the electoral process - the Guardian Council and the Ministry of Interior (MoI). The MoI is responsible for administration of elections while the Guardian Council is mandated with the broad supervisory role.

The major problem with Iran's electoral system, other than the aforementioned limit on who can run for office, is that there is no independent electoral council. Rather the Ministry of Interior runs the elections. As the Ministry is under the direct control of the President, there is a conflict of interest. Most observers of Iran are fully aware the MoI is able to manipulate, massage if you will, results to a small degree generally around 2 to 3% percentage points. The issue in this election is that intervention seems to have been a massive scale perhaps upwards of 15 percentage points.

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Iran's Auto-Golpe

I've spent the day reading on Iran and frankly taking in the moment. It is quite the moment. Mass protests on the streets on Tehran are not everyday occurrence nor are the conversations that are likely occurring among the power brokers of the Islamic Republic. Whatever happens next is still anybody's guess. After a day and night of protests it seems clear that there will be protests lasting at least another day. The events of 12-13 June 2009, no matter the outcome, will forever be etched in our collective memory as a day where the meek were emboldened.

Coups are a rare occurrence unless you are a Bolivian of a certain age. Coups there were once commonplace. From independence in 1824 through 1981, the Andean country suffered 193 coups d'état or golpes de estado or on average one every ten months. With so many to study, a rich lexicon developed to describe the varying differences in the art of coup making. Still at their core, coups represent a breakdown in the established order, an abrupt change in the rules of the game.  

It seems clear that Iran's governing elite is a fractured one and that what we are seeing is an attempt by members of the government and the political establishment to usurp the levers of power to favor one faction over another. These events are an auto-golpe, a self-coup. Samuel Huntington, the noted political scientist recently deceased, would have termed this a "guardian coup", that is, when someone seizes top-level power from another, usually stating that doing so is necessary because of mass disorder in the state. In this case, the seizure of power came through electoral intervention on a massive scale to preempt a loss or erosion of political power.

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A Selection, Not an Election in Iran

For the past fortnight, the world has been entranced watching the vibrancy of Iran's democracy in action. We witnessed joyful and heartfelt demonstrations on the streets on Tehran that were largely peaceful and spoke well of the Islamic Republic. The televised debate between the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival, the former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, captivated tens of millions of people not only in Iran but across the world. There was a sense of amazement across the world as we watched Iran's Presidential campaign unfold. For many Westerners, the openness of the campaign seemed to have changed their views of the Islamic Republic from a closed and authoritarian regime to one that is fluid and dynamic. But as the election unfolded, there is cause for concern that what has taken place in Iran is little more than the thwarting of the popular will. We have had a selection, not an election.

Voting irregularities abound. There were last minute printing of ballots. Communication in the country was shut down. As day breaks in Iran, an international human rights group says that it has received unconfirmed reports that Mir Hoosein Mousavi may have been taken into custody by Iranian intelligence officials.  The political intelligence website Stratfor has warned that Mousavi's campaign headquarters was surrounded by police as supporters gathered to celebrate his victory. A few press reports below the fold.

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Diaries

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