Three days after the presidential elections in Iran and over 48 hours after violent clashes between crowds and security forces across Tehran, it’s evident that what happened was a coup d’état. The military-security establishment and certain elements in Iran’s clerical nomenclature carefully planned a large-scale manipulation of the election. They were evidently prepared for the riots and protest that followed. Anticipating a high voter turnout and victory for reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, security forces blatantly took control of the entire election process and virtually declared martial law in Tehran.

After the Interior Ministry’s announcement that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received more than 62.6% of the vote and his challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi only 33.7%, large-scale riots immediately followed. Mousavi was quick to question the outcome and protest against evident fraud. The government put him under house arrest. Refusing to be silenced by the government’s fait accompli, Mousavi made his first public appearance on June 15, demanding an annulment of the results. He told his supporters that he was ready to take part in a new poll.

Anticipating election irregularities, the reformist election campaign, mainly funded by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, dispatched election monitors to numerous polling stations. According to them, Mousavi received 38.9% of the vote (19 million votes), Mehdi Karroubi 27.3% (13 million votes), and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 11.6%. Even if these figures are also exaggerated, the large discrepancy with the official version is suspicious. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Ahmadinejad may have actually won the vote, though his total was inflated. Neither Mousavi nor Ahmadinejad might have won by a substantial enough margin to avoid a second round of voting. Thus, the government may have decided to exaggerate the figures in favor of Ahmadinejad because most supporters of the other candidates would have cast their vote for Mousavi in a second round.

Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters continue to defy government restrictions on assembly and demonstrations and flock the streets of the capital. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, celebrated his re-election at a victory rally in front of a large group of his supporters at Tehran’s Vali-Asr Street. A new divide has opened up in Iran between an autocratic elite and a popular opposition. The fate of the Islamic Republic hangs in the balance.

Revolutionary turned Emperor

The current situation in Iran has echoes of an earlier revolutionary period. What Ahmadinejad ridiculed as “passions after a soccer match” during his carefully orchestrated press conference on Sunday in fact resembles 1979 when he himself took to the streets to overthrow the Shah and establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. What used to be the revolutionary mantra “Margh-bar shah” (death to the shah) in 1979 turned into “Margh-bar dictator” (death to the dictator) in 2009.

In his boldest and most historically symbolic move yet, Mousavi urged his supporters to channel their anger into civil disobedience and called on them to gather on their rooftops after sunset to bellow “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used the same tactic to unite the country in protest against the monarchy. Since Saturday, nights in Tehran echo these chants, sending a powerful message to those who were revolutionaries themselves 30 years ago.

It remains to be seen to what extent history will repeat itself. The relatively bloodless revolution of 1979 was a general strike of unprecedented popular determination, which lasted over 5 months and put an end to 25 centuries of monarchy. In the end, the shah did not take his autocratic rule to its logical conclusion and fire on the demonstrators. In 2009, the sociopolitical and international realities are vastly different. Whether popular sovereignty or authoritarian tenacity prevails in the end, Ahmadinejad the revolutionary of 1979 has turned into Ahmadinejad the emperor.

Suppressing the Velvet Revolution

Iran isn’t like North Korea or Egypt, in which elections are a farce and parliaments mere rubberstamps. To commit election fraud to the extent Iran’s military and clerical nomenclature has done was bound to incite mass protests, and a crisis of legitimacy that now may well end the Islamic republic. Even though the inherent contradictions of Iran’s constitution, which combines popular with divine sovereignty, has produced constitutional bodies and political practices that lend themselves to authoritarian rule, Iran has by far the most politically mature society in the region.

Just like Mohammad Khatami in 1997, Mousavi was a genuine stakeholder in a future democratic Iran. The reformist movement, which hardliners sabotaged during Khatami’s two terms (1997-2005) and which Ahmdinejad’s government marginalized after 2005, gained tremendous momentum amongst Iran’s largely young electorate. Weeks before the election, it had become increasingly likely that the election would deny Ahmadinejad a second term, largely because of increased repressive government, international isolation and economic mismanagement. Many in the political elite evidently feared a serious threat to the status quo.

On June 7, whistleblowers in the Interior Ministry disclosed in an open letter that a high-ranking cleric issued a fatwa effectively instructing the ministry to rig the election in favor of Ahmadinejad. The instructions, which most likely came from hardliner Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbha-Yazdi, included orders to put one-third of voting centers under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, to reduce the number of eligible voters whilst at the same time print more ballots and to double the amount of seals.

On June 11, the government deployed security forces around Tehran, and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of “ill-wishers” who spread malicious rumors and are lodged everywhere, adding “they may be found everywhere, in all agencies and groups.” This unprecedented show of force and polemics before an election accompanied a tense public debate in which Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and current head of the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts, accused each other of undermining the Islamic Republic. In an open letter, Rafsanjani accused Ahmadinejad of treason and warned that if he tried to manipulate the election, it would lead to “social upheavals of volcanic proportions.” By and large, the pre-election clash between the anxious pro-Mousavi coalition and the government and its hardliner allies has opened up a new fault line in Iranian politics. An increasingly powerful military establishment, which entered the political sphere under Ahmadinejad, now confronts the increasingly marginalized mainstream conservative, pragmatist, and reformist factions.

Near closing time on election day, June 12, the government turned off the mobile phone network across the country, blocked the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, and increased the presence of security forces in the streets. These security forces also surrounded the Ministry of the Interior (the election headquarter) and occupied the election headquarters of Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The logistics of such show of force requires carefully planning. Even though the Ministry of the Interior informed the Mousavi campaign of its electoral victory, state-run TV stations declared Ahmadinejad the winner and called on people to show their support.

That the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s victory came almost immediately after the polling stations closed also indicates that he’d been pre-selected rather than elected. In fact, state-run Islamic Republic News Agency announced that Ahmadinejad had won by 66% of the vote before the polls had even closed. Moreover, government claims that Ahmadinejad had won Tehran by over 50% and Tabriz by 57% (the capital of the province of Azerbaijan), two major bastions of support for Mousavi, further lends support to the charge of vote manipulation. Although educated and professional segments of northern Tehran certainly cast their votes for Mousavi, Ahmadinejad does enjoy support amongst the poor and rural strata in Iran and southern suburbs of Tehran. But Ahmadinejad taking Tehran and Tabriz by such high margins seems as unlikely as John McCain winning Vermont and Barack Obama losing the African-American vote.

Finally, according to the constitution, after the announcement of election results, the election committee must review complaints for a period of three days and the Council of Experts must certify the vote before the Supreme Leader gives his final approval. Nevertheless, Khamenei publicly extended his congratulations to Ahmadinejad less than 24 hours after the polls had closed.

What the political elite and Ahmadinejad’s allies among religious conservatives (Principalists) and the Revolutionary Guards see as irrevocable, his political opponents rightly regard as a blatant coup d’état. It’s the final straw in a politically repressive and socioeconomically disastrous environment.

First Foreign Policy Test

Not counting North Korea’s nuclear test, this coup d’état is Obama’s first real foreign policy crisis. The riots and large demonstrations may well turn into the very juggernaut that Ahmadinejad and his cronies wanted to prevent in the first place. Even though Khamenei ordered an investigation of the election after mounting pressure from the street and by political heavyweights in Qom and Tehran, it is highly unlikely that Ahmadinejad will subject himself to another popular referendum. Too much is at stake. This election interference was meant to secure Ahmadinejad’s place in a post-Khomeini Iran and purge the ghosts of the reformist movement once and for all.

It is also unlikely that the masses in the street are prepared to go to the polls a second time. Government forces have spilled too much blood (government militia raided a student dormitory at Tehran University and allegedly killed at least five students), too many hopes have been crushed by the vote rigging, and too much anticipation is building that this may be the end of the Islamic Republic and the dawn of a more democratic Iran.

For Obama, the most expedient option is a “non-decision”: neither congratulating Ahmadinejad, as stipulated by diplomatic protocol, nor condemning the election irregularities. This doesn’t mean condoning violence by either side. But expressing support for Mousavi and the people would seriously undermine the opposition movement, as it essentially would reduce them to the very “Western puppets” of which Ahmadinejad and Khamenei had “warned” Iranians all along. Right now, a domestic power struggle is taking place within the inner sanctum of the Iranian political, clerical and military establishment as well as in the streets. Ahmadinejad has seriously underestimated popular acquiescence to the blatant abuse of the rule of law as well as the power of the Internet, which continues to provide information and logistical support for the opposition.

For the last four years, Ahmadinejad has been preaching and practicing an almost-totalitarian interpretation of the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists) and has seemingly now brought it to its coherent violent conclusion. For the time being, however, it’s up to Iranians and not the U.S. president to respond.

Bernd Kaussler is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University, an associate fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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