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Dilemmas In The Midst Of A 'Coup'

Basij insignias on militia members
Basij insignias on militia members
Two U.S. organizations announced this week that a telephone poll they conducted in Iran in late May showed incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad leading reformist opposition candidate Mir Hossein Musavi by a margin of about two to one.

But that poll was conducted three weeks before election day, before Musavi's campaign picked up steam and at a time when the dominant election mood in Iran was apathy. In addition, experience has shown that such polls -- for a variety of reasons -- have wide margins of error in Iran.

Of course, there are those who argue that Ahmadinejad might actually have won the June 12 election and even that he might have legitimately polled the 62 percent-to-34 percent win that official results have given him.

Such analysts argue that Musavi focused his campaign primarily on the more liberal, urban upper and middle classes, while Ahmadinejad -- with his frequent trips to the provinces and populist tactics -- won the backing of rural voters, the poor, the working class, and voters for whom religious issues are a priority. They claim that Westerners misjudged the race by focusing too much on attitudes in Tehran and among the educated elite.

But such arguments ring hollow, and the lopsided official results bear all the hallmarks of an electoral coup aimed at keeping Ahmadinejad in power for the next four years.

Well-Laid Plans

The sequence of events before and after election day provide circumstantial evidence of a well-planned effort carried out with near military precision aimed at disorienting the opposition and striking a blow strong enough to enable the conservatives to cement their grip on power for years to come.

In the July 2005 campaign, both the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia played open and public roles in supporting Ahmadinejad as he won his first term of office.

This time, however, the two forces were much less visible in the campaign process. One of the only exceptions to that low profile came when the IRGC political chief issued a statement directed at the Musavi camp warning it that any attempt to carry out a "velvet revolution" would be "nipped in the bud."

As has been widely reported, just before polls closed on election day, mobile-phone text messaging was cut off across the country, and many units of state security forces took up positions in the streets of Tehran. Security around the Interior Ministry was noticeably stepped up, and state television began repeated broadcasts urging people to unite behind the winner.

Around that time, state officials informed the Musavi camp that the 67-year-old former prime minister had won the election, perhaps in an attempt to lull the opposition into a false sense of security in the crucial postelection hours.

But shortly after polls closed, the Interior Ministry officially announced that Ahmadinejad had won a landslide victory. Less than 24 hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly congratulated Ahmadinejad, confirming that the official process was completed and there was no longer any room for doubt or dispute. In doing so, Khamenei violated the constitution, which stipulates a three-day period during which challenges to the results can be presented.

Supreme 'Tool'?

In the ensuing days, mobile-phone service has been cut off; popular opposition and social-networking Internet sites have been blocked. Access to foreign media has been curtailed, and foreign journalists have been restricted to their offices.

The planning and implementation of such a coordinated plan by the IRGC could not have been done without Khamenei's approval. It is possible that this is a case of the IRGC tail wagging the dog, and somehow forcing Khamenei, who is also the commander in chief of Iran's armed forces, to submit to its plan.

"The election result was nothing but a coup in its worst form," Mohsen Sazgara, one of the founders of the IRGC who is now a Washington-based political analyst, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "I never imagined I would see the day when Ayatollah Khamenei would become a tool in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard."

The IRGC's aversion to the reformists dates back at least to the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

Under Khatami, reformists tried to liberalize civil society and the political system, and their support from the student movement was a source of deep concern both for the IRGC and for Khamenei. They saw such moves as contrary to the ideals, values, and achievements of the Islamic Revolution and a potential threat that could send the Islamic republic along the same road as the Soviet Union.

In July 1999, after student protests in Tehran forced the IRGC to intervene violently, 24 IRGC commanders sent Khatami a letter criticizing his reform efforts and accusing him of endangering the revolutionary order.

The commanders' letter made it clear that the signatories were reserving the right to interfere in politics in the name of their mandate to protect the Islamic regime. It was largely viewed as a direct threat of a possible coup, and one of the signatories was General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the current commander of the IRGC.

Countering Reform Efforts

After Khatami won a second term in 2001, it appears that Khamenei and the IRGC commanders decided that his reformist agenda was too great a threat to be tolerated. All of his measures were either blocked or rendered ineffective by various power centers throughout his second term.

The stonewalling led naturally to the promotion in 2005 of Ahmadinejad, a close follower of Khamenei who has broad support within the IRGC and who certainly was seen as a safe bet for the conservatives in the regime.

In the current election, former and current IRGC leaders, who have benefited enormously during Ahmadinejad's rule, together with the supreme leader, foresaw the possible return of Khatami's reformist agenda and undertook brazen measures to "nip it in the bud."

It is even possible that they acted so openly in order to demonstrate their power and intimidate any possible resistance. But clearly the conservatives have been caught off-guard by the strength of the public reaction to the election and the size of the demonstrations in Tehran and other cities.

The regime is aware that it has lost its credibility in the eyes of many Iranians, and now its survival is the only important issue. No one is worried now about a possible attack by the United States or Israel or any other issue: The IRGC and the supreme leader are now completely focused on what they call "soft subversion" -- that is, a possible "colored" revolution. As the protests continue to gain momentum, Khamenei and the regime are intent on riding out the storm.

Possible Showdown

Politically, Khamenei faces a dilemma. He has told Musavi to pursue his complaints through appropriate, legal channels -- that is, an appeal to the Guardians Council, whose members are appointed by Khamenei and are cut from the same cloth as Ahmadinejad.

However, if Khamenei were to acknowledge some form of electoral fraud, his own legitimacy would be irreversibly damaged, perhaps undermined. On the other hand, if he confirms the results of the election with no changes or with just minor adjustments, he risks swelling the protesting crowds.

As for Musavi, who so far seems to have had the leadership of the demonstrations thrust upon him, he also faces a dilemma. If he seems to be intimidated, he will lose all credibility. But if he encourages violence, the situation could easily get out of control and have horrific and unpredictable consequences for the regime (of which he is a beneficiary, it must be kept in mind) and the country.

If Khamenei is still in control in Iran, one option for him would be to try to co-opt Musavi at least into silence. This could prevent a coherent movement from coalescing around him and leave a fragmented protest that the IRGC and Basij can more easily handle.

Events of recent days have shown that the Basij has been activated to suppress the protests, even killing some demonstrators.

With a nominal strength of some 13.6 million, the Basij represents about 20 percent of Iran's population. That figure is highly debatable, of course, but it is likely the Basij could mobilize at least 1.5 million people if necessary. There are some 2,500 Al-Zahra (for women) and Ashura battalions -- each numbering some 300-350 members -- that regularly train in riot-control tactics.

Although they are a formidable force, the ultimate loyalty of the rank and file cannot be taken for granted. Like the soldiers of the shah's army in 1979, they may disobey orders or join the demonstrations.