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The End Of Iran's 'Moral Government'

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a crowd (undated)
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a crowd (undated)
The results of Iran's 10th presidential election led to events that may emerge as the crucible of the Islamic regime's claim to republicanism.

Alleging fraud, rivals of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad did not accede to the results, instead tapping into the deep frustration of Iranians of all walks of life.

Although the regime has enough firepower and manpower to quell the unrest, the political culture has proven unpredictable, and this may sooner or later jump-start a "velvet revolution" -- which is the regime's nightmare.

Alarm Bells

The protesters, despite what their slogans would indicate, seem to be asking for more than just the installation of Mir Hossein Musavi as president. Their primary goal appears to be unseating Ahmadinejad, who has served as a lightning rod for the establishment. The Islamic regime itself is looking more and more like Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime -- the very government that it deposed a generation ago.

It has become immaterial whether the president cheated in the June 12 election; the accusations of fraud have turned a new page in the Islamic republic's history.

Nevertheless, there is enough circumstantial evidence to make the elections results appear dubious. First, prior to the elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected calls for independent domestic or international election monitoring, a move that aroused suspicion. Second, the unusual pattern of vote tallies that favored Ahmadinejad, even in rival candidates' hometowns, is worrisome.

Moreover, there was extraordinary growth in the incumbent's vote total over what he received in the 2005 elections. Also, when Khamenei bypassed legal procedures and hastily pronounced Ahmadinejad the winner, it appeared as yet another sign of fraud.

The full preparedness of the riot police to deal with disturbances after the elections seems suspect as well. Iranians had never rioted after an election before, no matter how they felt about it.

The unprecedented street demonstrations are meant to express dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad and what he represents. This president has been instrumental in creating an environment of mistrust and division. His behavior abroad is deemed offensive to the prestige of the country, and his domestic policies disastrous to the economy and the dignity of the youth.

Broad Strokes

Iranians are highly conscious of saving face and care about maintaining a positive perception of themselves and their nation. To them, Ahmadinejad's intolerance, his use of vulgar language, and his undiplomatic performances project the wrong image of Iran.

Domestically, Ahmadinejad's four years are identified with reckless spending and morality-police harassment of youth -- policies he promised not to pursue if became elected in 2005.

The televised debates did not help Ahmadinejad's image either. When he quoted statistics about the state of economy, many Iranians felt the numbers he cited did not correspond to reality.

When he accused the regime's old guard -- like former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani or former parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateqnuri -- of corruption, the working-class voters who seek economic justice might have found it appealing; but many middle-class urbanites considered this behavior unworthy of a president. How could he accuse other leaders on national television when no court of the law has found them guilty?

Ahmadinejad's Machiavellian behavior showed the extent of the desacrilization of the Islamic state. He managed to strip from the holy state its sacred mantle and put an end to its claim as a "moral government."

Opposition Unity?

Ahmadinejad's reelection galvanized existing pent-up frustrations and led to the greatest show of opposition to the Islamic state since its inception. It is no longer a student-led movement but a full-fledged national uprising.

The presence of the reformist leaders at the rally on June 15 bolstered the legitimacy of the rallies across the country. The leaders said they did not want to provoke the police and vigilantes. Thousands of demonstrators, chanting rhythmic slogans, surrounding their leaders, who gave defiant speeches from atop automobiles and balconies in a style reminiscent of the 1979 revolution.

Musavi, addressing the crowds with a megaphone, said he was ready to sacrifice everything to save the legacy of the Islamic revolution, which he claimed had been corrupted and manipulated by liars and power mongers.

His statement evoked the martyrdom rhetoric of the Shi'ite tradition. In a way, the current events are the result of the rebellion of one faction of the Islamic republic against another.

The presence of the reformist leaders at the rallies (Musavi, two-time presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami) helps restrain the protesters and prevents the situation from getting out of control. The courageous leaders' participation in the protest marches also helps maintain a sense of trust in the moderate elements of the regime.

Were the demonstrations left on their own, it is likely that they would have been suppressed more quickly and more brutally. However, the current wave of protests could yet see the emergence of natural leaders from the crowds or sow the seeds of the future organized civil disobedience, free from the traditional reliance on the regime moderates.

The Proverbial Cracks

At no time in the history of the Islamic republic has its leadership been so fragmented and divided. To the hard-liners, the years of the presidencies of Khatami and Hashemi-Rafsanjani were aberrations that need to be rectified by removing any semblance of "liberalism" or sociopolitical freedoms from society.

Khamenei is relying exceedingly on the security forces while removing his civil advisers -- a process reminiscent of the last years of the shah's rule in Iran; the reformists, on the other hand, keep espousing more and more moderate positions. The 10th presidential election brought this factional conflict to a head.

The paradox of the Islamic regime is its democratic pretence while concurrently maintaining an archaic autocratic system. By educating the populace and allowing for over 20 national elections in the past 30 years (presidential and parliamentary), the state has raised expectations for substantive democracy.

The 2009 election, featuring a controversial incumbent and -- for the first time ever -- televised debates, became the most democratic elections ever held in the country. When the results failed to reflect the national will, people took to the streets. Whether the elections were fraudulent is immaterial: the fact remains that they did not correspond to the desire of the majority of the urban voters for a meaningful change.

The state's reaction seems to be widespread suppression -- with a wink to the defeated candidates about taking advantage of "legal avenues" such as petitioning the Guardians Council. Obviously, the Guardians Council will not change the election results, because doing so would be a major setback for the hard-liners.

But postponement, even for a week, will buy time to cool off the protests, while using violence and the threat of violence to clear the streets.

The protesters will only be able to consider these events a victory by discovering their own natural leaders and laying the foundations for a protracted campaign of peaceful civil disobedience.

Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development and Middle Eastern studies at Strayer University. He is a political consultant focusing on Iran, and his latest work (coauthored) is "The Rise Of Pasdaran," a study of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Rand Corporation, 2009). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL