Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

Iran: Enmity at top is driving the revolution from below

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 17 June 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Iran: Enmity at top is driving the revolution from below, 17 June 2009, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


A political maxim holds that a revolution tends to eat its young. It happened that way with France with its Great Terror; it happened in China with its Cultural Revolution and counter-strike against the Gang of Four; and there's no need to elaborate on what happened in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s and 30s. Such a weeding-out process hasn't happened in the history of Iran's Islamic Revolution, though. But it seems to be occurring now.

International attention has been riveted on the popular protests in Tehran and elsewhere, along with authorities' frantic attempts to keep the lid on the boiling-over desire for expanded civil liberties and economic opportunities. But it is the murky struggle at the top of the Iranian power structure that will likely determine the outcome of the most serious political crisis in Iran since the 1979 revolution ousted the shah.

Several indicators suggest that key members of the old guard of the Islamic Revolution are gearing up for a decisive battle among themselves. On one side there is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's paramount religious leader whose word is law. On the other are three old antagonists of the supreme leader – Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mir Hussein Mousavi, the aggrieved presidential candidate who believes he is the rightful winner of the June 12 vote. All the men involved in this power struggle were close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. And all played important roles in bringing down the shah. Thus, each can command wide respect within Iran's opaque political system today.

For years, the old revolutionaries co-existed, albeit uneasily. It seems, however, that Ayatollah Khamenei's unwavering support for presumptive president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power grab has upset the tenuous equilibrium. In the last 72 hours, the supreme leader's opponents have engaged in extraordinary public actions and comments that could end up permanently altering Iran's theocratic structure.

First, Mousavi defied Ayatollah Khamenei's call to accept the rigged results as final, and mobilized the largest mass rally witnessed in Iran since 1979. Then, on June 16, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri issued an unprecedented fatwa that specifically aimed to prohibit security forces from being used to crush the protests. On June 17, Rafsanjani got involved, reportedly announcing a special meeting of the Assembly of Experts – the only body that constitutionally has the power to remove the supreme leader, and a body that Rafsanjani chairs. It was obvious to all that the special meeting would consider Ayatollah Khamenei's actions before, during and after the presidential election.

The power struggle among members of the old guard now seems to have reached the point where compromise will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve, and that the loser, or losers will be forced permanently from public life. With everything at stake, the old revolutionaries are not going to be inclined to give up easily. In addition, there are highly personal and emotional factors at work: there are grudges among the combatants that go back decades. Mousavi and Ayatollah Khamenei, for example, are widely believed to mutually loathe each other. Rafsanjani and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri also have old scores that they may want to settle with the supreme leader. In Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's case, he spent over five years under house arrest on the order of the supreme leader.

Beyond the looming meeting of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei is facing mounting problems from within the religious establishment. Leading clerics in the Holy City of Qom are continuing to withhold support for Ahmadinejad – a fact that is complicating his regime's efforts to clamp down.

Elsewhere, disenchantment with Ahmadinejad is building in many corners of the tangled power structure. It may soon reach a point where these disenchanted elements may decide that Ahmadinejad must be sacrificed in order to save the Islamic Revolution. But if Ahmadinejad goes, Ayatollah Khamenei would find himself in an extremely exposed position. Many clerics and influential politicians believe Ayatollah Khamenei violated the constitution by endorsing Ahmadinejad's supposed election victory before the official results were in.

"Powerful factions in the establishment, though evidently happy with Ahmadinejad's past performance, are not enamored with him as a person and may decide to get rid of him if it serves their interest," a well-connected clergyman told EurasiaNet.

Pressed from the top, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad also continue to be squeezed from below. Tens of thousands of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters took to the streets of Tehran again on June 17. Some estimates put the number of demonstrators as high as 500,000. In a tactic designed to make it more difficult for security forces to initiate a confrontation, the protesters marched largely in silence, with many wearing black to mourn the deaths of those who have died in post-election violence.

Mousavi has called for another mass rally for June 18. He billed the gathering as an opportunity for Iranians to remember "our countrymen [who] were wounded or martyred," a reference to those who have fallen in recent days.

At least eight people have died in clashes between regime opponents and security forces since June 12. The fact is that hardliner-controlled forces – most notably the Revolutionary Guards and the affiliated Basij Militia – have not been a major presence on the streets, although Basij militiamen have been used to ransack and terrorize university dormitories in several cities, including Tehran.

That the Revolutionary Guards have yet to get actively involved indicates that the power struggle at the top is dividing the security establishment, and therefore keeping it on the sidelines of the street protests. Rumors have swirled around Tehran during the past 48 hours about the alleged arrests of Army generals and Revolutionary Guard commanders who have been suspected of siding with the anti-Ahmadinejad forces. There are also rumors of generals refusing to follow orders to deploy military units in Tehran.

Even though hardliners have not been able to deploy overwhelming force to crush the protests, they have gone to great lengths to try to stifle the protesters' ability to communicate. In the latest move, authorities threatened users of the social-networking platform Twitter with criminal prosecutions. Despite their comprehensive cyber-warfare campaign, Ahmadinejad-aligned forces have not been able to contain the demonstrators.

The late hours of June 17 in Tehran featured a roof-top protest in which tens of thousands of city residents stood on balconies and on roofs shouting, "God is Great" and "Death to the Dictator."

For the old revolutionaries it appears that there is no going back in their internecine power struggle. The outcome of that struggle remains uncertain, but once clarity is achieved, the victor, or victors, will face a big question: will it be too late to contain the crowds and save the Islamic Republic from being swept away?

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