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Is a Military Crackdown Coming in Iran?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

It is starting to look like a crackdown is coming in Iran. Earlier today Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, again endorsed the results of the election and threatened protesters that if they continue their activities there will be “bloodshed.” Iran expert Gary Sick suggests that Khamenei may not actually be in charge of the country right now.

Around Khamenei’s neck yesterday was the simple plaid kerchief worn by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military organization that, unlike the regular army, reports directly to the supreme leader.

“There’s a question in my mind whether Khamenei is calling the shots or whether the Revolutionary Guards are calling the shots,” said Gary G. Sick, a Columbia University professor who was at the National Security Council in 1979. “But clearly the Revolutionary Guards, their whole organization and their leadership have assumed a position in the constellation of voices in Iran that is extraordinary, and they say they are absolutely loyal to Khamenei.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sat cross-legged in the front row at prayers yesterday, emerged from both the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, the largely working-class, volunteer organization that is part paramilitary, part social welfare. Khamenei has nurtured both groups as constituencies and instruments of social control independent of the clergy.

“Khamenei depends on them almost entirely,” Sick said of the Basiji. “He is in no position to contradict them or take exception to their wishes. They are very conservative and want to protect the system as it is.”

At the Washington Note,Steve Clemons has posted four possible scenarios described by a friend who may be living in Iran and wanted to remain anonymous. This person suggested that in the wake of Khamenei’s speech today, there are really only two possible outcomes remaining:

Confrontation – The Guardian Council’s partial vote recount and investigation into electoral fraud are rejected by the opposition. Demonstrations spread and intensify, with ever greater numbers of Iranians taking to the streets calling for the resignation of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Security forces respond with increasing force, arresting thousands and closing down media coverage, texting networks, websites and Twitter. Purge of reformist leaders, intellectuals, students and journalists continues. Leaderless demos gradually peter out, leaving resentment. Ahmadinejad steps up anti-western rhetoric. Resumed protests at a later date considered highly likely.

A second revolution – An insider cabal of senior clerical and establishment conservatives challenges Khamenei and forces his resignation after a vote in the Assembly of Experts. Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani is elected in his stead and orders an investigation into the actions of Ahmadinejad and other senior members of the regime. Hardliners rally round the president while reformists demand new elections. Amid growing instability, Iran’s unique Islamic/secular system of governance appears in danger of collapse”.

Andrew Sullivan, who has been following events closely, has also posted comments from an anonymous “writer in Tehran” who says the Basij have been “given the green light to kick ass and take names. The AP also has a story up suggesting that the Basij may soon be unleashed by the Iranian government.

The pro-government Basij militia has held back its full fury during this week’s street demonstrations. But witnesses say the force has unleashed its violence in shadowy nighttime raids, attacking suspected opposition sympathizers with axes, daggers, sticks and other crude weapons.

At least once, the militiamen opened fire on a crowd of strone-throwing protesters. State media said seven were killed.

If supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorizes a crackdown on protesters calling for a new presidential election, as he warned on Friday, the Basij will almost certainly be out in force.

The New Yorker has posted an eye-opening piece about the Iranian Basij by John Lee Anderson. I highly recommend reading the whole thing if, like me, you are in need of a crash course in Iranian politics. This part is particularly salient, I think:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who I wrote about for The New Yorker in April, is a Basiji, and the organization has always been an important part of his power base. During the past four years, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and the reform movement dormant, the Basij has not been needed as shock troops. Instead they have made their presence felt by periodically throwing up traffic barricades on the streets of Tehran and stopping cars to smell the breath of drivers for evidence of illegal alcohol consumption, or to question couples about their marital status. These Basijis are usually scruffy working-class men, and thus bring an element of notional “class struggle” to the otherwise pragmatically lived lives of the citizens of the Islamic republic. Not surprisingly, among more educated and affluent Iranians, they are almost unanimously despised.

In the mass demonstrations that have taken place this week, the modus operandi of the Basijis has been brutal and predatory. They have used the same tactics as packs of African wild dogs worrying a herd of wildebeest. They choose their targets at the edges of the crowds, going for the vulnerable and unwary stragglers, and moving in as a group to reduce them with violence. Last Monday, the men who fired guns at demonstrators from the rooftops of buildings were almost certainly Basijis. They killed seven demonstrators at their leisure, and it also seems likely that they hoped this display of lethal intent would so intimidate the protesters that they would give up and go home. Clearly, that did not work, and it is probable that they were ordered to tone down such public displays of violence, at least for the time being. But they have continued to attack surreptitiously and in terrifying ways, jumping demonstrators as they return home on darkened streets at night. On Wednesday, there were reports that men who appeared to be Basijis had come onto theTehran University campus and had stabbed students with knives.

The fact that Ahmadinejad was a member of the Revolutionary Guard and is still a member of the Basij suggests that Gary Sick may be correct in his belief that there has been a military coup and that Khamenei is no longer in full control of the government. I guess well just have to wait and see what happens.

Juan Cole has a fascinating guest post with background on Khamenei and his relations with other Iranian religious leaders.

Despite its formal name – the Islamic Republic of Iran – the political system now overseen by Ali Khamenei has few supporters among the recognized grand ayatollahs and their large circle of clerical fellow-travellers. In traditional Shi’ite thought, legitimate political authority may be exercised only by the line of the Holy Imams, the last of whom went into hiding to escape the agents of the rival Sunni caliphs and has not been heard from since 941. The return of the Hidden Imam, which will usher in an era of perfect peace and justice on earth, is eagerly awaited by all believers. Until then, all political power is seen as corrupt and corrupting by its very nature, and as such it must be avoided whenever possible.

Historically, this has served the Shi’ite clergy well, forging a close bond with the people, as intercessors with the state authorities at times of acute crisis, a privileged and influential position only rarely achieved by their Sunni counterparts. Yet, it stands in direct opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical religious notion of direct clerical rule and has been the source of underlying tensions within the clerical class for three decades. The dirty little secret of the Islamic Republic is the fact that it is seen as illegitimate by huge swathes of the traditional Shi’ite clergy.

I found the entire article very enlightening.

Meanwhile, “IranElection,” which has been a trending topic on Twitter for several days has fallen off the trending topics list, and I don’t see the familar Iranian bloggers popping up anymore. Are they being prevented from getting on the internet?

Just a short time ago, the Guardian posted an article headlined “I speak for Mousavi,” by Mohsen Makhmalbaf Here are the highlights:

So why do the Iranian people not want Ahmadinejad as their leader? Because he is nothing but a loudspeaker for Khamenei. Under Ahmadinejad, economic problems have grown worse, despite $280bn of oil revenue. Social and literary freedom is much more restricted than under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The world views us as a terrorist nation on the lookout for war. When Khatami was president of Iran, Bush was president of the US. Now the Americans have Obama and we have our version of Bush. We need an Obama who can find solutions for Iran’s problems. Although power would remain in the hands of Khamenei, a president like Mousavi could weaken the supreme leader.

Some suggest the protests will fade because nobody is leading them. All those close to Mousavi have been arrested, and his contact with the outside world has been restricted. People rely on word of mouth, because their mobile phones and the internet have been closed down. That they continue to gather shows they want something more than an election. They want freedom, and if they are not granted it we will be faced with another revolution.

Please go read the whole thing.

What is happening in Iran now? No one seems to know for sure. There are rumors the Mousavi has been injured or arrested, that most of his close associates have been rounded up. We’ll just have to wait and see. What will President Obama do? The House passed a resolution today expressing support for the Iranian protesters. Obama is getting more criticism for not speaking out more forcefully. Is he doing the right think by holding back any strong criticism of the Iranian government. I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

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47 Responses

  1. BostonBoomer — wow, that’s an incredible amount (and range) of information. I’m proud to say that I actually read it too. Seriously interesting. Thank you!

  2. after tomorrow the dissident in Iran . should be considered a full blown revoution ..

    • Do you really think so? I just hope a lot of people aren’t going to be killed. Several blogs have posted messages from Iranians who expect to die tomorrow.

      • yes i do now becuse they have they have defied Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei\

        • you see now they are rebelling against there own gov & to me thats when it changed from protest to revolution

        • I woke up with a head ache. OK, so in Iran they have the Ayatollahs, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the head Ayatollah that keeps TRUE reformers OFF/OUT of the ballot. In the US Green Party/Nader couldn’t get into the debates and had to fight to get onto the ballots throughout the US and wasn’t in all the states.

          In the primaries, there was a clear orchestrated effort to get Hillary out of the race and they accomplished that on May 31st, 2008 via the DNC’s RBC Committee with Donna Brazile (who claimed to be uncommitted) leading the charge.

          So, my question is this; Who are the Ayatollahs in the US? At least in Iran it is clear WHO they are and there is no mincing words as to who the oppressors are.

  3. I just think he’s not ready for primetime. Saying that there’s no difference between the two, who says that? He needs to learn about diplomacy and how he’s not shooting the breeze in a bar.

    • I just found another interesting op-ed in the NYT. I don’t know if this guy is a liberal or conservative or what.

      City of Whispers

      The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.


      Obama should think hard about whether this ballot-box putsch is not precisely about giving Ahmadinejad and his military-industrial coterie four more years to usher Iran at least to virtual nuclear-power status. He should also think hard about the differences in character: Ahmadinejad is volatile and headstrong, the interlocutor from hell, while Moussavi is steady and measured.

      Shrugging away these distinctions like a dispassionate professor at a time when people are dying in the streets of Iran is no way to honor this phrase in his Inaugural Address: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

      • would be surprised if the times did not suck up to BO and that where that article came from

        • The article is strongly critical of Obama though.

          • maybe but the it agrees with BO . they guy the wrote this is just one more suck up . if it where really critical it would call him spinless i think i saw a story fom the UK that labels BO that.

      • What’s annoying is that fine, he can’t take a stand, but when he splits the difference, he ends up offending EVERYONE. He’d be better off just not saying anything at all.

      • Roger Cohen is a long time foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune. I think he’s a liberal.

      • And in this case, he’s certainly right. Obama can’t keep just splitting the difference. It looks not only weak but foolish.

        • Obama never takes a stand about anything. He just isn’t a leader.

          • Exactly. He said nothing when 1,166 to 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the December Gaza conflict and he does not care if people die tomorrow. The least he can do is condemn/stop the violence against protesters and he has the power to do so.

    • Tell me about it!

  4. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is responsible for delineation and supervision of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.[121] The Supreme Leader is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, controls the military intelligence and security operations; and has sole power to declare war or peace.[121] The heads of the judiciary, state radio and television networks, the commanders of the police and military forces and six of the twelve members of the Council of Guardians are appointed by the Supreme Leader.[1”

    I think the Presidential election was the public manifestation of a behind the scenes power struggle. Khamenei has been rumored to be in poor health for the past several years. I think the silence of the Supreme Leader for the past week was a symptom of the unknowns of who was in control. I think the Friday Sermon, demonstrated that Khamenei still has control of the military , Guards and all other instruments of power in Iran and he basically said that this sh*t i going to stop now and he has the resources to do it.

    • You seem very sure of what you’re saying, but much of what I’ve read suggests something different. You might want to look at some of the links I posted. Sometimes things change inside governments. I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

      • What do you think will happen, BB? You’ve done such an amazing job researching this, does it lead you to think one scenario is more likely than another? I understand if you don’t want to speculate.

        • Thanks Seriously. I really don’t know anything more than what I read. But sure sounds to me like Khamenei is threatening a bloodbath if the protesters don’t back down. One thing a lot of observers are saying is that Mousavi is really part of the establishment and the big question is whether he will continue to encourage the protests. It’s a big risk for him, but he has gone pretty far already.

          On CNN this morning and on Twitter I’m hearing that huge crowds are gathering on the streets, but they are facing pushback including teargas.

    • supreme leader? bull! he is a mullah and nothing more. leader? supreme? you do those words a great injustice. that should be earned and not given.

  5. All I can think about is why didn’t we just leave Iran alone in 1953?

  6. boston how is your article is strongly critical of Obama ??

    • I said the op-ed in the NYT was critical of Obama. Did you read the exerpt I posted? It describes Obama as weak and indecisive, not responding to what is actually happening, but pontificating like a professor. That’s pretty negative, if you ask me.

  7. guess you could intrepid it that way . but in the end he agrees BO “The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution”

  8. He needs to learn about diplomacy and how he’s not shooting the breeze in a bar.

    He’s a dilettante at everything

    • He’d do well in a country like Ireland where the President is a ceremonial figure head.

      Well, except for the part where he’s unlikeable and his manners aren’t so great and he’s always saying stupid things and offending people.

      He’d do well in a country where the main tasks are waving and being photographed. Ambassador to Disneyland?

      • Why does iPhone think figurehead is two words?

        • How come WordPress thinks these words are misspelled?


          • Obots used to change to Obote. Now, Obote becomes Obots. That should be convenient, instead it’s a little too HAL-like.

      • You crack me up.

        • I really hope you’re talking to me and not myiq, because I’m a huge fangirl of yours. 🙂

          • Your comments are great. 🙂

            Huge protest tomorrow:

            Khamenei: “I will not allow any illegal initiative. If the laws are broken today, no election will be immune in the future.”

            Reminds me of Pelosi/Katherine Harris May 29, 2008: “I will step in. We cannot take this fight to the convention. If you have no order and no discipline in terms of party rules.”

  9. How about Obama take’s some of the defense budget out of the hands of greedy stupid military contractors and use it to provide political asylum to any educated Iraqi that want’s to escape the goat heard lunacy that is the Iranian government.?
    Drain Iran of it’s best and brightest and let the ignorant stew in their own juices.

  10. Chang_for_Iran is still talking about what’s going on.

  11. CNN says two people have been wounded in an explosion at the Shrine to Ayatolla Khomenei. CNN is still having trouble getting news out. They are using Twitter and communicating with some sources on the ground.

    CNN state TV is saying the rally is illegal and security forces are trying to “pacify” the crowd. Last night Change for Iran said the Basij are on full alert.

  12. i moved down here to post a question and i apologize if i put this forth a second time. it seems to be that the uprising in iran puts the authority of the mulahs into serious question for being legitimate. in fact i view that speech as the first step in their downfall. the government can’t stand forever against millions of people who don’t want them there.

    • No one knows for sure what is happening but it does look like someone other than Ayatolla Khamenei is calling the shots. A number of experts have suggested that there has been a coup in which Ayhmadinejad has gotten the upper hand. We just don’t know for sure.

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