The Ayatollah's Fall from Grace
Weekly Pulse
July 3-9, 2009
In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini led the Iranian revolution, overthrowing the Shah of Iran who was accused of being a dictator and a pawn of America. The revolution had a popular base, and its morality and legitimacy at the time could hardly be questioned. Thirty years on, this fundamentalist, clerical experiment has hugely backfired for the Iranian people, who can proudly claim to be the custodians of an intellectually rich and traditionally pacifist, pre-Islamic Persian civilization. The oil-rich country has around 25 per cent inflation rate and its unemployment percentage runs between officially 13 and unofficially 30 ratios. Its youth aspires for freedom and an end to the country’s international isolation.

During these three decades, the regime of Mohammad Khatami and to a lesser extent that of Ali Rafsanjani did represent moments of moderates’ assertion in Iranian politics, but the Mullahs led by the current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are so well-entrenched that all bids to dislodge them from power have thus far failed. Will the fate of the current protest movement led by former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi who, along with Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaie, has contested the results of national elections held on June 12, be the same?

According to the officially announced election results, the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad secured 63 per cent votes and his main rival, Mr Mousavi, 33 per cent. The opposition as well as independent observers had claimed widespread rigging in the polls by the clerical establishment to ensure Ahmadinejad’s victory, including stuffing of the ballot boxes with fake votes, with numerous instances of the votes counted exceeding the number of registered voters in an electoral constituency. As soon as the poll results were officially announced by the Guardian Council, the highest revolutionary organization which oversees the polls, Ayatollah Khamenei gave his personal approval to the results and congratulated Ahmadinejad.

Unprecedented Rebuke

Yet in the most unprecedented of moves in post-1979 Iran, Mr Mousavi and two other opponents of Ahmadinejad refused to accept the election results, urging their followers to wage “peaceful” protests against the election fraud. Never before in revolutionary Iran the election contestants after losing the elections, had contested their results, until the aftermath of the June 12 polls. Mr Mousavi and Karroubi, a former parliamentary speaker, refused to budge from their position even after Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon at the University of Tehran in support of Ahmadinejad. Repression followed, claiming the lives of some 20 protestors, or more, with hundreds injured and thousands imprisoned.

On June 26, the Guardian Council announced a partial recount of the ballots. However, the Commission set up for the purpose did not include opposition representatives. Three days later, on June 28, came the verdict of the Council, confirming Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory. Mr Mousavi’s response to yet another bid by the Guardian Council to cover up the massive election rigging was another call of defiance. His Facebook website urged protestors the next day, on June 29, to continue their “peaceful” protest against the election fraud.

There is no doubt that the revolutionary regime has massive repressive force at its disposals, including thousands of Revolutionary Guards militiamen, known as the Basij, who have used all means to crush the opposition movement. Since the international community, including the United States and Europe, can only go to an extent in influencing domestic political events in Iran in the aftermath of the June 12 elections, we may not see an immediate erosion of power of the very-well-entrenched coterie of Mullahs led by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Crisis of Morality

However, the damage to the Ayatollah-led clerical establishment is already done. In the last 30 years since the revolution, the Ayatollahs had the last word. Not anymore. Khamenei cannot claim the power and charisma of the founding Ayatollah of revolutionary Iran. The revolution Ayatollah Khomeini brought about in 1979 may be visible in the shape of women clad in headscarf in the streets of Tehran, but beneath it is the same skirt and jeans of the Shah era.

Now Mr Mousavi’s frequent rebukes to Ayatollah Khamenei means the latter has also lost the moral face. In the wider Iranian public opinion, therefore, the Ayatollahs have lost the moral high ground they once enjoyed. The use of repressive tactics may buy them some more time to perpetuate their rule, and, for the purpose, re-incite another wave of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.

The dilemma for the international community, especially for the US administration of President Barack Obama, is to deal with the post-June 12 political crisis in Iran in such a tactful manner so that the Mullahs there should not have the opportunity to exploit Iran’s post-1979 hostile ties with the United States in particular and the West in general to consolidate their grip over domestic political power. If Iranian or Persian history teaches us a lesson, it is that political change, radical or gradual, in the country only comes from forces within. It seems the process of an internally-driven political change in Iran against the revolutionary establishment has effectively begun.

Powerful factions from within it, including those led by two former presidents, Rafsanjani and Khatami—both of whom have publicly questioned the election results and announced their support to Mr Mousavi—will emerge to challenge the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei. Coupled with this is the fact that Mr Mousavi firmly stands on his post-June 12 position, and his millions of supporters also seem willing to confront the clerical establishment. The issues they are fighting for are much graver than the recent election fraud, which has merely become a means for expressing their anger. The real issues pertain to the extreme failure of the revolution in the last 30 years, which has played havoc with peoples’ lives.

Hezbollah’s Decline

In fact, the winds of change for better are not just visible in Iranian politics. In Lebanon as well, where Iran’s revolutionary leadership played an instrumental role in the creation and arming of Shiite Hezbollah since the early 80s, the Ayatollahs’ fall from grace is visible.

Just a few days before the elections in Iran, Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian factions suffered a major reversal in Lebanese elections on June 7. The Shiite militant faction was deserted by its allies. The governing March 14 Alliance, led by Saad Hariri, the son of the murdered Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, won 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament. Hezbollah could only win its own eleven seats. If Hezbollah’s claim of defeating Israel in 2006 election was popular, then it should have won more seats or secured grater support from allies—none of which has happened.

The results of Lebanese elections have dealt a strategic blow to Hezbollah. They show that Hezbollah is not the all powerful organization it claims to be. The election results seem to show that support for the Shiite militia is fading, and also that the majority of the Lebanese people are moving away from supporting Hezbollah. That had to happen, because the organization was founded in response to the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 1982, and, therefore, it had no legitimate reason to continue after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in September 2000. The reason Hezbollah initiated the 2006 conflict with Israel was essentially to make itself relevant to the Lebanese domestic political situation at a time when the very reason for its existence had become non-existent.

The Bottomline

The above reference to the relative demise of Hezbollah in the June 7 elections in Lebanon is one important regional indicator to establish the falling clout of Iran’s revolutionary establishment in Middle Eastern militant politics. The hold of the Ayatollahs is declining as much in Iran as elsewhere in the region.

This is a peoples’ driven transformation, which the rest of the world should capitalize upon creatively and pragmatically, with diplomacy towards Iran that is not intrusive enough to give yet another opportunity to turn the genuine anger of people against outside forces away from real issues at home.

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