Undemocratic Republic of Iran: How Did the Hardliners Pull Off a Coup?

When Iranians went to the polls on Friday, Western media had whipped itself into a frenzy over the near-guarantee of a Mousavi victory. In so doing, we ignored the fact that the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, represented a powerful and popular strand in Iranian politics. It was never very likely that Ahmadinejad would get trounced—far too many Iranians are conservative, populist, and eagerly support the Islamic Republic—but when the results were announced, any objective observer could sense something off in this Islamist paradise.

Ahmadinejad, it was claimed, had won over 62% of the vote, and Mousavi only 35%—when just eight years ago Khatami had exactly the opposite numbers. Had so many Iranians become hardliners? Or did the hardliners around Ahmadinejad mistrust the democratic franchise that the Islamic Republic depended on for its legitimacy?

More and more pundits, analysts, and everyday Iranians are convinced that Ahmadinejad’s supporters have stolen the election and deprived the Republic of those democratic mechanisms which, till today, differentiated it from neighboring autocratic regimes (most, it should be noted, are staunch US allies).

Less than twenty-four hours after polls closed, in an election with hand-counted ballots and record turnout, the Supreme Leader confirmed the incumbent’s victory. This flew in the face of Iranian political protocol, which dictates that election results are not announced before the election commission has had ample time to review the results. These results, moreover, were immediately challenged by every candidate and for good reason. Provincial totals were inexplicably missing, numerous irregularities were reported and, to add to the mess, SMS and other electronic media were jammed or suppressed during the voting period. Iran’s vastly different provinces were said to have voted for Ahmadinejad in suspiciously equal proportions: ethnic and cultural divides seemed to make no difference. Mousavi had even lost his own Azeri base in the northwest. The incumbent supposedly even won the capital, Tehran, with 60% of the vote.

Let us be clear: What we are witnessing in Iran is a coup, albeit against elements of the establishment deemed insufficiently committed to a radical reading of Islam. The Iranian system has so far been democratic; however, that democratic character is significantly diluted by numerous checks, clerical and otherwise, intended to produce a regime both popular and appropriately Islamic. This convoluted structure is overseen by a Supreme Leader, nominally appointed for life by an elected Assembly of Experts (there have only been two Supreme Leaders, and the first—Khomeini—died in office.)

Khatami’s election represented a move toward realizing a more democratic Islamism, after years of war and a ravaged economy slowly rebuilt. We could call it the realization of the potential of the Revolution, and the Constitution it generated. But over the last decade, those democratic tendencies have been fiercely, even brutally, suppressed by hardliners seizing state institutions and levers of power to advance their agenda.

When, in 1997, Khatami scored a stunning landslide victory (essentially repeated in 2001), elements within the Iranian state came together in fear of Khatami’s politics which, they suspected, would eventually deny the Islamic nature of the Republic (or, as likely, would deny their financial and political privileges). This power base includes radical clerics allied with and benefiting the Republic’s thuggish paramilitary organizations, the IRGC and Basij, which were formed in the early days. (Khomeini felt the army alone was insufficient to maintain the regime; he needed ideologically committed troops, not just a nationally defined military.)

These hardline elements have come together around Khamenei but have profited enormously from Ahmadinejad, who is in contrast to Khatami an acceptable leader. Their economic politics combine a shortsighted, inflationary populism along with the corrupt transfer of increasing shares of state wealth and industry to the right persons. The result being that power is more and more the preserve of select elements within the Republic, and it may well be that the losers in this system—many of them prominent clerics and reformists—are fighting back. Of such stuff, we hope, democracy is made.

Iranian presidential candidates are always vetted for their perceived commitment to the Islamic Revolution and for an acceptable interpretation of political Islam. When Khatami announced his intention to run again, in this election, the hardliners correctly assumed that they could not just disqualify him (imagine the absurdity of rejecting a former president, and a cleric to boot.) Khatami was approved to run, but later forced out of the contest by extrajudicial means—Khatami’s disposition is not particularly combative, and probably behind the scenes pressure and threats were enough to make him step aside.

In all likelihood, the hardliners assumed that with Khatami out of the way there was no chance of a reformist victory and no challenge to their monopolization of power. Imagine their dismay when Mousavi unexpectedly emerged as a wildly popular opposition candidate. As returns came in, indicating broad support for his candidacy, they made their move. Either they had a contingency plan waiting in the wings, or acted on the spot; either the Supreme Leader Khamenei knew in advance of such plans, issued them himself, or he was presented with a fait accompli.

It no longer matters.

Khamenei is the actual head of the Iranian Republic, but he has politicized an office that his predecessor intended to keep above the everyday give-and-take of governance. The regime has cracked from within and former officials find themselves at opposite extremes. What were once private disagreements moved, in short order, from campaign invective to street violence and police brutality. What possibility is there now for reconciliation?

Ayatollah Rafsanjani, badly smeared during the current campaign (by the incumbent-in-chief) now holds one of the few Constitutional options for resolution. Absent a recount, which is increasingly unlikely, only the Assembly of Experts* (a clerical body at the head of which Rafsanjani sits) can remove the Supreme Leader. We would assume Rafsanjani would cite Khamenei’s interference in elections as grounds for dismissal. Even if Rafsanjani had the support to do so, Iran would still be facing a profound crisis. When candidates of the caliber of Mousavi and Kerroubi, another reformist and cleric, cannot be accommodated within a political system—the regime feels threatened by its own former prime minister (a position Mousavi held during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s)—then that political system is in serious trouble.

It is unclear where Iran goes from here. To be clear, this is certainly not a counterrevolution in the making; although to Mousavi’s credit, he continues to urge peaceful resistance. Nevertheless, he and the many other reformists who have apparently been rounded up, or put under house arrest, are still Islamists. They are Islamists convinced of democracy, advocates of the rule of law, and supporters of the equality of citizens before the law (be that as it may a modern reading of Islam). Like so many other Muslim societies, Iran is trying to determine a path between a pious society and a modern state.

The reformists’ moderation makes them perfectly suited to mediate the tensions between Iran’s various political factions, but the coming political climate may render such reformists irrelevant. Right now, the men with the guns have the upper hand. But that in itself suggests hardliners within the Islamic Republic may have, in a clumsy grab for power, fatally wounded themselves and even their Islamic Republic. Just weeks ago, pundits spoke of the inevitability of Iranian hegemony in the region. Now that picture is far less clear.


*Text has been corrected by the author. The term “Expediency Council” has been replaced with “Assembly of Experts.”

For further information:

A good organizational chart of the various bodies and institutions of the Islamic Republic can be found at the BBC’s Web site. I would however disagree with their dichotomy between elected and unelected; all Iranian bodies are elected in some manner (albeit some positions are the result of nominations; we would not, for example, call US Supreme Court Justices “unelected” if we mean by that they have no popular mandate):

BBC News | Special Reports | Iran: Who Holds the Power?

Also here:

CIA—The World Factbook—Iran

A good list of the major players in the Iranian political scene can be found here:

BBC | Country Profile: Iran
BBC | Who’s Who in Iran