By Tony Karon
Some observers see Iran's courageous protests against a stolen election as a replay of the 1979 revolution that ended the tyranny of the Shah — or of the "velvet revolutions" that ended communism in Eastern Europe. Others fear a repeat of China's 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But none of these comparisons easily fits the unique combination of discord on the streets and infighting in the corridors of power currently under way in Tehran.
The situation is all the more dangerous and unpredictable because the election and its aftermath appears to have surprised all the major players, forcing them to improvise their responses to a fast-changing situation. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei appear to have been taken aback by the surge in support for the pragmatic conservative candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The decision to hastily announce what many say was an improbable landslide victory for Ahmadinejad touched off an unprecedented wave of protests that have rocked Khamenei, who has since backtracked by ordering an investigation into claims of voter fraud. Despite violent attacks on demonstrators and arrests of political figures, security forces have in the main refrained from unleashing their repressive might on the demonstrators who are openly defying the law. The partial recount of the vote has bought Khamenei time, but the crisis of legitimacy facing those in power grows by the day.(See pictures of Iran's presidential election and its turbulent aftermath.)
Violence and the threat of violence has not deterred the demonstrators, and Mousavi is showing no inclination to back down just yet. Khamenei appears to be scrambling for a compromise that will persuade Mousavi to end the demonstrations while keeping Ahmadinejad in the presidency. But the outcome of the battle of wills may depend on how the key players read the balance of forces on the street and in the councils of the regime. The situation is delicately poised; what follows are four scenarios that could resolve it.
One: Revolution 2.0?
Despite the Twitter-enabled street scenes and revived slogans of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution, a repeat of that successful insurrection remains highly improbable. For one thing, the protest movement is being led by a faction of the Islamic Republic's political establishment, whose members stand to lose a great deal if the regime is brought down and, thus, have to calibrate their dissent. More important, an unarmed popular movement can topple an authoritarian regime only if the security forces switch sides or stay neutral. But Iran's key security forces — the élite Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia — are bastions of support for Ahmadinejad. And they have hardly used a fraction of their repressive power. Also, while the opposition draws far larger crowds, there are still millions of Iranians strongly backing Ahmadinejad. So even if the government is unable to destroy the opposition, it's unlikely that the opposition will be in a position to destroy the government. (See pictures of the enduring influence of Ayatullah Khomeini.)
Two: A Tehran Tiananmen?
The harsh language used by Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards to describe opposition protests — and their invoking of the specter of an Eastern European–style "velvet revolution" backed by the West — appeared to be generating a narrative that would justify a bloody crackdown, a massive use of military force that would terrify the opposition into submission. Clearly, the limited violence unleashed by the Ahmadinejad camp thus far has failed to intimidate Mousavi and his supporters. But while it would almost certainly clear the streets, the "nuclear option" of a Tiananmen Square–style crackdown would be a potentially fatal wound to the regime's own sources of legitimacy — its limited but lively democracy and the backing of Shi'ite clergy. Discord among the mullahs is growing, with some senior clerics like the esteemed house-arrested dissident Ayatullah Hossein-Ali Montazeri publicly condemning Khamenei's handling of the election and warning ordinary soldiers and police officers that they would "answer to God" for any violence against the people. A crackdown would risk reducing a regime built on clerical authority and "managed" democracy to a tyranny on par with the Shah. Khamenei will be reluctant to go that route. But his handling of the political crisis thus far will have deepened long-standing skepticism within the clergy about his abilities as Supreme Leader. A harsh crackdown, even if followed by reforms, would solve an immediate crisis, but at the cost of inflicting a possibly fatal long-term wound on the regime.
Three: Khamenei's "Divine" Retreat?
Khamenei blundered when he yoked his own position as Supreme Leader — which is typically above the factional fray of the regime's politics — so closely to Ahmadinejad. He issued a barely disguised public endorsement of the candidate, and then rushed to proclaim Ahmadinejad's "divine victory" and order all Iranians to accept it. But the mounting instability on the streets appears to have sent Khamenei into retreat, ordering the Guardian Council to investigate claims of electoral fraud. If the combination of escalating street demonstrations and the politicking of Mousavi's backers inside the regime's councils prompts Khamenei to conclude that an Ahmadinejad victory is untenable, he could press the Guardian Council to heed the opposition's demand for a new vote — or, more likely, "adjust" the result so that no candidate has a clear majority, forcing a runoff election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Such a course would be a bitter pill for the Supreme Leader, dealing a body blow to his efforts to install Ahmadinejad and mocking his authority by forcing him to reverse himself. Whatever its outcome, this crisis has badly damaged Khamenei's credibility within the regime, heralding the onset of a bitter backroom struggle in the coming years to choose his successor. As to whether he'll sound the retreat on the election, however, his own preference and the likely tooth-and-nail resistance to any reversal from Ahmadinejad and the security establishment that backs him mean that Khamenei may be more likely to seek a compromise that keeps the incumbent in place. That may require ...
Four: A "Zimbabwe" Option?
The option that would likely hold the most appeal to Khamenei now would be to broker an agreement similar to the one that has kept Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, in power despite essentially losing an election — by bludgeoning the opposition into settling for an important yet subordinate role in his government. Already, Khamenei has appealed to a sense of national unity and preserving the regime, hoping to cajole the opposition into accepting the results. And at his first press conference following the announcement of his victory, Ahmadinejad reportedly asked his opponents to submit lists of candidates for membership in his Cabinet. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may be hoping that standing firm and having the Guardian Council affirm his victory after a 10-day recount will produce enough opposition fatigue, which, combined with the threat of violence, will see the protests peter out. By so doing, Khamenei would hope that the pragmatic conservatives — embodied by Mousavi — can be weaned away from the reformists (led by former President Mohammed Khatami) by giving them a stake in a national unity government and promises to moderate Ahmadinejad's style of governance. However, that scenario would come into play only if Mousavi believed that he was losing the battle and risked disaster by keeping his supporters out on the street. Right now, there are no signs that the opposition feels beaten. (Mugabe's opponents settled for the deal only when they had been so pummeled that they could see no hope of unseating him.) Which is why all four options may remain in play while the various camps test one another's strength in the coming days.