On Friday the 12th June the people of Iran put us all to shame by turning out in their droves to vote. According to Iranian officials, about 85% of the population of the Islamic Republic went to the polls to elect a new President. After four years of the erratic conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad it was widely believed that the reformer (and former Prime Minister) Mir Hossein Mousavi would unseat the incumbent or at least do well enough to trigger a second round. But, according to the official results, Ahmadinejad got an astounding endorsement with 63% of the vote to Mousavi’s 34%.
During times of military conflict, journalists use the phrase “the fog of war” to describe the inherent difficulty of reporting on such situations. This phrase could also be aptly applied to the Iranian election. Within an hour of the polls closing Ahmadinejad announced that he had won. The swiftness of such a declaration, as well as other voting irregularities, immediately provoked a response from the Mousavi camp. Mousavi himself claimed that the election had been rigged and ominously warned of “tyranny”. His disenchanted supporters organised a sit-in protest outside the interior ministry where the election results were announced, chanting, “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”. It was not long before the riot police were sent in to break up the protests.
The opposition leader appealed to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the election to be annulled, “I personally strongly protest the many obvious violations and I’m warning I will not surrender to this dangerous charade. The result of such performance by some officials will jeopardise the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny.” But the Supreme Leader lent his support to Ahmadinejad, declaring the result a “divine assessment”. Such religious invocations were not enough to quell the strong sense in the Mousavi camp that the election had been stolen. Protestors, wearing the Islamic green of Mousavi’s reform movement, took to the streets once again, demanding that the Guardian Council, the second most powerful body within the theocratic regime, annul the election.
The protests have maintained their momentum despite the vicious crackdown by the Basiji (paramilitary unit that answers to the Revolutionary Guards) and the warning from Khamenei that a “velvet revolution” will not be tolerated. At this stage it is difficult to tell how events will play out. Talk of a revolution may be premature for two reasons. First of all Mousavi (who has been called the “reluctant radical”) does not wish to challenge the Islamic regime. His aim is, and always has been, reform within the system in order to prevent it from collapsing. Secondly (and this is a point that is closely connected to the first) he was not prepared for the protests and so has not been able to give the kind of organised support necessary to overthrow the Mullahs even if he wanted to.
However, events such as these tend to have a logic of their own, beyond the control of any single actor, and so it is almost impossible to predict accurately how things will go. Khamenei’s contention that the protests are merely the result of foreign agitation, along with his inexlicable decision to throw his weight behind Ahmadinejad, suggests a certain amount of myopia, not uncommon amongst authoritarians the world over. This lack of understanding at the highest levels of what is going on on the street, coupled with the brutal methods of suppression the regime is employing (using live ammunition against protestors, arresting dissidents etc) could just force the regime into the sort of existential crisis that neither side expected.