Situation In Iran – More Questions Than Answers

Unless you live on Mars or Venus, you know about the events in Iran. The pictures and videos of the massive protests in Tehran are amazing. Reports indicate that an estimated 3 million people attended the demonstration in Tehran last Monday.

As we write this, the situation seems to have entered a stalemate of sorts after the firm stand taken by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. So it seems to be the right time for us to raise questions and make some comments.

History Rhymes?

The last time such demonstrations erupted in Iran was in 1979. At that time, the demonstrations were against the autocratic rule of Pahlavi, the then Shah of Iran. Like today, those demonstrations were led by idealistic students, professors and the educated urban class who were demonstrating for freedom. Like today, these demonstrations created a wave of pro-demonstrator sentiment in America and Europe, even though Pahlavi regime was friendly to American and European interests.  After all, the sight of young people demonstrating for freedom and against autocratic rule is an inspirational sight.

The demonstrators succeeded in 1979 and the Pahlavi regime fell. The Shah left Iran with his family. Then something strange occurred. The Islamic Clergy who had backed the demonstrators suddenly took over and the demonstrators found themselves governed by an even more dictatorial regime, that of Ayatollah Khomeini. This Islamic regime runs Iran to this day.

Let us look back to the French Revolution. That was another mass uprising led initially by freedom-loving, idealistic young students, professors and the intellectual class of Paris. Their demand was Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. They succeeded in toppling the ruling House of Bourbons. Then something strange occurred. That revolution was then taken over by the Committee of Public Safety led by the infamous Maxmillian Robespierre. The committee began a campaign of terror and ended up executing over 18,000 people, mainly by the guillotine.

The point we make is that revolutions led by young students, professors and the educated urban class rarely fulfill the dreams of the demonstrators. After the dust clears, it becomes evident that some organized entity was the guiding force behind the demonstrators, cheering them on initially and then ruthlessly stomping them into submission after the demonstrators succeed.

These are the parallels we remembered when we saw the demonstrations on TV last week. The demonstrators were clearly for Mir Hossein Mossavi, the opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Moussavi is the product of the same Islamic revolution to which Mr. Ahmadinejad belongs. Mr. Moussavi served as the Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989 and his rule has been described as ruthless. Frankly, we find it difficult to believe that Moussavi is a candidate who will lead Iran to a truly democratic, reformed future.

So we find it a little difficult to cheer for the young students and intellectuals that are demonstrating in Tehran. We adore their passion but we do not understand their end game.

Rigged Election?

Clearly, there is something strange in the final election count. We find it very difficult to believe that Ahmadinejad won the election by such an enormous margin. But we also find it hard to believe that a fraud of such magnitude could be carried out in secrecy by a few people. As Ayatollah Khamenei asked in his sermon on Friday, June 19 “Perhaps 100,000 votes, or 500,000 votes, but how can anyone tamper with 11 million votes?”

We find this question persuasive. But then, we spent our childhood in Mumbai, the urban capital of India. During our formative years, we saw popular election campaigns run in Mumbai on modern viewpoints. But, these idealistic campaigns always lost. The lesson drummed into us was that in India, cities and urban centers do not count. Only the rural vote determines the election. As the widely praised recent Indian election demonstrates, the rural population votes in a way that confounds the urban pollsters and commentators. They also respond to material promises. It is reported that Sonia Gandhi campaigned in North India on the promise of free rice to rural villages.

We remembered this when we read that Ahmadinejad had campaigned extensively in rural Iran and promised the voters free potatoes. In contrast, Moussavi seems to have restricted his campaign to the urban centers. Ahmadinejad also campaigned on the promise to end corruption, which is always attractive to the poorer sections of any electorate. We are also able to believe that Ahmadinejad was a more attractive candidate for the religiously devout voters than Moussavi.

We are prepared to believe that Ahmadinejad won the rural vote, the religious vote and the poor vote while Moussavi won the young, urban intellectual vote. So, in our opinion, the election comes down to determining the size of the rural, devout, poor vote and the size of the urban, intellectual vote. We do not have the facts to make this judgment ourselves.

Power Players in this fight

The Islamic regime in Iran is a complex organism with competing centers of power and influence. The Supreme Leader himself is actually appointed and monitored by an Assembly of Experts. Then there is a Guardian Council, the Judiciary and the Parliament. The President is actually a lower level figure in the power hierarchy. The partial map below indicates the complexity.


 (sources – US State Dept & Wall Street Journal)

The “reformist” candidate Moussavi is very much a part of this power hierarchy. It appears clear that Moussavi has been backed by the second most powerful player in this hierarchy, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body that appoints the Supreme Leader. Mr. Rafsanjani served as the President of Iran from 1989 to 1997. He lost narrowly to Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election. That he opposes Ahmadinejad is no secret and the contempt seems mutual. Mr. Rafsanjani has much to fear from a newly elected Ahmadinejad.

There are informed analytical reports that the current struggle in Iran may have evolved into a power struggle between Mr. Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei  with Ahmadinejad as the point of dispute. This may be why Ahmadinejad is nowhere to be seen or heard in this mêlée.

If this is true, then Rafsanjani and Moussavi seem to have made a major tactical mistake. They have elevated a smaller, limited battle against Ahmadinejad into a test of the Supreme Leader’s power. No Supreme Leader in any country and in any regime can survive after losing such a test of strength.

So we are not surprised to see the Supreme Leader Khamenei come down hard on protesters. He had no other choice. Mr, Khamenei warned that the demonstration leaders “would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos” and added “If they don’t stop, the consequences of the chaos would be their responsibility.”

This does not seem to be empty rhetoric. Media reports indicate that all the branches of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been placed on high alert and the IRGC Special Units, known for their iron fist tactics, have taken over local law enforcement in Tehran.

In his sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei made this protest an issue of national sovereignty and accused America-England for fomenting the protests. “They thought Iran is Georgia” he said, adding, “Their problem is that they don’t know this great nation yet.”


This episode is a setback to the Obama Administration in our view. The Obama Administration had decided to work with the Iranian Government to come to an understanding of sorts. This was a smart decision because a neutral Iran could ease America’s problems in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US Military is planning to withdraw from urban centers in Iraq and decrease its involvement in Iraq. This was a major commitment of Candidate Obama and President Obama wants to fulfill his promise. Besides, the US troops are needed in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the major fight against the Taleban.

A hostile Iran could create severe problems in Iraq. The Iraqi Prime Minister Mr. Al-Malliki was among the first to congratulate Mr. Ahmadinejad on his victory. He knows that his Iraq needs Iranian support. A neutral Iran is no less critical in the battle against the Taleban. This was an easier deal because the Sunni Taleban is as great an enemy of the Shia Iran as it is of America. But, after the violent protests in Tehran, all bets might be off.  

Pressure is also mounting on President Obama to take a hard line on Iran. No one seems to explain how America will gain from such a hard line but this is an issue of Brand America, the brand that has favored democracy and aspirations of freedom.

This situation makes it harder to reach any accord on the nuclear issue. All parties in Iran will now be determined to show that they are as patriotic as Ahmadinejad and nothing is more patriotic than working to get a nuclear weapon. In the west, Ahmadinejad is a lightening rod and the Neocons in America & Israel will be gunning for a strike on Iran. 

Paradoxically, the greatest danger might come from the lack of clarity about President Obama. The Iranian regime understood President Bush. It is not clear that they know President Obama. For that matter, America does not know President Obama. No one in the world knows how President Obama would react under severe pressure and therein lies the greatest danger of this crisis. 

So far, President Obama has reacted to the Iranian situation with nuanced speech and a delicate strategy. We hope that continues to work.

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