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Revolution? No. Regime Change? Maybe


It's difficult to draw any conclusions from the rapidly unfolding election crisis in Tehran. Not even the regime has any idea what is going to happen, but perhaps that's the most important point.

The announcement of a partial re-count yesterday signals that the regime's power is on shaky ground.

What is now unfolding across the country, and has led to the deaths of at least seven civilian protesters so far, is a power play between former President Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

"Khamenei wouldn't go back on the vote unless he felt threatened," explained Nima Rahimi, an Iranian ex-pat at the London School of Economics.

As the situation escalates, and increasing evidence of fraud surfaces, analysts say the legitimacy of President Ahmadinejad, and even of Khamenei is in question.

Ninety-nine to 100% turnouts in some provinces that reportedly also ran out of ballots, such as Yazd, does not add up, suggesting that ballots were pre-allocated in favor of the incumbent. According to Iranians who voted there, election workers had to stop handing out ballots to avoid over 100% turnout.

Though impeachment remains unlikely, it does seem someone will have to take the fall, as persuasive evidence continues to come to light.

Power Politics

As Supreme Leader, Khamenei represents the ultimate authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), above the office of the President. The only check on his near-absolute power is the Assembly of Experts, a conservative body of 86 clerics, currently headed by Rafsanjani.

That body, which represents just one of the IRI's awkward hybrids of theocracy and democracy, is responsible for electing, supervising and dismissing the Supreme Leader.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Assembly has elected only one new Supreme Leader (Khamenei), it has barely "supervised" his affairs, and there has never been any question of dismissal, until now.

Rafsanjani is one of the most powerful men in Iran, largely because he is one of the only members left from Ayatollah Khomeini's "yaran" or original circle, as Andrew Sullivan noted in the Atlantic. Rafsanjani was a disciple of Khomeini's already in the '60s and remained close to him until his death, whereupon he became president. He is now also rumored to be Iran's wealthiest man.

"They cannot arrest [Rafsanjani], because he was always the second guy in the Republic," explained Hamid Foroughi, another Iranian in London, who will return home after finishing his master's in political science.

Factions and Fractures

It's common knowledge in Iran that Rafsanjani hates President Ahmadinejad. The feeling is also evidently mutual, as Ahmadinejad publicly accused Rafsanjani and his coterie of corruption during the election campaigns.

Both conservatives, they represent two sides of a fractured political party; Rafsanjani is more open to relations with the U.S. and a privatized economy, while Ahmadinejad is more hostile to the U.S. and more of a potato-pushing populist (his campaign passes them out at rallies, sometimes along with cash!).

Khamenei has long been a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad's, agreeing in particular with his anti-Western stance, which he resented Rafsanjani for not supporting already back in 1994.

On Friday when Khamenei came out in immediate support of the laughable voting tallies, he implicated himself.

Rafsanjani did several things over the weekend in response. First, he went to Iran's spiritual heartland in Qom to meet many of the clerics on the Assembly of Experts, who have also started to express concern over the election results and protests. Presumably Rafsanjani is trying to gauge the support he has to challenge Ahmadinejad and/or Khamenei.

Second, he resigned from his role as head of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Majlis (Parliament) and the Guardian Council, a move that distances him from the regime, without undermining his authority.

Third, and most importantly, he met with Khamenei, who shortly afterward announced that an official inquiry would take place (short of the re-vote that all three opposition candidates have called for).

Loyal Opposition

Some in the West are seeing signs of a new revolution afoot, arguing that the moment the Shah's forces opened fire on the protesters in '79 marked a major turning point. Others cite the fact that Iranians are once again shouting "Allahu Akbar" from their roofs at 9pm in unison, just as they did during the revolution.

To think this though is to misunderstand the nature of Rafsanjani's and the opposition members' power.

"A revolution is highly improbable in the foreseeable future," wrote Genevive Abdo yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor. "The idea that the genie of democracy escaped during this election season and now can't be placed back in the jar, as held by US and British pundits, is not only naive; this same thinking has been proved incorrect since the 1979 Islamic revolution."

Instead, what is going is the result of an internal power struggle that has consolidated Khameini and Ahmadinjead's control, and pushed aside conservatives and reformists alike, including Rafsanjani, Mousavi, Rezaei and Khatami.

These men have all long been establishment players, with deep-seated interests in seeing the Islamic Republic continue. As more and more of their supporters are arrested, beaten and killed, revolution becomes no more likely, but regime change does.