Iran Uprising: Experts Weigh In On What's Happened And What It Means

As mass demonstrations continued in Iran for a fifth day following what was viewed by many to be a rigged election last Friday, experts in the United States insist that the protests do not constitute a revolution. Nevertheless, the situation could incidentally end in prolific changes to the Islamic Republic due to long-festering problems of the system's own making.

Such was the general consensus among leading Iran experts at a roundtable discussion moderated by Newsweek's Nisid Hajari Wednesday on Capitol Hill for the ninth National Iranian American Council (NIAC) conference on US-Iran relations. "I don't think people are trying to bring down the entire system," said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist and author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. The protests thus far have not called for the toppling of the system, only that peoples' votes be counted, Majd points out.

Much of the popular rage stems from the sacredness Iranians place on voting, as their one true, guaranteed right. Elections in Iran are "the one thing, up until now, that's generally considered fair," explains Majd.

Another panelist, the NIAC's president and co-founder Trita Parsi, agrees that the popular will of the "Green Wave" is not for all-out revolution. Parsi has followed US-Iran relations for over a decade and is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. He claims that the demonstrators are foregoing revolutionary rhetoric so as not to turn off many Iranians who still value and depend on the current system. By simply calling for their votes to be counted within the Islamic Republican system itself, they have a far better chance of attracting power brokers within the government to their cause.

And indeed, one reason that many Iranians who are taking to the streets feel so empowered is that they have powerful allies within the system itself. The most obvious example is their candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was Prime Minister during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and is still very much an Islamic revolution insider. But another, even more noteworthy player, is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and the chairman of the Assembly of Experts that elects the Supreme Leader.

Three days prior to the election, Rafsanjani issued an open letter to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei scolding him for his silence on Ahmadinejad's "insults, lies and false allegations" during the presidential debates, and warning of potential election fraud. Rafsanjani has so far abstained from making any public statements since the election, but his views are widely known nonetheless.

The massive scale of the public backlash may also be explained by the unprecedentedly high voter turnout, which exceeded 80 percent of eligible voters. According to Suzanna Maloney of the Brookings Institution, this is explained partially by the televised presidential debates that caused such an imbroglio during the weeks leading up to Election Day, including Rafsanjani's letter to Khamenei. According to Maloney, arguments on policy and accusations of corruption reached "a degree of frankness never really heard before" in the Islamic Republic. At one point, Ahmadinejad held up what he claimed to be the intelligence file on Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard. And at other points, reformist candidates Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi accused Ahmadinejad outright of being a liar.

Yet another explanation for the massive scale of the protests, discussed by the roundtable, points to larger underlying elements of Iranian politics and society. Because Iran is generally a closed off and suppressed society, moments of open defiance tend to escalate quickly and widely, says Ali Akbar Mahdi, a Sociology professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and author of a number of books on Iran and the Middle East. "Whenever [Iranians] find a venue or opportunity, they all come out," explained Mahdi. Though Mousavi is somewhat of an accidental figurehead for the current movement, in reality, there is no real leadership. The demonstrations' concerted directive stems incidentally from the mutually held secular beliefs that are usually quashed in Iran's public and political sphere.

Regardless of the reasons for the sheer size of the protests in Iran are the implications of such wide public outcry for the Islamic revolution itself. With each new day of demonstrations, in open defiance to Khamenei who has declared them illegal, comes an erosion of the Supreme Leader's power; and moreover, an erosion of the system's legitimacy, which is partly based on the Supreme Leader's infallibility.

Because Khamenei immediately embraced Friday's election result, calling it "sacred" and "blessed", only to later backpedal slightly by calling for a partial recount of certain voting districts, many believe the system to already be irreparably cracked. However, according to Majd, this may be a premature judgement. "I think his preference is obviously not to back down, but [Khamenei] is very much a survivor," opines Majd. He speculates that the Supreme Leader is not down and out yet because he can always blame a fixed election on the Interior Minister, thus maintaining plausible deniability for himself.

Moreover, as Parsi points out, some don't consider Khamenei's statement on Saturday confirming the election result to be as paramount as generally believed because he did not ever mention Ahmadinejad by name. As tinny as this legerdemain may be, it furnishes the Supreme Leader with another possible fix to the situation.

Another theory, conveyed by Mahdi, is that Khamenei intentionally fixed the election in Ahmadinejad's favor simply to show that he could, and thus to demonstrate his ultimate power in Iran to an international audience. The large scale uprising, in this scenario, is unexpected, and in Mahdi's opinion, it means that the regime has definitely been hurt in some ways.

For her part, Maloney agrees that the regime will be weaker and far more exposed going forth, especially if the current outcome is allowed to stand. However, this could bode ill for international relations with the Islamic Republic. Because Ahmadinejad has shown himself to be completely unmoved by the events in Iran, Maloney thinks he will also be even less inclined to offer any concessions in negotiations with international players, namely with the US over Iran's nuclear program.

However, others argue that a Mousavi victory would actually be worse for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program because he would not take office until August, and would not have his cabinet until September. Such a delay, many believe, could allow for Iran to achieve a dangerous technical benchmark in its nuclear program that the US wishes very much for it to never reach.

Either way, the NIAC panelists agree that Iran will be a changed state going forth from the demonstrations. According to Maloney, if Khamenei does reverse himself too much, his infallibility will be forever broken and the world will see the "beginnings of a very different kind of Iran." Mahdi points out that Khamenei has long been warned by reformists of the possibility of a backlash. Many reformists see Ahmadinejad's behavior as "shooting the system in the leg," and indeed, this undermining came to a head during the presidential debates when the incumbent accused every single president before him of corruption.

What changes the world will see in Iran are impossible to know at this point, but by Majd's account, many already consider the Khamenei era to be over. According to Majd, Iran's more secular, sophisticated population -- who has long tolerated the oppressive system -- is finally looking around and thinking, "it's now or never."

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