Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared himself the winner of the election by a wide margin, various groups have had different reactions. On one side are Ahmadinejad supporters who have been expressing themselves in the form of showing up at a victory rally on Sunday and beating up and even killing members of the opposition. Ahmadinejad also has the support of terrorist groups--HAMAS and Hezbollah--and figures with their own questionable democratic records --Chavez and Bashar Al Assad--who immediately offered their own congratulations. On the other side are the much more numerous supporters of the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who have understandably been outraged about the regime's set-up election and are protesting by the millions.
But there are a number of critical elements within the current crisis that indicate that the protests can no longer be dismissed as short-term reaction, but that the crisis has passed a critical tipping point that can have permanent ramifications on the continuation of the Islamic Republic in its current form:
1. Protests have entered their third day with the sustained intensity that is historically unmatched since the Iranian revolution. Over the past thirty years--and especially, the last four--there have been many protests, strikes and boycotts in Iran by different campaigns and individuals, including journalists, the One Million Signature Campaign, Tehran bus drivers union and student coalitions throughout the country. But never since the Islamic revolution in 1979 have different campaigns united throughout cities in Iran with such sustained force and intensity to continuously challenge the Iranian regime.
And an international network of Iranian civil resistance has embarked on a major media campaign to educate Iranians about the principles, strategies and tactics of nonviolent action and civil disobedience. They have done so with two new PSAs:
Three days having passed since the beginning of the protests, people are showing that they're simply not getting back inside their homes this time.
2. Democracies throughout the world have been very hesitant to accept the result of the Iranian elections. Joe Biden said Sunday morning on Meet The Press that "numbers don't add up," and France and other European countries have expressed similar kinds of doubt and issued criticisms of the regime's brutal reaction to protestors. The Iranian regime is not going to have any legitimacy or claim on democracy if other democracies withhold their unconditional endorsement of election results. Endorsement by HAMAS and Hezbollah alone won't do.
3. For the first two decades since the revolution, the Iranian regime got most of its strength from unity, partially due to Khomeini's rule before his death and the country's eight year war with Iraq. But the election of Iran's first reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 jump started the formation of factions within the regime's ranks and elites. Throughout the 2000s, reformists became a major force, and the conservatives divided up between pro-diplomacy capitalistic pragmatists like another former Iranian president, Rafsanjani, and religious zealots like Ahmadinejad.
The differences between these factions have surfaced in an extraordinary way over the recent election. Following Ahmadinejad's claim of victory, Mousavi was put under house arrest after calling for the cancellation of the results because of irregularities, a call he has made at least once more since. After Ahmadinejad's victory press conference on Sunday, another reformist opponent, Mehdi Karroubi, made an unusual statement when he said, "I am announcing again that the elections should not be allowed and the results have no legitimacy or social standing... Therefore, I do not consider Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of the republic." As if that wasn't enough, the former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and third candidate in this election, Mohsen Rezaei, also issued a statement, contesting the results of the election.
The notion of losing presidential candidates criticizing the results may not be such an extraordinary concept for Westerners, but it has tremendous significance within the context of the Iranian regime. In Iranian elections, all candidates who are qualified by the Islamic Guardian Council have been either from Ayatollah's Khomeini's original circle of confidants or the leadership ranks of the 1979 revolution. These individuals have always maintained a relatively unified appearance even during the elections and quickly came to rally around the winner after the election. But the current resistance on the part all three candidates shows a deep and permanent crack within the Iranian regime that demonstrates that it no longer speaks with one voice and acts with one hand.
4. But perhaps the most significant and extraordinary trend that hints at a fundamental change in the history and future of the Iranian regime is criticism of the all powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The first major criticism of him was made by Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president and now head of Majles-e Khobregaan (Assembly of Experts), which has the power of appointing or removing the Supreme Leader. In response to Ahmadinejad's accusation during Iran's first televised debate that Rafsanjani was corrupt and the "puppet master" behind attacks against him, Rafsanjani wrote a letter to khamenei, showing outrage and demanding time on state run TV to defend himself. But in doing so, he made his first implicit criticism of Khamenei by saying, "If the system cannot or does not want to confront such ugly and sin-infected phenomena as insults, lies, and false allegations made in that debate, how can we consider ourselves followers of the sacred Islamic system?" He was talking about Khamenei.
What is important to note is that all the candidates who are contesting the results of the election are also opposing the Supreme Leader, because he has so far endorsed the results, twice. But an event that happened on Sunday and was even more unimaginable was for Ata'ollah Mohajerani (the Former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under President Khatami) to appear on BBC Persian (which is not even a legal channel in Iran) to say that Velayate Faghih (the cleric rule, and in this context, the Supreme Leader) can be replaced for dishonesty, implying that the Supreme Leader is being dishonest. That is the most blasphemous criticism that anyone has ever made against either one of the two Supreme Leaders since the revolution.
Finally, the Foundation for Democracy in Iran is reporting that Rafsanjani is in Qom to convene an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Experts, to debate the legitimacy of Khamenei's decision to certify the election results. These events not only show that khamenei's days may be numbered, but maybe so is the legitimacy of the position of Supreme Leader entirely.
These are unpredictable times in Iran, but what is already obvious is that the protests have gone far beyond expression of any kind of short term post election outrage and entered a new phase that poses a serious threat to the stability of the Islamic Republic in its current form.