Election Protests Upset Iran's Delicate Balance of Power

Alireza Beheshti, a close aide to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, speaks to supporters during a gathering near Ghoba mosque in Tehran on Sunday.
Alireza Beheshti, a close aide to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, speaks to supporters during a gathering near Ghoba mosque in Tehran on Sunday. (Associated Press)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

The large-scale protests in Iran since its hotly disputed June 12 presidential election have shaken the Islamic republic's long-standing balance of political power.

For decades, hard-line members of Iran's cleric-led government controlled the judiciary, military, intelligence and state media. But reformists also had wide public support and room to push for more moderate social and political policies.

That delicate balance worked for both sides, providing an outlet for people who chafed at the Islamic regime's austerity and isolationism, while ensuring that the core system, created after the 1979 revolution, would not be seriously challenged. The reformists did not advocate a revolutionary overhaul. The general view was that Iranians did not want another revolution.

But the recent protests attracted hundreds of thousands into Iran's streets, resulting in at least 17 deaths and many more injuries. The hard-liners have tightened their grip, leaving the reformists to decide whether they should keep playing the old game or whether the rules have changed so much that the game no longer exists.

Dozens of reformists have been arrested as others have watched from exile. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body of jurists who oversee laws and elections, this week certified President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner over opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and others. After the ruling, some reformists warned that Iran could become a one-party state similar to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Others point to an unprecedented splintering within the establishment, with high-ranking ayatollahs and conservatives criticizing the election and the crackdown. This, they say, has strengthened the reformists' hand, as have the street protests.

"Elections were always marred in Iran . . . but they were never faked," said Ahmad Sadri, a columnist for the reformist newspaper Etemad-e-Melli and chairman of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College near Chicago. Elections have always helped give the regime its legitimacy, he said. Now, amid widespread allegations of vote fraud, that has been lost, he said. "By faking the elections, the right wing has sort of killed the goose that laid the golden egg."

The crackdown has pushed many politicians and ordinary citizens, including some staunch regime supporters, to the reformists' side, analysts said. But some shifting preceded the election, said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. "The reform movement, with Ahmadinejad's presidency, actually became widened and ended up including a lot of people who wouldn't normally have been part of it," Farhi said.

It is not the first shift in alliances in the Islamic republic's 30-year-old history. After the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah, the clerics solidified their power by jailing, executing or exiling many of the Marxists, socialists and Western-style democrats who had fought alongside them. But Iran's government never hardened into a monolithic, single-party apparatus.

"One of the things that has characterized the Islamic republic from Day One is the inability to clamp down on the elite political structure," Farhi said. "They were never able to create a revolutionary party, like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union or China."

Instead, after its eight-year war with Iraq, the regime found it had to contend with a reformist movement, led in some cases by revolutionaries-turned-moderates. Seeking gradual change within the system, they had their most public success with the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami, a president who promoted dialogue with the West and a loosening of social restrictions, and whose relatively moderate cabinet provided a counterweight to the hard-liners.

After two terms, however, many reform-minded Iranians were disillusioned by Khatami's insistence on working within the existing political system and his inability to bring about more meaningful change. Cynicism led many to boycott the 2005 presidential election, which ushered in Ahmadinejad and a return to harsher rhetoric and isolationism. Arrests and exile of reformists followed.

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