The World from Berlin 'Iran Was Never a True Democracy'

Protesters took to the streets of Iran this weekend to vent their frustration and dismay at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide election victory. The German press on Monday assesses the deep divisions in Iranian society and ponders what impact the vote will have on the West's relationship with Tehran.


The much heralded "green tsunami" failed to sweep away Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last Friday's election. Supporters of thwarted candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi spent much of the weekend venting their anger and frustration at what they claimed was electoral fraud.

Unrest flared up in Tehran and other cities after election results released on Saturday showed that the hardline incumbent had resoundingly defeated the moderate Mousavi. However, the 63 percent with which Ahmadinejad trounced his rival's 34 percent -- and avoided a run-off -- left many questioning whether there had been irregularities in the vote and subsequent count.

While Ahmadinejad has a strong following in rural areas and among the poor, Mousavi's campaign had attracted huge support among the young, women and the educated urban classes and there had been much anticipation in Western media that a new tone would soon be emanating from Tehran.

Mousavi had already voiced concerns during the election on Friday that his people were not being allowed to monitor the vote. Once the landslide was declared he called for the results to be annulled. "No one even imagined this much vote rigging, before the eyes of the world, by a government which says it is committed to religious justice," he complained. Ahmadinejad countered that the vote was fair. Appearing at a rally on Sunday he declared: "Some people want democracy only for their own sake."

While Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, initially endorsed the result, he has now ordered an investigation into the claims of vote-rigging and has called on Mousavi to pursue his appeal "calmly and legally." The powerful Guardian Council said on Monday that it would rule within 10 days on the complaints it had received.

Protests by thousands of dismayed Mousavi supporters over the weekend have marked the most blatant show of discontent in Iran in years. Demonstrators clashed with police at Tehran University on Sunday and there were also skirmishes with Ahmadinejad supporters in the center of the city. While security forces did not fire on the protesters, images of uniformed men on motorcycles hitting demonstrators with truncheons sent a clear message. Ahead of the elections, the hardline Revolutionary Guard had already warned that it would not tolerate a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

On Monday, Mousavi supporters held a protest rally in Tehran defying an Interior Ministry ban. "Any disrupter of public security would be dealt with according to the law," state radio had announced on Monday.

Shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters gathered in Revolution Square in downtown Tehran. Mousavi was making his first public appearance since claiming Friday's vote was rigged. Stick-wielding men on motorcycles were reported to have scuffled with some of the demonstrators who were wearing Mousavi's greeen campaign colors.

The international community has reacted with caution to the weekend's events in Iran, which is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and is currently pursuing a much disputed nuclear program. On Monday, the European Union urged Tehran not to use violence against protesters and to look into complaints of irregularities. "I have thorough respect for all the Iranian citizens who have shown their discontent and have demonstrated peacefully," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. "I do hope the security forces will refrain from showing violence."

Berlin, meanwhile, urged Iran to clear up any doubts about the fairness of the election. "The German government believes the allegations of manipulation of the vote must be examined quickly by the responsible bodies to remove the doubts about this result," government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters. "We are greatly concerned about what we see as an over-reaction by the security forces in cracking down on the protesters, people who have the right to express their opinions." Germany, one of Iran's biggest trading partners, had already summoned the Iranian ambassador on Sunday in protest over events in the country. In an interview with public broadcaster ARD, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned the "brutal actions" against demonstrators.

German newspapers on Monday are agreed the results point to a deeply divided Iran. They differ, however, on what impact Iran's internal tensions may have on the wider world.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Ahmadinejad's opponent may well not have won a majority. However, in light of the sensationally high turnout, which almost always favors the opposition in elections, it looks at the very least as if he was robbed of the chance to enter a run-off. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged the people to respect the results. The duped opposition is left with the choice of appealing to the courts or calling for demonstrations and protests. The ayatollah has made it clear that he is not impartial: He spoke in favor of Ahmadinejad before the election. And the Iranian justice system is not independent enough to defy such dictums from above."

"If Mousavi supports protests then he is taking a great risk. … The Islamic Republic has become increasingly militarized in recent years. Ahmadinejad has deliberately strengthened the Revolutionary Guard and they won't hesitate to use force if they get the order."

"Mass protests won't threaten the Islamic Republic. But they could undermine it in the long run if a large part of the country's young people lose faith in the system. And this would be particularly true if the regime were to use force. That could turn part of the establishment against the regime. Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, the godfather of the Iranian revolution, his successor Khamenei comes across as a bland figure without the ability to unite the nation."

"For the international community, it will now become harder to deal with Iran. Washington could have talked to a reformist president about the nuclear program. Ahmadinejad on the other hand has shown no interest in compromises. And why should he? If the regime in Tehran comes under pressure at home, then it will act with even more stubbornness toward the outside. This election will have long-lasting consequences -- in Iran itself and internationally."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The Islamic Republic of Iran was never a true democracy and it didn't want to be one. The hardliners always made sure that only candidates loyal to the regime could stand for election. On Friday, however, the rulers have finally dispelled the illusion that the regime's legitimacy is drawn from the people."

"Iran is no longer a theocracy. Instead, it is drifting toward a situation similar to that of Pakistan. The armed forces are the ones with the power. In the first four years of Ahmadinejad's presidency, members of the Revolutionary Guard held more than half of the top government posts and they now control the Iranian economy. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly shown his contempt for the clerics."

"With Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic is distancing itself from the mullahs and is slowing becoming an authoritarian military dictatorship in which holding on to power and making money have become more important than religion. … As in other states, the military rulers in Iran are above all nationalists. There is little prospect that Iran can be persuaded to yield in the nuclear dispute."

"Tensions within Iran and with the outside world will increase. The disappointed and curious young people will continue to rebel, while Ahmadinejad and his regime are far from popular with the ethnic minorities in the provinces. The international community will find it difficult to deal with this Iran. All the Arab states had hoped for a change of regime and even Syria's President Bashar Assad is said to have finally lost patience with Ahmadinejad. Russia also seems to be worried about Iran's nuclear program. US President Obama now faces a difficult choice. He had given himself and the Iranians the next six months as a time frame for a breakthrough. Ahmadinejad is hardly ready to come round."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The elections have not changed the real problem in Iran, the polarization of society. Ahmadinejad is celebrated as a hero by the poor and has his power base in the countryside and in the smaller towns. That is where the government has invested a large part of its oil money in recent years."

"On the other hand, the reform movement has been largely confined to the cities. It enjoys the support of young people, women and the educated elite, who are looking for a political leadership that brings them closer to the rest of the world. … And the mullahs are also divided amongst themselves. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei congratulated Ahmadinejad while Ayatollah Rafsanjani believes that the president is damaging the Islamic Republic's image. Iran was already deeply divided during Ahmadinejad's first term. This election is now going to cause the rift in the Iranian society to become ever deeper."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The theory of election fraud is supported above all by the fact that for the first time in years the leaden paralysis and resignation that has reigned for years in Iran seemed to have been blown away. The country was rife with debates and political discussions, text messaging and Twitter posts. And even if the announcement of a 'green revolution' by Mousavi supporters was a bit exaggerated, things had not been so stirred up in Iran's big cities for some time."

"It will be hard to put the spirit of such a movement back in the bottle. Even if the small uprising is nipped in the bud over the next few weeks … a threat to the regime has emerged that it has not yet got under control. If one takes unemployment, corruption, inflation and the fact that such an oil-rich country has to import energy, then it is clear that just muddling through will not work."

"What will this mean for the rest of the world? Amazingly, not very much. The questions that interest people (in the West) -- the nuclear program and the hate directed toward Israel -- played hardly any role in the elections. It is the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has the final say here. ... Iran is still the big winner in the supposed 'realpolitik' of recent years, from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to the fight against the Taliban."

"The first big danger for the regime is an American president who no longer serves as a 'great Satan'… A military strike would greatly please the Ahmadinejad regime at the moment. However, no one is likely to do them that favor right now."

-- Siobhán Dowling, 1:30 p.m. CET

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