The Fight for Iran's Political Future Revolution Leaders Struggle for Power in Tehran

By and Erich Follath

Part 4: Iranians Take to the Streets


Tehran, in the summer of 2009, in the days after the electoral fraud that triggered an upheaval throughout the country.

The election outcome that religious leader Khamenei, only hours after polling places closed, presented to Iranians and declared to be God-given was simply too implausible. Ahmadinejad had supposedly won the vote by a landslide, with almost a 30-percent lead, despite the fact that opinion polls had predicted a close race. When Iranians took to the streets in protest, Khamenei's Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias bludgeoned the peaceful protestors, and shots were fired.

Since June 12, more than 30 people have died in the streets, and more than 100 protestors now face trials reminiscent of the Stalinist model, with defendants' "confessions" clearly obtained under duress and threat of death. And yet thousands are still taking to the streets.

Rafsanjani, sensing a shift, spoke out in favor of the protesters in a Friday sermon in mid-July. His move was likely triggered by the opportunity to exact his revenge on Khamenei. He spoke of a "national crisis" and demanded the release of imprisoned protestors. The country's rulers, he said, should "operate within the framework of the law." As head of the influential Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani is still an important power broker in Tehran.

The elderly Montazeri has already reappeared on the scene. Long sidelined, he is making good on a promise he made in a 2003 interview with SPIEGEL in Qom: "There is so much for which I wish to atone. I am not free of guilt." The grand ayatollah made his stance public in the form of a fatwa, or religious opinion -- a declaration that carries enormous weight with the faithful.

In the sensational document, the religious scholar compared the current situation in Iran with the pre-revolutionary period under the Shah, "who did not hear the call of the revolution until it was too late." A leadership "based on clubs, injustice and violations of the law," he said, is worthless and must be condemned. The government, he said, serves the people, not the reverse, and if the people are no longer satisfied with it, then it loses its legitimacy, according to Shiite teachings. "Each person has a responsibility in the face of tyranny."

Rafsanjani has also rediscovered his interest in the clerics. Seeking allies, he recently visited Qom, Montazeri's stronghold, and Mashhad, where Khamenei has his supporters. The image of leading ayatollahs joining forces with a mercantile multimillionaire and pro-Western, Twitter-using students illustrates how unique alliances can be in Iran.

The Failed Theocracy

This is where the triumvirate stands today, the three men who embarked on their political careers together, intent on bringing an Islamic revolution to Tehran -- and who could now be confronted by a new revolution.

Montazeri is convinced that the concept of a theocracy has failed. He grants the religious leader, at most, the status of a constitutional monarch.

Rafsanjani would probably like to see the basic structures of the velayat preserved, but with a "sensible" religious leader like himself, and with a liberal market economy similar to China's.

"In the struggle for the country's direction," says Iran expert Mohsen Milani of the University of South Florida, Rafsanjani has "never quite forgotten that even an Islamic Republic needs popular approval to attain legitimacy." According to Milani, this explains why Rafsanjani tried to limit the term of the revolutionary leader to 10 years in his 1989 constitutional amendment. For Khamenei, on the other hand, says Milani, the country's leadership "answers primarily to God."

Khamenei is fighting to preserve the status quo, and to do so, he could very well be prepared to throw Ahmadinejad, his awkward protégé and ideological ally, to the wolves.

The tensions between the two men, at any rate, are hard to overlook -- even beyond the rebuffed kiss. For seven days, the president resisted the religious leader's "urgent wish" that he remove his first vice-president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai. Ahmadinejad eventually relented, only to make Mashai his chief of staff.

Now Tehran is filled with rumors that Khamenei, seeking a new balance, could persuade the parliament, in the coming weeks, to refuse to endorse the entire cabinet Ahmadinejad has proposed. This would lead to a new election, in which the religious leader could support a presidential candidacy for Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament. Or could the situation present Rafsanjani with the opportunity to use his influence in the Assembly of Experts to force Khamenei, who is believed to have cancer, to resign, thus fulfilling his own life's dream of becoming Khomeini's "true" successor?

The Nuclear Option

And what are the implications of the current power struggle for the question that interests the world more than anything else: Iran's future as a potential nuclear power?

There are currently 12,000 centrifuges in operation, producing the basic material for a possible nuclear weapon, and it is conceivable that Iran will have produced enough of the material by next year. In 2003, when Tehran made a secret offer to negotiate through Swiss mediators, Iran had only 164 centrifuges and claimed that it wanted to keep a few dozen for "research purposes." But the Bush administration was not even willing to discuss the possibility of symbolic uranium enrichment for Iran. As a result, Tehran refused to submit to any UN resolutions.

In the opinion of London exile Ataollah Mohajerani, there is little evidence to suggest that there is any room for compromise on the nuclear issue. Neither Khamenei nor Rafsanjani, or even Mousavi, seem willing to even suspend uranium enrichment. New US President Barack Obama's offer to talk to the Iranians is likely to have as little effect as the threat of tougher sanctions -- even if they include a ban on fuel imports, for which Washington is currently seeking European support, and which would be painful for Iran.

Despite all denials from Tehran, it is highly likely that Iran is on its way to becoming a nuclear power. And Israeli air strikes will probably be the only means of uniting the theocracy's bankrupt leadership and its courageous opposition in a surge of national pride and defiance: us against the world.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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