Iran's instability


REVOLUTIONS OCCUR when those above cannot rule in the old way and those below will not be ruled in the old way, according to Lenin. His remark about the Russian revolution is worth recalling after Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s warning that continuing divisions will lead to the collapse of the country’s ruling elite. He spoke after calls by one former president for a referendum on the government’s legitimacy, which another described as in crisis after it has lost the trust of millions of Iranians.

This continuing fallout from last month’s disputed presidential election results reveals that it has created an unprecedented gulf between supporters of the victorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mr Khamenei’s decision as supreme leader to back Mr Ahmadinejad so forthrightly has opened up these divisions. They show no sign of diminishing despite the arrest of thousands of Mr Mousavi’s supporters, who he has demanded be released forthwith. The call by Mohammad Khatami for a referendum and the frank statement about the loss of political trust by Hashemi Rafsanjani show that the facade of unity carefully constructed by Iran’s clerical and security rulers over the last two decades has disintegrated.

That is the significance of Mr Mousavi’s statement to his supporters at a rally with the families of post-election detainees: “You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements.” Rejecting claims that they have been manipulated by foreign countries he asked: “Who believes these people, many of the prominent figures, would work with the foreigners and to endanger their country’s interests?”

The tone of these statements indicates a renewed political confidence among opposition leaders. Their readiness to invoke an alternative view of the national interest from that put forward by Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Khamenei shows there is now an open struggle for support from below by those fighting a political battle within the country’s rulers about the best way to proceed. This does not mean Iran is in anything like the pre-revolutionary position of Russia in 1917; but such an open political dispute can be resolved only by repression or a willingness to change the political rules of the game by revisiting the election result. Either way it will lead to more conflict over who holds power and with what objectives. Iran suddenly looks less stable.