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Evolution in the air

To understand what’s happening in Iran today, we must look at its past, writes Saeed Naqvi.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2009 23:38 IST
Saeed Naqvi

How’s this for coincidence? The Iranian revolution, which brought the Ayatollahs to power in Tehran in 1979, followed the ouster of President Mohammad Daoud Khan in Kabul in 1978. Can there really be a total disconnect between these two events that took place within months in two contiguous countries?

It was common knowledge in Kabul those days that a botched-up plot by the Shah of Iran’s CIA-backed secret police force, Savak — aimed to wean leftists away from Daoud Khan — had been prematurely leaked. This allowed the leftists to eliminate Daoud before he could eliminate them.

This was how the Khalq and the Parcham parties, the two communist parties of Afghanistan, came to power in Kabul. Let us also remember, in the context of what is unfolding in Iran, that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 caused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to promote the mujahideen as an ultra-Islamic force to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Coinciding with these developments was the consolidation of the Ayatollahs in Iran.

The Tudeh Party of Iran was once the most powerful communist party outside Europe. It had thrown its lot behind Ayatollah Khomeini to oust the Shah. Once Tudeh leaders became visible, they also became easy targets. The Islamic revolution turned upon them.

While a conflicting relationship existed between the Shias of Iran and the Wahhabi-ised Afghans, energies of both people were separately directed against a common enemy: internally the Left, externally the Soviet Union. In their virulent anti-Sovietism, did the Iranians have some Western support?

If there is substance to this speculation, then it is obvious that this fact was completely overshadowed by the 444-day siege of the US embassy by Iranian students.

Despite plummeting US-Iran relations, the 1986 Iran-Contra affair (in which senior US figures facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, despite an arms embargo, to secure the release of hostages and to fund Nicaraguan anti-government forces) provided an opportunity that brought together Iran, Israel, Nicaragua and the CIA in a complex web of interests.

The present supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was then the Iranian president. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and the current head of the constitutional body, the Assembly of Experts — and the person now opposing Khamenei most vociferously — was then the speaker of the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) and the most active interlocutor during the Iran-Contra scandal. Rafsanjani never ceased to be controversial.

Even during the 2005 elections, he was projected as the pro-West candidate. The puzzle is that Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1998 and throughout this period, there was nothing like a rapprochement between Iran and the West.

Then why was Rafsanjani such a hot Western favourite during the 2005 elections? Unfortunately for him, those elections took place bang in the middle of the George W Bush years, when to be proclaimed as Bush’s preferred candidate was worse than the kiss of death. After Christiane Amanpour telecast back-to-back interviews with Rafsanjani, his defeat at Ahmedinejad’s hand was as good as confirmed.

Ahmadinejad, in his origin and background, represents a departure from all previous Iranian presidents. He was the first president from outside the 500-year old Shia University of Qom. Indeed, his rival in the June 12 presidential elections, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also not a Qom graduate. This itself should be taken as a clue to the future being delineated by the Ayatollahs. There is a strong body of opinion among the clergy that believes in guiding the Islamic Republic but not in administering it as it has since 1979.

The extended agitation against the election results has several reasons: the effect of sanctions is beginning to tell, particularly on the young, many of whom are unemployed. This, despite the fact that institutes like Sharif Institute of Technology, just outside Tehran, are producing students who in their training are recognised as the best in the world.

As usual, Western intelligence agencies appear to have goofed up in assessing the outcome of the polls. Hence, a somewhat astonished Hillary Clinton responded cautiously to the result. This kind of Western response also encourages the urban agitators. Hence the continued restiveness.

The driving force behind the agitations is not Mousavi but Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad has openly challenged corruption in private businesses that includes Rafsanjani’s vast empire. Up to a point, the Supreme Leader gave the agitators some rope. The agitation has continued despite Khamenei’s statement during the Friday prayers that there was no doubt about Ahmedinejad’s victory. This indicates that clerical voices in the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council and Expediency council are being mobilised.

Saeed Naqvi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation