Can Iran avoid civil war with next month’s presidential elections?

Tunisia was the first corrupt regime to fall, but the Arab Spring really started in Iran with the protests against the stolen 2009 election.

Four years later, Iran faces a new presidential election next month, and the Supreme Leader-for-life Ali Khamenei does not want to take any chances.

After toying with the idea of abolishing the office of president completely, Khamenei has disqualified the two candidates most electors wanted to vote for. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favored successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been disqualified, and so has the candidate Western reporters like to describe as a ‘reformer’, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

It would of course be inconvenient for the Supreme Leader-for-life to be personally involved in election rigging, and so that the actual disqualifications had to be rubber stamped by the ‘Guardian Council‘, half of which is directly appointed by the Kamenei, and the other half from candidates nominated by the Kamenei.

The Guardian Council also vets candidates for the Assembly of Experts, the only body that could dismiss the Supreme Leader in theory, but will never do so in practice.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Unlike the US constitution, where the separation of powers between different institutions is designed to dilute power and hold it accountable, the profusion of institutions in the Iranian constitution is designed to concentrate power in the hands of one man.

The disqualifications have sparked protests, most notably a letter to Kamenei from Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic republic. Ahmadinejad does not intend to go quietly either. Many expect that he will face corruption charges as soon as he loses his Presidential immunity from prosecution, and not without cause. But that is not the reason he will be charged and convicted.

While Western media accounts present Rafsanjani as a moderate, and Ahmadinejad as the crazy hard liner, both are misleading.

Rafsanjani was Khomeini’s confidante, one of the architects of the republic and the reign of terror that liquidated the real moderates in the aftermath of the revolution. Rafsanjani has amassed a billion dollar fortune through public life.

Ahmadinejad is obnoxious, but he is an Iranian Nixon, not a Bachmann. Netanyahu for one should be sorry to see him go: Ahmadinejad makes it easy for other governments to oppose Iran.

The protests have not yet reached the streets, but Ahmadinejad is working on that, and he has supporters and organization: Elections don’t rig themselves. Ahmadinejad’s supporters, combined with Kamenei’s, plan to steal the 2009 election and suppress the ensuing protests. Kamenei may be able to suppress a combination of Ahmadinejad’s supporters and the opposition, but it is also likely that they will not.

Kamenei can’t count on support from Hezbollah or Syria either. The extent of the 2009 protests took the regime by surprise. They didn’t know which of their security forces they could trust to attack unarmed demonstrators. The foreign forces knew that if the Iranian regime fell, they would fall with it.

According to the organization chart, the Basij militia that put down the 2009 demonstrations is under the direction of the Supreme Leader as a fifth branch of the Revolutionary Guard. But anyone who studies history knows that organization charts have much less meaning in a civil war. The Emperor Vespasian reduced the size of the Praetorian guard, noting that the guard had murdered four of the previous six emperors it had been formed to protect. Vespasian was the eighth emperor, but the first to die from unambiguously natural causes. Ahmadinejad was personally involved in the revival of the Basij from 2005 on, and members are almost certainly more familiar with Ahmadinejad than Kamenei.

For most of his presidency, Ahmadinejad appeared to be attempting to provoke military action by Israel in order to bolster his popular support. Basshar al-Assad in Syria is playing the same game with cross border fire into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. It is possible that Assad might succeed in provoking an Israeli retaliation, but that is unlikely to convince his opponents to rally round, and make common cause against, Israel. It might however allow Kamenei to do the same, though casting Ahmadinejad and his supporters as tools of the Zionist regime is likely to be a stretch even for them.

All that can be said with certainty of the situation in Iran is that it is unstable, and all of the parties involved likely over-estimate their power. It is possible that the opposition and Ahmadinejad factions stand by, and allow Kamenei to establish a dictatorship. It is also possible that there will be a repeat of the 2009 protests, and that the combined opposition forces convince the Assembly of Experts that it is time for constitutional change in Iran.

But there is also a third possibility: Civil war. The civil war in Syria has caused about 70,000 deaths.  And the civil war in Iraq, following the US invasion, caused between a quarter and half a million deaths. Iran has twice the population of Iraq, and a civil war could lead to far more deaths than we have seen to date.

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22 Responses to “Can Iran avoid civil war with next month’s presidential elections?”

  1. karmanot says:

    “Thatcher said the same thing about East Germany. She was completely wrong.” As it turns out the Baroness Green Grocer was wrong about everything, except her exponential capacity for harming people.

  2. karmanot says:

    Maybe a French croissant.

  3. FLL says:

    + Like. Finally, an honest analysis in a world where honesty is badly needed. Please post more often, Myrddin.

  4. FLL says:

    “Smooth and uncontested” implies “honest” and “not rigged.” In view of the election of 2009, do you really think that’s a possibility?

  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    In terms of Iran the groups that that have a stake in destroying the regime of the mad ayatollahs are workers, in and out of trade unions, students and youth facing unemployment and lowering wages, women and feminists and the GLBT communities who are subject to government organized and subsidized pogroms. Those groups are the only ones who can defeat the ayatollahs and it won’t be a civil was so much as a class war.

    The events in Libya were not so much a civil war as they were a successful attempt by the US and NATO to demonstrate their ability to crush nationalist regimes who stand in the way of US/NATO efforts to control oil distribution. And they were also a warning to the nationalist and islamist factions of the Arab Spring.

    Throughout the region the forces that began the Arab Spring are dividing with islamists on one side who are willing to accommodate the the US and the zionist bunkerstadt and to uphold capitalist and colonialist property relations and populists on the other hand who increasingly reject accommodating the US and the zionists and who are driven towards opposition to capitalism and colonialism because those systems are increasingly and correctly seen as the origin of their problems.

  6. Indigo says:

    There’s another possibility. It could turn out to be a smooth and uncontested election with the results easily accepted, the Iranian public quietly acquiescent, and the international conflict mongers disappointed.

  7. Indigo says:

    and somebody’s a Berliner, or is it Danish?

  8. Indigo says:

    In effect, there’s nothing civil about it.

  9. MyrddinWilt says:

    That isn’t how the English civil war started. The Royalists and Parliamentarians were both the same religion. The political divide crossed families. The Royalists were more tolerant of Catholics but not by much.

    There was no sectarian basis to the US civil war either. Many Southerners fought for the Union.

    More recently, Libya was in a civil war for several months with no sectarian divide.

    The Yugoslav and Iraqi civil wars were fueled by ethnic and sectarian rivalries but there are many examples of civil wars without them.

  10. MyrddinWilt says:

    Thatcher said the same thing about East Germany. She was completely wrong.

    Iran has involved itself in the affairs of Syria and Lebanon at the very least. Hezbollah is their tool and it is involved in attacks on Israel and murdered the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. So I don’t think they get to claim that their internal affairs are their own concern.

    Iran has violated diplomatic immunity and declared a death sentence Salman Rushdie for his writings. The UK and US undoubtedly have casus belli.

    The US is not exactly an innocent party in all this of course. The brothers Dulles did in the democratically elected regime to impose a convenient dictator. It is likely that they concealed their activity from President Eisenhower. Carter was certainly unaware of the operation and the fact that the CIA had used the Ayatollah to organize the demonstrations that brought down Mossadegh. If that had been known the State department might well have anticipated that Khomenei would need to storm the embassy to eliminate the proof of his activities. They would certainly have recognized the signal that allowing the Shah to enter the US for medical treatment would send.

    More recently Iran provided the false intelligence that led the US to invade Iraq and thus persuaded their two primary rivals to fight each other. I was warned off contact with Chalabai back in the mid 1990s. He was a student of Whit Diffie so I knew of him. But my CIA sources told me that they believed he was an Iranian agent besides being a Ponzi scheme operator.

    Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are not exactly model democracies but they are all much better today than two years ago. And most importantly anyone who attempts to form a government knows that the people have Internet access and they can be removed in the same way that the dictators were.

    England did not return to the status quo after the civil war and restoration. The King was back but no longer had power. It was the crown in parliament that held the power, not the monarch. The same is true in roughly 2/3rds of popular revolutions, there is a measurable improvement. Palace coups are a different matter. It wasn’t the people that brought Lenin and then Stalin to power, it was a coup organized by the German government.

    If Iran fell to a US invasion the result would be a catastrophe worse than Iraq. But if it falls to a popular revolution, Israel and Saudi Arabia both use the external enemies that provide cohesion and their shitty regimes will come under pressure.

  11. JayRandal says:

    Best to stay out of Iran’s internal affairs. US has messed up enough nations for awhile. Syria is a huge
    mess. Libya is in shambles. Egypt not doing much better. Besides US elections very corrupted too.

  12. GoBlue says:

    the 2009 election was “stollen,” was it?

    Gee, all this time I thought “Stollen” was a German Christmas bread with fruit and nuts.

  13. Fifi says:

    No, you don’t understand the dynamics of civil war.

    Civil war happens when people CAN’T choose on which side they are, when they are already on one side or another, when the borders and the divisions are already drawn.

    That’s what happened in Lebanon in the 70s. That’s what’s happening in Syria. In a civil war, you are Christian, you are a Druze, you are Alawite, you are Shiah, you are Kurd, you are Yezid, you are Sunni and there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t get to choose. War already chose for you.

  14. nicho says:

    You don’t need everyone involved. All you need are two powerful groups to start fighting, and eventually a lot of other people will have to choose up sides — or merely be caught in the crossfire.

  15. Zachary Smith says:

    I believe I agree with you a civil war is quite unlikely. Unless there is a substantial bunch of people over there as delusional as our Tea Baggers, the consensus of the population ought to be they want nothing of what happened to Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Nobody with half a brain would want any part of THAT.

  16. FLL says:

    The scene is Tehran in the aftermath of the Second Iranian Revolution. James Franco is subjecting the helpless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to unspeakably inappropriate sexual humiliation.

    James Franco: “You’d better wise up. Build your thighs up. You’d better wise up…”

    Narrator: “And then Ahmadinejad cried out…”

    Theater audience: “More! More! More!”

  17. emjayay says:

    It’s not mispelled. Stollen is delicious German coffeecake. Pronounced Shtollen.

  18. Fifi says:

    Very doubtful.

    A civil war requires that there exists very deep divisions within the general population, like religion in Syria and Lebanon or clan structures in Libya, so that factions can support themselves on segments of the population against other factions (and their own segment of the population).

    Here, what you have are groups within the state power structure (and completely dependent on this structure btw) vying for a larger share of power or even the whole thing. What you may end up with is an armed coup, replacing one oligarchy by another, or a revolution, the general population having had it for good and throwing out the bums (probably with extreme prejudice, given the history of the bums, which explain why the bums are so intent on keeping power, no matter what).

    But a civil war? No. The general population is a bystander and has no interest, nor motive to split itself between warring sides of the existing power structure.

  19. Finn says:

    “Stolen” is misspelled twice in the teaser for this post.

  20. MyrddinWilt says:

    It is not a secret that the US Congress allocated $100 million a year to such efforts and that some of the technologies developed were deployed during the Arab Spring.

    Other than that, I am not saying anything.

  21. FLL says:

    I hope some savvy computer types are able to keep communications going between Iran and the outside world, especially social media. If there is one group of clergy that deserves to meet the same fate as the clergy during the French Revolution, it’s the Iranian clerics. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of sexually repressed priests.

  22. karmanot says:

    Well done Myrrdin! Very interesting….more, more

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