As Iranians throng Tehran's streets, braving batons and bullets, the Islamic State's Supreme Leader has opted for an inquiry into the election results. Will it be a legitimate exploration of an implausible result, or a tactic to kill the protest momentum?
Is this what revolution looks like? Can Iran’s students and those who feel disenfranchised by Friday’s election results continue the momentum, or has the Supreme Leader already outplayed them?
All attempts so far to quash the green wave have so far failed as hundreds of thousands of protesters have turned out in a scenario that mirrors the 1979 Revolution that ousted the corrupt and American-backed Shah and turned Iran into an Islamic state.
The Iranian leadership has already shown signs of buckling in calling on the influential body of clerics and experts in Islamic law—the Guardian Council—to review the outcome of the election. In particular to investigate the claims by Mousavi that fraud cheated him of a victory.
It may not however, be a buckle. It may be a cunning plan in the guise of a safety valve. If the Supreme Leader Khamenei can sap the growing revolutionary spirit of its momentum, he may secure the chance to control the streets without an all out bloodbath.
It is really worth going back to watch footage of the 1979 Revolution and the fervour that built—albeit over months—which saw Iranians defy the Shah’s crackdown, turned those killed by government troops into martyrs, and eventually signed the Shah's exile warrant. If they could do it then, why not now? Added to that is the technology available to these would-be revolutionaries. While the government has tried to close satellite and internet sites, it has been outmanoeuvred by more up-to-date Twitter and co. What ignominy.
Already there are reports of at least one person shot dead, and all the television reports show serious police brutality as the young para-militants on motorbikes swing batons at anyone they can, and ransack the universities. Ahmadinejad’s “handful of demonstrators” have turned into a mass protest, estimated to be in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands. The fissures within the country are apparent to all, including the leadership, and they have cause to worry.
It all seems as if the very administration that was around to oust the Shah thought it would very easily name Ahmadinejad as the leader, and life would continue. Possibly the biggest mistake with such a plan was the record time it took to ‘count’ those 40 million paper votes and then declare the incumbent keeps his seat. A record 85 percent voter turnout, polls open for hours longer than usual, and an immediate victory giving 63 percent of the votes to Ahmadinejad. How stupid was that! It was not an electronic election count and within two to three hours it was done and dusted. At the very least, those watching the election and how close it became in the last couple of weeks expected a run off with neither candidate making it to 50 percent of the vote.
Instead Iranians, many clearly desperate for more social freedom, were served up a highly questionable scenario and it was truly a step too far.
I watched Ahmadinejad’s full post-election press conference in which he declared the election as the “most glorious in the contemporary world”. Glorious in its breathtaking implausibility perhaps but not in its cursory nod to democracy. Mousavi referred to it as an act of wizardry, and hundreds of thousands who believe their votes have been stolen, brave enough to take the baton blows, agree. They also know the rest of the world is watching, and hence they are carrying signs in English—“down with the dictator” and “who stole my vote”.
There are two competing themes now in play. The first is how long can those who support Mousavi and are convinced of major election fraud sustain their momentum. If they look to the other colour revolutions they will know their green wave will require extraordinary commitment and growing numbers.
The other component is in the hands of the leadership. As with revolutions of the past—the French, the Russian, and the Iranian revolutions—the political skill is in knowing how much anger to allow to vent before clamping down and risking defeat, a military that refuses to kill its own citizens, and/or martyrdom that will eat away at the fabric of an already dreadfully divided society.
From the outside Iranian political life is incredibly complex, with its mix of theocracy and democracy and infighting at the very top of its religious and secular leaderships.
The sheer scale of this reaction has the potential to rock the foundations of the Islamic Republic, and even if it totters to an equilibrium it will have to deal with a hugely disparate sector, particularly amongst its young and highly educated university class.
The old footage of the 1979 Revolution shows a tearful Shah as he departs the capital for a vacation from which he was never permitted to return. Khamenei is unlikely to be moved to tears let alone budge from his holy patch. However, despite backing Ahmadinejad for the last four years, he is more likely to cause the highly bellicose and problematic incumbent to go in to that dark night, particularly if his plan to vent the protesters' anger with an inquiry fails to quiet the streets of Tehran.