What happened in Iran is a military coup. The coup was made by the Republican Guard with the connivance of the Supreme Leader. It is a war at the top between two very strong factions in an extremely complicated and fluid Iranian political system.
Allied with the Republican Guard are the baseej militias. In Iran people tell you they are the “army of 20 million”. They are supposed to be 20 million. That is not true. They are four or five million. But a few months ago a plan was hatched to bring them to the level of 13 million. Every baseeji had to recruit four or five others. In the rural provinces this is very easy. Unemployment in Iran (not officially) is 20-30% at least for young people. If you are a baseeji you are part of a glorified gang. You are covered by the official state powers. You are enforcing the principles of the Islamic Revolution. They are considered in Iran as “principlists” or hard-core Khomeinists.
A few months ago, very few people in Iran were expecting the Green Revolution conducted by Mousavi. The television debates were the catalyst. The first big debate was between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Mousavi did not accuse Ahmadinejad of being a dictator. He says the policies implemented by Ahmadinejad are leading towards a dictatorship.
When Ahmadinejad and the Minister of Interior (who monitor Iran 24-7) saw the groundswell of opposition in all the big cities and Tehran, they could see a man, Mousavi who was a former Prime Minister during Khomeini, and very competent manager during the 80s. They also remember that when he was Prime Minister he was a balancing act between Khomeini and Khamenei, then President.
Khomeini was using Mousavi to control Khamenei as President. Mousavi could play Khomeini against Khamenei.
When Ahmadinejad saw the Green Revolution starting, he began to accuse Rafsanjani during the debates. This is very important for popular sentiment in Iran, because Rafsanjani is a billionaire. He is not only the richest man in Iran, he is also probably the most powerful man in Iran, apart from the Supreme Leader. He controls the Council of Guards and the Council of Experts. He could probably chose the next Supreme Leader, if he has enough votes in the Council of Experts.
These attacks by Ahmadinejad against Rafsanjani work very well on a popular level. One of the reasons Ahmadinejad won the election is because yes, he has a lot of support in the working class, with the peasants; but one of his main things is corruption. If you go to a mosque or a bazaar or a tea shop in a provincial town in Iran they talk about Rafsanjani as a corrupt billionaire who doesn’t understand their problems.
But this was not enough for Ahmadinejad to win the election by an almost two to one margin and that is where the whole operation at the Ministry of Interior comes in [in stealing the election].
Our “military coup”, if we express it that way, means the Republican Guards are going to run the economy. They are already a very powerful force. They have airlines, airports, factories, industries, parts of the bazaar. Now they are taking over the whole economy.
But economics in Iran is extremely complicated. There is a mix of state and private sectors. It is a semi-socialist economy, or semi-Brezhnev/Russia style economy. At the same time private initiative is key. It is still basically a bazaar economy. The bazaaris in 2005 were aligned with Ahmadinejad. Not any more. Because of high inflation, high unemployment, the effects of the sanctions and the utmost incompetence of Ahmadinejad's economic managers. The bazaaris switched their vote. They are saying “we want a well-managed economy.” They are not even thinking about more cultural liberties. They want to make money again.
When oil was $140-150 a barrel last year, the government were getting $70 billion a year in oil money and they used it for handouts to buy votes. Some of these handouts went to infrastructure, building roads etc, but some went to people who could mobilise baseejis, it was about buying political influence in the remote parts of the country. It is a very populist regime.
The overall feeling after the election of 2005 after Ahmadinejad was elected was that there was going to be a major cultural crackdown. And that is exactly what happened. Right now they are more baseejis persecuting women everywhere, closing down reformist newspapers, being very vigilant against the internet and YouTube.
The problem is that the ultra conservative control all the centres of power. [Also the army, which was taken over by the Revolutionary Guard.] The most powerful person on the other side is Rafsanjani. Now we are going to see what is going to happen to the principles of the Islamic Revolution. If Rafsanjani can muster enough votes as Leader of the Council of Experts he can remove the Supreme Leader. The Council of Experts is 86 clerics, all of them very conservative. They meet twice a year maximum to discuss matters related to the Supreme Leader.
Apart from that there is not much that the reformists can do [they have no military power] and the crack down is going to be very hard and very ugly.
There is a comparison here with what happened in Tiananmen in 1989. When Deng Xiaoping ordered a crackdown he said “no mercy”. I think the Revolutionary Guard are in a “no mercy” mood with what they are calling a foreign intervention. They equate the Green Revolution with the colour-coded revolutions is Eurasia — though that has absolutely nothing to do with it.
The reformists would need splits in the armed forces for the mass demonstrations to have effect. We were getting reports that parts of the Republican Guard were aligned with Mousavi. But that was not the case.
Ahmadinejad and Bush were perfect as interlocutors, they were blaming each other all the time. Ahmadinejad is still thinking in Bush terms. He hasn’t realised that a new kind of dialogue is possible if we follow Obama at his word of course. Most people in Iran, even poor people, think that if America respects Iran’s independence, doesn’t interfere with its foreign policy, that Iran is allowed to have a civil nuclear programme, this is fine, it is not Great Satan any more. Try to tell this to the Washington elite. It is impossible. They are more or less still in a Cold War mood against Iran.
I’m sure that Ahmadinejad is calculating on there being more aggressive words from the US. They are thinking that first they will get rid of the “green problem”, then they will concentrate on relations with the US but under our own terms. They think this is perfect for them, Iranian national feeling will rally behind them. They are not thinking in terms of the Obama effect.
The Green Revolution is not an Obama effect, it is a completely different phenomena. It is indigenous. It is an urban phenomena, coming from people who could see what Ahmadinejad was doing wrong, could see what there was an alternative within the framework of the Islamic Republic. They could see Mousavi was not a great reformer, that he was a pragmatic conservative, but that rallying behind him could be a way out of this impasse.