In one of the most turbulent days in the Islamic Republic’s thirty-year history, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s illegitimacy as president was hardly mentioned. For if Ashura comes to symbolize one thing in another thirty years from now, it may very well mark the day that open contempt for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spread like wildfire across the country’s cities and provinces.
This shift is significant because while Iran rose up in June to contest a rigged presidential election, the presidency itself was always window-dressing for a despotic regime ruled by Khamenei. Whereas six months ago, Iran’s Supreme Leader could have forced Ahmadinejad out as a sacrificial lamb and thereby given the Islamic Republic a plausible chance of surviving its current political crisis, recent events (which undoubtedly had Khamenei’s either explicit or complicit support) have taken the 2009 Iranian uprising to a point of no return. The oxymoronic experiment of a ‘theocratic-democracy’ appears to be on the verge of failure.
Which is what makes the Green movement's adoption of Islamic themes in its confrontation with the regime so ironic. Last week’s death of Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri more than gave the opposition a rallying cry and fallen leader to immortalize. It also opened the eyes of many – particularly the older, conservative clerical class removed and censored from the epicenter of events in Tehran – to the vastness and legitimacy of this social movement. Since June’s unprecedented uprising, security in the city of Qom (where the majority of clerics reside) has been amongst the strictest in the entire country. This is likely because the regime has not forgotten that it was Iran’s religious heartland that came together to usher it into power a revolution ago. And so when hundreds of thousands of mourners became protesters in Qom last week, boldly chanting in unison that “Khamenei is a murderer,” there was a discernable shift in Iran’s political climate.
As if that were not enough, at least 15 protesters – including the nephew of Mir-Hossein Mousavi – were murdered yesterday during one of the most holy days of the Shia faith, which also coincided with the seventh (and religiously significant) day after Montazeri’s passing. Simply put, the brutal attacks of Ashura were an affront on the Islamic faith committed by a supposedly Islamic government. As Mehdi Karoubi put it, “Even the Shah respected Ashura.”
So when word of yesterday’s bloodshed reaches the country’s religious centers – and it surely will in the midst of the chaos that has erupted during the last forty-eight hours – outrage can be expected in Qom. This may soon put Iran’s clerics, both conservative and moderate, in an unenviable position: sacrificing their coveted theocracy in order to salvage their religion’s sanctity. For if it was unclear up until this point, there is surely no way that any clerical scholar of Islam can any longer defend the actions of the Islamic Republic – especially when such actions are committed in Islam’s name, for that matter.
But even assuming that the pillars of the Islamic Republic have been irreparably shaken and that the regime is in its last throes, the question remains how the Green movement will culminate in the weeks and months ahead. Just as Ahmadinejad’s name has been substituted with Khamenei’s in opposition chants, demands that the “coup regime resign” have similarly diminished, along with protesters’ passivity. With more and more people openly labeling Khamenei a “murderer,” it is difficult to see how any mere political solution – even one that includes Khamenei stepping down – will be palatable for the Iranian population. Protesters are no longer marching for their votes to be counted; they are marching the crimson-stained streets of Tehran in pursuit of justice and freedom.
Which begs the question: if conservatives within the regime that are not aligned with Ahmadinejad but are supportive of Khamenei (such as Ali Larijani) come to accept that the ship is sinking, do they retain any clout in affecting the future direction of the country? Given that the nephew of Iran’s former Prime Minister (under Khomeini, no less) was shot dead in streets of Tehran yesterday, it appears that the window for political compromise is closing, if not already closed. This is by no means to argue that there will be a conservative “purge” of the Iranian Majlis parliament once the dust settles, however. Rather, it points to the reality that the landscape has unalterably changed during the course of the last month. Whatever bargaining position Iran’s conservatives may have had in what form a new Iranian government takes has surely and severely been marginalized through their complicity (if not acquiesce) of the regime’s brutal actions.
This also has immediate consequences for Iran’s most mercurial cleric and politician, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Throughout the post-election crisis, and as recently as two weeks ago, Rafsanjani has been using his position as the head of both the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts (which can constitutionally oust Khamenei) to push for a “national unity plan” that would attempt to bridge Iran’s fractured political landscape. While it appears that the rumored plan (which would have kept Khamenei in power in some capacity) never received serious consideration from regime-insiders, it is now apparent that any such attempts at reconciliation will be neither accepted by the majority of Iran’s population nor entertained by an increasingly megalomaniacal inner-circle.
Moreover, this also puts Rafsanjani in the spotlight. While Mousavi, Karoubi, and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami have all come out squarely in the Green camp, Rafsanjnai, Iran’s political “shark,” has essentially strayed on both sides of the conflict. While he has gradually inched closer to the Greens, stating on the eve of 16 Azar that the clerics should govern the country for only so long as “the people of Iran want [them to],” the events of Ashura may finally draw the line in the sand that forces the senior cleric to decide where he will unequivocally stand: with the regime or with the people. If yesterday’s fatalities prove to be as damaging to the regime’s legitimacy as many are speculating, his decision should be easier now more than any other time since June’s election.
If Rafsanjani decides to take the unprecedented step of coming out against Khamenei, which is not as outlandish of a possibility as it once was prior to Karoubi’s blatant condemnation of the regime last night, it would undoubtedly be a game-changer. Simply put, it would openly signal political abandonment of the regime by the country’s second most powerful figure. If Rafsanjani remains quiet, however, questions will surely begin to be raised as to where his true allegiances lie. Consequently, as the demands of a galvanized and broadening opposition grow, he will arguably be less and less able to hedge his bets.
Rafsanjani’s public stance one way or another should not be read as the Green movement’s need for leadership, however. This was similarly misinterpreted when questions arose as to Mousavi and Karoubi’s attendance in previous demonstrations. In fact, what makes the Green movement unique from many others is that its grassroots nature allows it to thrive and grow without the need of a single individual leading the way. Current chatter of an imminent national strike being planned – an enormous development if it proves to be true – is just one example of how such a structure allows the opposition movement to organize through a decentralized communication network rather than a rigid hierarchy.
And so as Tehran faces yet another day of clashes with yesterday’s ashes still smoldering, uncertainty is in the air. Martial law was reportedly declared in Najafabad yesterday. Will the beleaguered security apparatus start to see desertions within its ranks? Will talk of an impending military mutiny against the regime come to fruition? While there are plenty of rumors floating around since yesterday’s tumultuous events, one thing that is certain is that there is no turning back.