Iran protests: Is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei winning?
With Iran protests largely shut down, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has declared "victory." But as Iranians evaluate the past year during Norouz celebrations this weekend, he knows he's lost legitimacy, say close observers.
Iran celebrates the start of the Persian New Year ‚Äď or Norouz ‚Äď this weekend, a time of joyful spring renewal that will also be used by Iran‚Äôs supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei to take stock of the damage done to the Islamic regime by post-election Iran protests and a determined opposition movement.
The Green Movement has been forced off the streets by police and security forces, and senior hard-line officials have declared ‚Äúvictory.‚ÄĚ
But does Iran‚Äôs most powerful man ‚Äď whose official title is God‚Äôs Deputy on Earth, infallible to his ardent followers ‚Äď think he is winning?
Ayatollah Khamenei keeps a very tight circle, so divining the machinations of his mind can be akin to Soviet-era Kremlinology. But after watching him for decades, several close observers believe that he knows he has lost much legitimacy.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs in triumphant mood right now,‚ÄĚ says an Iranian political scientist, who asked not to be further identified. ‚ÄúBut deep down, he knows he‚Äôs lost the war of legitimacy and popularity.‚ÄĚ
Ayatollah Khamenei ‚Äúfeels he‚Äôs got the upper hand at the moment,‚ÄĚ says the Iranian academic. ‚ÄúBut at the same time, deep inside ‚Äď this is my belief ‚Äď he does not have a very good sleep at night. He‚Äôs very angry ‚Äď that‚Äôs what I can see in his face. The slogans they leveled against him, the image he‚Äôs got ‚Äď he‚Äôs lost a lot of the popularity he had.‚ÄĚ
The result is likely to be hard pushback against any further unrest, but Khamenei must strike a balance over ordering too much force. And while the opposition is temporarily sidelined, its leaders are vowing to press on.
Khamenei's calculus: Keep 30 percent of people on board
But a host of irregularities caused the opposition to cry fraud, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested.
Scores died as hard-line regime enforcers shot, clubbed, whipped, and arrested people to reestablish control during one of the most severe crises in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Accounts of death, rape, and torture in custody further degraded Iran‚Äôs reputation.
For the first time, the supreme leader became a target on the streets: Protesters burned and trampled posters of him, shouting ‚ÄúDeath to the Dictator‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúDeath to the Leader.‚ÄĚ
The reaction was an even more forceful response.
‚ÄúThe regime has got a lot more aggressive, and it‚Äôs going to be more aggressive in coming months,‚ÄĚ says Mehdi Khalaji, a seminary-trained Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) who is working on a biography of the supreme leader.
‚Äú[Khamenei] thinks, ‚ÄėIf I can have even 20-30 percent of the people with me, and have systematic pressure on the other 70 percent, I can lead for a long time and there wouldn‚Äôt be a serious threat against me,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Mr. Khalaji, whose father, an ayatollah in the Iranian religious center of Qom, was arrested without charge and held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for three weeks in January.
‚Äú[Khamenei] tries to keep as many people [as he can] inside the circle of the elite, [while] empowering the suppression machinery of the regime more than before,‚ÄĚ adds Khalaji.
Supreme leader's difficult balance
Analysts say keeping sufficient core supporters on board while using force against perceived ‚Äúenemies‚ÄĚ is a balance that will be difficult to maintain. A number of official rallies were hijacked by opposition activists, which embarrassed the regime, but by the 31st anniversary of the revolution on Feb. 11, security forces and intelligence operatives had the measure of many opposition tactics.
The regime‚Äôs countertactics worked, say opposition activists in Tehran, who were surprised by the setback. Many had raised their expectations to fever pitch, expecting that the regime would crumble on that day. Their subsequent disappointment at being unable to even prove their numeric strength led to ‚Äúdepression‚ÄĚ ‚Äď and delight in official circles.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs almost like one voice coming out of the establishment, state-run television, all their hard-line newspapers, saying that ‚Äėwe managed to crush them,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says a veteran political analyst in Tehran who could not be named.
‚ÄúAt the same time, worries are clear to see,‚ÄĚ the analyst says. ‚ÄúThey are not in a state of panic [as] in the past, but are still on very high alert. They feel that enemies are organizing, and reformers are just pawns.‚ÄĚ
Mousavi: Coming year one of 'patience and endurance'
Mr. Mousavi has kept fighting back, and this week declared that the coming year would be one of "patience and endurance."
"My feeling for the future is that this movement is irreversible," Mousavi said in a speech on Monday, according to a translation of a Persian website in the Los Angeles Times. "We will never go back to the position we were in one year ago. I‚Äôm very hopeful of the future. We have to transfer patience and hope to people."
Mousavi said the opposition ‚Äúaimed at reviving a compassionate Islam and the Constitution," which guarantees freedom of speech, protest, and no ideological compulsion. ‚ÄúPrison is no longer effective against the Green Movement.‚ÄĚ
Now behind the wheel, hard-liners lambast 'tolerant' Islam
Yet while the opposition have made a substantial impact, there has been an overall shift to the right in Iranian politics, with Mr. Ahmadinejad‚Äôs neoconservative politicians, the supreme leader‚Äôs office, and top Revolutionary Guard officers joined in a loose troika that have conducted a systematic purge of key ministries and security organs.
The Tehran analyst recalls the 1997-2004 presidency of the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami, and how debates about the tolerant nature of Islam did not automatically lead to attack.
‚ÄúNow [hard-line] newspapers like Kayhan write, ‚ÄėThis guy, you can‚Äôt believe it! He believes in Islam based on tolerance!‚Äô As if it‚Äôs a curse, like [he‚Äôs] a communist,‚ÄĚ says the analyst. ‚ÄúThat voice comes from a small group, but they are behind the wheel now.... This is a big shift of the common ground that [once] existed ... inside the establishment.‚ÄĚ
Image of division damaging for Khamenei
Leading (or following) that shift has been the supreme leader, who analysts agree stepped away from his traditional role after 20 years in the job as political balancer. Until last summer, consensus within Iran‚Äôs opaque Islamic system was often the goal.
Divisions have been part of the Islamic Republic from the start, but their nature after the vote has challenged Khamenei‚Äôs view of what the Islamic Republic should be.
‚ÄúWhat hurts him is that some people can reveal this division,‚ÄĚ says Khalaji at WINEP. ‚ÄúThe division itself is not important. He thinks, ‚ÄėI can manage it, I can deal with opposition, I can intimidate them, I can prevent them from coming to the streets.‚Äô
‚ÄúWhat is damaging to him is media, is pictures ‚Äď the image of opposition is damaging for him,‚ÄĚ adds Khalaji. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs why he‚Äôs so tough on media, on intellectuals, artists, writers, professors at university ‚Äď nobody should talk about it. Talking about this means questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.‚ÄĚ
'This doesn't smell of victory'
Yet another way of questioning that legitimacy, by the right-wing itself, has been the denigration of some of the titans of Iran‚Äôs revolutionary generation.
The three top opposition leaders have all been branded ‚Äúheads of sedition‚ÄĚ and traitors, but they all played key roles in the past: Mousavi was a respected prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; Mr. Khatami a two-time president with unprecedented popular mandates; and Mehdi Karroubi a two-time former parliament speaker and presidential candidate.
‚ÄúStopping the visible protests in the streets, that‚Äôs a win [for Khamenei], of course,‚ÄĚ says the veteran Tehran analyst. ‚ÄúBut blaming and losing all the people who have been part of the establishment, who have worked hard, sacrificed and done a lot ... pushing them away.... So all of them are bad now? All those around the Leader ‚Äď 30 years of struggle, 50 years of struggle ‚Äď have gone bad?
‚ÄúThis doesn‚Äôt introduce any taste or smell of victory.‚ÄĚ