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Mullahs Regime's Third Surgery
by Nooredin Abedian
23 February 2004Iranian Flag

Friday's election, in spite of its banal appearance, was in fact the third major surgery of the Iranian Republic.

On February 20, the seventh legislative elections under the Islamic Republic were held in Iran. In spite of the row on the event, and in spite of a call to postpone the elections by the so-called reformists in the regime, the ballot was held without much difficulty. Counting all other "elections," this was the 24th overall election in the life of the Islamic Republic, and there seemed to be nothing peculiar about the elections except the low turnout. Yet it was very meaningful for the regime.

The Islamic Republic had undergone, up to this election, two main internal surgeries. The first one, in 1981, was when the first president of the regime, Abolhassan Banisadr, elected with a ballot of 11 million votes, was stripped of his position and obliged to join the clandestine opposition, later to leave the country and enter exile. He was accused of being "deceived" by the "Monafeqin" (hypocrites: regime's term for the armed opposition group) Mujaheedin Khalq, which took up arms against the new republic after Banisadr was dismissed. Having resorted to open repression of all legal opposition inside the country as well as being engaged in a bloody external war with Iraq, Khomeini was not capable of tolerating a president not obedient enough to carry out what he was asked to do.

The second surgical operation came in 1988, when Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's heir apparent, fell from grace when he protested against the massacre of "thousands of political prisoners overnight," as he mentioned in a letter to Khomeini in protest against the exercise. Not able to stop the executions, Montazeri was dismissed quickly, and was later put under house arrest, only to be relieved recently, years after Khomeini's death, when authorities were obliged to end his house arrest because of public opinion. Strangely enough, Montazeri also was labeled as being "deceived" by the MEK. Again, in his weakest position, and after having -- in his own words -- sipped the "poison of accepting a cease-fire"  in the war with Iraq, Khomeini was unwilling to let his second in command criticize him for what he purposefully did to save his own neck, and his regime's.

Friday's election, in spite of its banal appearance, was in fact the third big surgery of the regime. Seven years ago, Mohammad Khatami found his way to the regime's presidency amid high hopes for a rather quick process of normalization between the Islamic Republic and the West, in general, and the United States, in particular. In 1997, a few days after Khatami's election, CNN's Christine Ammanpour went all the way to Tehran to interview the newly-elected president long enough to give a clear picture of a true moderate to the whole world. But Khatami never was nor wanted to be a real moderate, and a real moderator of change in Iran. He cared more for the existence of the regime than for reforming it from within. Yesterday, Khatami was seen on CNN, criticizing himself for preaching a reform movement which was now dead, and about to be "buried," after the recent elections. During his seven years in office, the internal balance of power, as well as the regional and international parameters, allowed Khatami and his so-called reformist faction, to keep pace with Khamenei, the supreme leader, and his hardliner gang. Khatami's faction even won the sixth legislative elections four years ago, but nevertheless failed to bring along substantial change. The part of the population deceived by the myth of reform slowly began to leave his camp. And then with the recent changes in the region, notably the installation of several pro-western regimes on its borders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with international pressure against it to curb its lust for prohibited arms of mass destruction, the regime began to realize that internal schism and infighting could be no longer tolerated.  The last thing the mullahs in Tehran wanted was a disobedient parliament and a foot-dragging government during visits by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the nerve-crashing maneuvers against the United States.

After the regional whirlwinds that changed two regimes in their neighborhood, the mullahs in Iran count on two footholds to keep themselves in place: first, try to "go nuclear," as they call it, as a preemptive measure and for extra leverage in their regional blackmail; and, second, interference in Iraq, a country they consider to be the United States' soft belly exposed to their export of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Though strategically, nothing can replace the "bomb" for the mullahs, tactically -- especially in a US election year, and when there seems to be a certain level of criticism against the Bush administration for its engagement in Iraq -- they give priority to developments in Iraq in order to gain precious time back home.

In order to proceed full speed towards these two goals, the mullahs needed first to put their house in order. "Never go out looking for trouble if you already have trouble inside your own house," says an old Iranian proverb. The mullahs could have opted for continuing the show of "pluralism," or rather "dualism," to keep at least willing Europeans behind them as a counterweight to the American pressure. But unlike the pre-Iraqi war, the Europeans have seemed to act fairly in concert with the United States in pressuring the mullahs for their lust for the "bomb." Khatami and his reformists' show of "pluralism" was not enough to stop that pressure. So the mullahs decided to get rid of them, and gain some time by pretending to abide by the Non Proliferation Treaty of the IAEA.  They took the risk of the third surgery.

It might prove fatal: 

-- The population turned a cold shoulder to the mullahs' infighting during the election. They did not even care for the sit-in of pro-Khatami members of the mullahs' parliament after they had been dismissed and kept out of the election game.

-- The unprecedented low turnout, put by the regime at around 50% of those eligible to vote, but as low as 6% by the opposition, means that for any elections to be meaningful in the future, the opposition must come from outside the mullahs’ regime and the poll must have the form of a referendum to determine the fate of the regime in its totality.

-- Given the above, much of the mullahs' remaining power should be devoted to curbing internal discontent and unrest, as seen even during the two days after Friday's sham elections, when unrest spread to various towns.

-- The third surgery is different from the two earlier ones in one very important aspect: it comes at a time when somebody of Khomeini's stature is not heading the regime. Already, after having eliminated hundreds of so-called reformist candidates from elections for reason of non-compliance with the laws, Khamenei came under fire by more than 70 members of the current parliament whose applications for a new round were dismissed by organs under Khamenei's power. The disillusioned members of Majles even publicly accused Khamenei of hypocrisy. He chose not to respond. Maybe he was right. The regime is much weaker and more vulnerable after this internal feud, and the upcoming weeks might stand as proof.

Nooredin Abedian is an Iranian engineer based in Germany, and a former lecturer at Tehran University. He writes from time to time on Iranian issues and politics

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