As we go to press, Iran is poised on a knife-edge between continued demonstrations by outraged supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi and brutal repression and the re-establishment of order by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Basij militia and Revolutionary Guard. The world is watching in suspense as the next chapter in the future of the Islamic Republic unfolds.
Only a few hours after the close of polling in Iran’s tumultuous election season, it seemed evident that the fix was in. The regime shut down blogs, e-mail and text-messaging services, the streets were filled with security forces and incumbent hardliner Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner.
It was difficult not to see this hasty announcement, as well as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s public congratulations to Ahmadinejad only a day later, as a clumsy cover for blatant fraud. How could so many millions of votes in a record turnout be counted so quickly, in a country that has always taken days to announce initial results? How could challenger Moussavi, an Azeri, have been so soundly defeated in his own ethnic region? How could fourth-place finisher Mehdi Karroubi–who received more than 5 million votes in the 2005 election–have received less than 1 percent this time and failed to take his home province of Lorestan?
Ahmadinejad does seem to retain broad support, especially among Iran’s poor voters and civil servants, the beneficiaries of government largesse stemming from windfall oil revenues. He has a strong base among social conservatives, voters fed up with government corruption and those suspicious of an opening to the West. And he seems to have a lock on the huge cohort of Revolutionary Guard troops, Basij militia and police. So it’s conceivable that he might have edged out Moussavi in a fair count or a runoff. But in the absence of any independent election observer–the Interior Ministry, controlled by Ahmadinejad, has a record of tampering–it’s impossible to know for sure. Ahmadinejad’s arrogant assertion of raw power has torn the mask off what were always deep, systemic limitations on popular participation and decision-making in the Islamic Republic.
It was that arrogance and contempt that helped fuel the rage of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, who poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, demanding that their votes be counted and chanting “Marg bar dictator!” (Death to the dictator!) and “Allah-o-akbar!” It has been the greatest upsurge of popular protest since the 1979 revolution. It may be over-hyped, but Twitter and other new technologies have sharpened solidarity among the opposition and have been a crucial source of information to the outside world. The regime’s revocation of foreign press credentials and ban on reporting from the streets make this guerrilla journalism all the more important.