What we may be witnessing in Iran these days is a revolution within the Islamic Revolution. If successfully carried out, the net effect would be more like a coup, in which the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tramples on Iran's existing, tangled pluralistic system, and establishes what amounts to a neo-conservative dictatorship with the blessing of the country's spiritual leader. The problem for Ahmadinejad and his backers, however, is they may have underestimated the power of their opponents.
Iran's presidential campaign has plunged the country into a social frenzy. It has reached a point now where a full-blown culture war is serving as the backdrop for election day on June 12. Ahmadinejad enjoys the backing of legions of poor, pious Iranians -- most of them hailing from the country's economically distressed regions. His chief presidential rival, Mir Hussein Mousavi, meanwhile, is the champion of Iran's middle class and urban, educated elite. This election has thus taken on the characteristics of a battle for Iran's soul.
Voters will have a stark choice on election day. Ahmadinejad represents a desire to freeze time and recover the faded fervor of 1979, when revolutionary spirit swept the country and ousted the shah. Mousavi, by contrast, is a modernizer who seeks to adapt the Islamic revolution to 21st-century conditions.
From the start of the campaign season, Ahmadinejad has made the polarization of society a strategic aim. His first term has been marked by bluster on the foreign policy front and economic dysfunction at home. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. His strategists have long realized that to remain in office, given the country's economic record, he needs to divide and conquer the electorate.
He has certainly succeeded in stirring up political passions. The campaign over the last few weeks has reached a level of participation not seen since the first days of the revolution. Ahmadinejad has managed to fully mobilize his base, as his recent rallies have attracted tens of thousands of supporters. At the same time, the president's actions and statements have also galvanized his opponents, many of whom sat out the 2005 election due to political apathy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some observers say Ahmadinejad may have unleashed social and political ardor that will not be so easily contained after the votes are counted. "I am afraid Iran will never be the same again," said a mid-level Iranian cleric, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. Election officials now expect to see record voter turnout on June 12.
There are signs that Ahmadinejad is taking a calculated risk, in which he strives to use this presidential election to permanently eliminate opposition to his neo-conservative agenda. It is as if the incumbent sees a need to destroy the existing political system in order to preserve the spirit of the revolution.
Ahmadinejad has signaled his intentions through the devastating use of corruption charges against some of his fiercest political foes. He aired his corruption allegations during televised presidential debates, thus assuring that the maximum number of Iranians would hear his attacks, without the accused having an ample opportunity to refute them or for observers to fact-check their accuracy.
Three men in particular with strong revolutionary credentials from 1979 -- Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Aliakbar Nategh-Nouri and Mehdi Karoubi -- have borne the brunt of Ahmadinejad's corruption attacks. "What all these three clerics have in common is that they were all close associates of the late Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, [the founder of the Islamic Republic]," said the mid-level cleric. "Ahmadinejad is taking aim at this class of old revolutionaries."
Adding to the impression that Ahmadinejad seeks to smash the revolutionary old guard, his supporters have been working behind the scenes to assassinate the characters of many other, less-known clerics, who have strong connections to 1979, and who currently count themselves among opponents of the incumbent president.
Helping to foster the impression of a slow-moving conspiracy, the head of state television and radio, Gen. Ezatollah Zarghami, denied Rafsanjani an opportunity to respond to the corruption allegations on television prior to election day. He "assured" Rafsanjani and others that they would have an opportunity to refute the allegations after the June 12 vote, but local experts say those opportunities may never come.
The smear-and-muzzle tactics have worked so far for Ahmadinejad. For campaign purposes, he has shifted the blame for the economy's poor performance during his tenure away from his own malfeasance to the obstructionism of his graft-addled opponents. Far more importantly for the long term, the reputation of his most powerful foe, Rafsanjani, now lies in tatters, as millions of ordinary Iranians believe the corruption allegations. In addition, Ahmadinejad has succeeded somewhat in painting Mousavi as guilty by association. It is worth noting, that like the prime targets of the president's attacks, Mousavi had close personal ties to Ayatollah Khomeini.
Forcing Rafsanjani, Karoubi and other lions of the revolution into retirement would leave Ahmadinejad with virtually no checks on his authority as he attempted to implement his neo-conservative agenda, which would have a particularly devastating effect on women's rights. In effect, Ahmadinejad would also sacrifice economic modernization for re-imposing a rigid social structure.
Implementing Ahmadinejad's vision depends both on the unquestioning support of Iran's lowest classes, and on the country's security infrastructure, in particular the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its subordinated Basij Militia. He is also enjoying strong support from the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad's priorities dovetail with Ayatollah Khamenei's agenda. Many of the president's most dedicated enemies happen to be long-time antagonists and rivals of the supreme leader. The departure of Rafsanjani and other members of the '79 generation would give Ayatollah Khamenei the ability to move definitively out of the late Ayatollah Khomeini's shadow and reshape the revolutionary narrative.
The president's opponents aren't surrendering without a fight. Karoubi, for example, has been vocal in his criticism of the Basij Militia's involvement in the campaign on Ahmadinejad's behalf. Meanwhile, a website run by conservative Revolutionary Guards elements recently published a directive, in which senior Revolutionary Guards commanders purportedly issued instructions to Basij operatives to mobilize turnout for an Ahmadinejad campaign rally. [For additional information click here]. Reformist-controlled web sites have additionally featured reports about pro-Ahmadinejad forces planning wide-scale ballot-stuffing.
Helping to reinforce the impression that the incumbent is plotting to hijack the Islamic revolution, one of the president's closest associates in the military -- armed forces Deputy Chief of Staff Masood Jazayeri -- sought to intimidate Ahmadinejad's opponents into remaining silent. According to a report distributed by the official IRNA news agency, Jazayeri claimed that critics had no proof of Basij Militia meddling. "It is deplorable that he does not stop his propaganda," Jazayeri said, referring to Karoubi. "The Basij and the armed forces maintain the right to challenge those who spread lies."
Despite Jazayeri's statements, Rafsanjani on June 9 publicized a letter that he reportedly sent to the Supreme Leader. In it, Rafsanjani contended that Ahmadinejad had besmirched the memory of Ayatollah Khomeini and was engaging in unpatriotic actions. The Supreme Leader's continued silence in the face of the Ahmadinejad camp's machinations had extremely dangerous implications for the Islamic Revolution, Rafsanjani warned and called on Ayatollah Khamenei "to put an end to this dangerous conspiracy." Otherwise, Rafsanjani continued, the conspirators will be tempted to add "fuel to the fire" and in doing so they could send the whole country up in flames.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.