Page last updated at 21:01 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 22:01 UK

Crisis will decide Iran's future path

Protest in Tehran, 15 June
The crisis may well determine the future path of the country

By Jim Muir
BBC News, former Tehran correspondent

The crisis in Iran has moved far beyond a dispute over election results.

It has turned into a struggle over the balance of power in the country, and Iran's future orientation.

That balance is being fought over in a symbiotic struggle that is taking place both behind the political scenes and, through rival displays of people power, on the streets of Tehran and other cities.

It may have some way to run yet before it is resolved.

Neither side is giving way substantially, although the establishment has hinted at some possible minor concessions, while simultaneously cracking down on dissidents and trying to muzzle the foreign media.

Opposition supporters have repeatedly flouted interior ministry warnings and held massive, peaceful protests - often silent - to back their demand that last Friday's presidential election be annulled and re-run.

Defence mechanisms

Their leader, the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has vowed to keep up the civil disobedience campaign until his demand is met.

The leadership knows from its own experience combating the Shah that instruments of state power can be illusory when facing masses of the people

But he is clearly determined to avoid the kind of provocation and confrontation that could allow the establishment to dismiss the protesters as hooligans and vandals bent on wreaking havoc.

While there has been some violence and arrests, the authorities also seem keen to avoid a wholesale collision that could leave heavy casualties, making the situation even more reminiscent of the scenes and images that attended the 1979 revolution that brought them to power.

The Islamic leadership has not yet deployed a fraction of the defence mechanisms at its disposal.

It knows from its own experience combating the Shah that instruments of state power can be illusory when facing masses of the people.

 Mir Hossein Mousavi
Mir Hossein Mousavi has vowed to keep up his campaign

In past elections large numbers of the rank and file in the Revolutionary Guards and its auxiliary Basij militia were reported to have voted for reformist candidates.

If they were to be deployed against large numbers of protesters - who could include their own friends and relations - could they be depended on not to go to pieces?

Even if neither side wants it, with passions running high and thousands taking to the streets every day, the risk of such an explosion being sparked on the ground by a random incident or by provocateurs is clearly there.

Faced with an unprecedented situation, the authorities have been putting out mixed signals.

Foreign media have been banned from reporting on the streets, mobile and internet services disrupted and websites warned against carrying "provocative" material.

Leading reformists have been taken from their homes and detained, including second-ranking but significant leaders such as the former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and Mustafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister who ran elections in President Mohammad Khatami's days.

Also reported detained was Saeed Hajjarian, a reformist strategist whose near-fatal shooting after the 2000 general election marked the beginning of the hard-line comeback against the reformists in the Khatami era.

Behind the scenes

But even some right-wing papers, and the Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, have given some coverage to the supposedly illegal opposition rallies and marches, in a sense almost co-opting them.

The Guardians, no doubt gritting their teeth, might end up agreeing that the vote was flawed and should be repeated

That could reflect inconsistency and confusion on the part of the establishment.

But it could also be a tactic aimed at absorbing the opposition so that it loses momentum with repetition.

In either case, if the situation goes on unresolved, Mr Mousavi and his supporters will have to find fresh ways of invigorating and escalating their campaign if it is not to risk running out of steam.

At the same time, the authorities face the risk that, if left unchecked, the dissidence could gain yet more momentum and spread in a bigger way to other cities, some of which are already reported to have been affected.

All these considerations and pressures will have been playing into the political contest that must be going on intensively behind the scenes at the core of the power system, over how to get out of the crisis.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei has called for poll complaints to be examined

In the eye of the storm is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , who assumed the post in 1989 after the death of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini.

The man who became president that same year, and again in 1993, Hashemi Rafsanjani , will now be trying to lobby the leader to meet the opposition's demands.

A major pillar in the Islamic system from the beginning, Mr Rafsanjani is bitterly at odds with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during the recent election campaign publicly accused him and his family of corruption.

Mr Rafsanjani has said nothing in public since the crisis began last Saturday, with the announcement of Mr Ahmadinejad's surprisingly massive and bitterly disputed election victory.

But Mr Rafsanjani's politically active daughter, Faeza Hashemi, spoke on Tuesday at one of Mr Mousavi's "illegal" demonstrations, a clear indication of where the powerful family's sympathies lie.

Mr Mousavi has also been lobbying the senior Islamic clerics in Qom and elsewhere who are an influential element in the system.

The key instrument that will reflect the outcome of the struggle is the Council of Guardians, the extremely conservative watchdog body that has to sign off on the election results within 10 days.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also asked it to examine and adjudicate the complaints lodged by all three of the losing candidates.

So far, the leader has mentioned only the possibility that some ballot boxes could be recounted if complaints are deemed valid.

That goes nowhere near meeting the opposition's demands.

Years of contradictions

If the balance in the political struggle should tilt against Mr Ahmadinejad, the Guardians, no doubt gritting their teeth, might end up agreeing that the vote was flawed and should be repeated.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mr Ahmadinejad has much support among the poor and the military

That may seem unlikely, and would go against the grain. But if it should be deemed necessary for the system to survive, it would be done.

At stake is not just the political future of figures such as Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Rafsanjani and others, but what face Iran presents to the world and to itself.

As Mohammad Khatami did before him, but with more resolve and political drive, Mr Mousavi has stimulated and harnessed the longing of millions of Iranians for reform and change, to become part of the modern world and the international community.

Mr Ahmadinejad's appeal has been to the mass of the poor, and he has built a strong base among the military, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij.

His critics fear he would turn Iran into a cross between medieval Islam and North Korean militarism - a highly conflictual course for a society as diverse and sophisticated as Iran's.

Years of contradictions have come to a head in the current crisis.

The Iranian leadership has in the past shown ingenuity and flexibility in facing serious challenges.

This is probably greater than any, and it goes to the heart of the system. It is unlikely to be easily or quickly resolved.

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