Just as the street protests in Iran begin to die down in the face of ruthless suppression by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a new and potentially significant step in the disputed election saga is underway. Representatives of the Assembly of Seminary Scholars – a pro reform clerical group based in the city of Qom – have openly defied the authority of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s supreme leader – and declared the election results illegitimate. Coming as it does just days after Iran’s Guardian Council – the legislative body of Iran’s government – officially certified the election in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s favour, the announcement represents an unprecedented challenge to the Iranian government’s authority from the nation’s influential clerical class.
In a statement first announced on their website and then picked up by the Persian press, the clerics claim that the Guardian Council has ignored the complaints of the Iranian people and therefore have “lost their impartial image in the eyes of the public” and no longer have the right to “judge in this case.”
“How can one accept the legitimacy of the election just because the Guardian Council says so?” The statement went on to ask. “Can one say that the government born out of the infringements is a legitimate one?”
Qom is considered to be the major centre for Shi’ite theological scholarship in Iran. It’s the stronghold of Iran’s clerical class, and therefore wields considerable influence on the nation’s cultural climate. Although more conservative elements among Iran’s clerical class have already endorsed the election results and strongly condemned the protests, the fact that some of the nation’s clerics are prepared to defy official authority marks a major shift in Iran’s political climate. There is split within Iran’s clergy, which is very nearly tantamount to a split within the ruling class itself.
Meanwhile, back on the streets, a more covert level of protest is beginning to manifest itself among Iran’s public. With the suppression of open demonstration, disgruntled citizens are beginning to find new and ever more creative methods of expressing their dissatisfaction with the election results. Statements such as “Death to Dictatorship” and “Mousavi” are being written onto bank notes and passed around as legal tender. And government sponsored charity collection boxes on city streets are being filled up with slips of paper bearing Mousavi’s name, representing the allegedly disregarded votes.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s government clearly did not anticipate such a sustained level of protest over the disputed election results. And if they expected the issue to fade away with the suppression of open demonstration, they were wrong. This is only the beginning. Whether or not the election was actually fraudulent, the issue has opened up a new and potentially epoch defining frontier in Iranian politics. Whether it will lead to increased sympathy for Mousavi and a shift to a more liberalised approach to cultural reform, or whether it will give Iran’s more hardline, militant elements the excuse they need to exert their authority to an even greater degree, remains to be seen.
US Recognises Israel’s “Sovereign Right” to Attack Iran
To the backdrop of the election protests, the US continues to ratchet up the tension by playing a dangerously ambiguous game of issuing duplicitous public announcements regarding Iran. In an interview granted to US television channel, ABC, US Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly asserted that the US would not interfere if Israel takes it upon itself to strike Iran’s nuclear development facilities. “Israel can determine for itself what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.” Biden said.
At the same time, Biden claims that the US is still open to engaging Iran in diplomacy.
If that is genuinely the case, then one has to wonder just how the White House administration expected Biden’s comments to be received in Tehran. Predictably enough, it’s been treated as an outrage. It was inevitable that the stated US ambivalence towards Israeli military action would be interpreted by Iran’s government as a virtual green light for Israel to attack.
If the US had declared opposition to, or at the very least expressed strong disapproval for military action against Iran, it might well have opened the door towards more cordial diplomatic relations between the US and the Persian state. However, recognising the “sovereign right” of Israel to attack Iran – as if any nation ought to be given carte blanche to attack another – was surely not the most constructive way to go forward.
The comments will also play directly into the hands of the more hardline and militant elements in Iran’s ruling class, who can use such commentary to exploit existing sentiments of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Iran’s population, encouraging the public to put the recent election disputes behind them and unite behind a conservative, anti-western agenda.
If the new White House administration is genuine about getting behind Obama’s stated aim of opening up constructive diplomatic relations with Iran, then they will need to get serious and take some actual positive steps towards realising that goal. Issuing platitudes about improving relations, followed with counter statements that would appear to flatly undermine relations, is going nowhere. As it is, by flirting around on the outskirts of the issue, the US is only serving to irritate the more hardline elements in both the Israeli and Iranian governments, and that is dangerous for everybody concerned.