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It’s the Aftermath of the Iranian Election that Counts

New America Media, News Analysis, William O. Beeman Posted: Jun 18, 2009

The Iranian presidential election is over, and while the world focuses on whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected fairly, or whether his rival Mir Hussein Moussavi was the winner, the most serious issue for Iran and the rest of the world is the role of the Iranian government in conducting the election.

Government officials made many mistakes both before and after the election that will cost them their public support. Erosion of public confidence in the government—already shaky before the election—will lead to instability, and instability in Iran means instability throughout the region.

The most significant mistake was to back the highly controversial President Ahmadinejad. He had significant support in rural areas and among pensioners and some members of the traditional classes, as well as the more fervently conservative sectors of the military. But even clerical leaders expressed wariness with his grandstanding extremist rhetoric, and his short-term giveaway economic policies that ignored the need for infrastructure and new employment. The middle and upper classes viewed with dismay the erosion in civil liberties under his administration, and cringed at his millenarian personal beliefs.

It may well be that Ahmadinejad actually won the election. He garnered about the same percentage of votes, approximately 62 percent, as he had in the runoff election in 2005. However, the way in which his victory was presented to the public showed absolute disdain for both the Iranian people and the electoral process. One wonders what official decided to announce that he had won before the prescribed three-day waiting period had expired. It made the world wonder how such a declaration was logistically possible given the number of votes that had to be counted by hand.

Then President Ahmadinejad himself showed a cocky disdain for those who questioned the election, likening them to disgruntled soccer fans, and referring to them as “dust.” The large-scale street protests were met with force, and the government tried to crack down, unsuccessfully, on transmission of information about the civil unrest.

One could see the fabric of Iran ripping and tearing with Ahmadinejad’s words and the government’s subsequent deeds.

Authority in Iran depends on the existence of a social contract between subordinate and super-ordinate powers. The super-ordinate figures are paradoxically the most fragile in their position. They must attend to the needs of subordinates, or risk being toppled from power -- or at the very least undermined. Every Iranian working in a bureaucratic office knows that the bad boss is eventually done in by his employees who lose things, misroute files, and steal -- or in extreme cases, launch embarrassing protests. Then they claim their subordinate status as an excuse.

In this regard, the Iranian government conduct vis-a-vis the protestors and street demonstrators in the wake of the elections is the telling event. By sanctioning the beating of women and young people, house arrests and crackdowns, the authorities in Iran essentially are breaking their contract with the people. Social order begins to fray. Ayatollah Khamene'i must re-establish his credentials with the public if he hopes to keep the power structure intact, and it may now be too late.

This was the lesson Ayatollah Khomeini was able to teach the nation when the authority of his religious-based movement was challenged by other actors in the revolution of 1978-79. He co-opted and outflanked his enemies by adopting their radical agenda and garnering the support of the public.

As Iranian analysts have been pointing out for years, demography is playing a huge role in this social drama. The majority of the voting population (even with an arbitrary raising of the voting age to 18 to
curtail youth power) was bound to tip the scales in this or the next election. The tip appears to have happened sooner than later. The power of women has also grown to be enormous and they are very angry.

It is also telling that those being affected by the government’s heavy-handed treatment are a broad spectrum of the population, just as in the original revolution of 1978-79. The restrictions on the foreign press are also significant.

Who knows why the Iranian government acted in this reckless manner? Certainly paranoia about Western interference in Iranian internal affairs has been growing in Iran in recent years. CIA and Mossad operatives are known to be operating in Iran. “Color” revolutions in the former Soviet Union supported by the United States increased this anxiety. When Ahmadinejad's chief opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi, appeared with a “green” color theme, this may have set off alarms and lack of caution.

The next 10 days will be very significant to see how this series of events plays out. The large difference between 1978-79 and today is the extremely complex power structures
ensconced in the Iranian constitution. Toppling a single figure or small group of figures will not automatically result in governmental change, despite the loss of the public contract with authority. Time will certainly tell.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other" (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

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