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Iran: will the guard switch sides?

Almost two months ago, General Muhammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), vowed to stop further anti-regime demonstrations and break what he termed "this chain of conspiracies."

Over the past eight weeks, however, the "chain" has appeared to be as strong as ever, with protestors across the nation defying the general and his political masters by organizing numerous demonstrations with increasingly radical slogans.

The various opposition groups that constitute the pro-democracy movement have already called for another series of demonstrations on 11 February, the anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution.

Talks are under way between the administration and the opposition to trace separate routes for rival demonstrations, one organized by the regime and the other representing the opposition. The fact that such talks are taking place shows that the regime has already agreed that we now have two Irans: one that tries to cling to a system that is no longer viable and the pother seeking a new departure for the country.

The official calendar of the Islamic Republic includes 22 days during which the regime organizes demonstrations to flex its muscles and terrorize its opponents.

After the controversial presidential election last June, the pro-democracy movement, in a jujutsu-style move, has succeeded in using the official "days of demonstrations" against the regime.

The regime is left with the choice of either abolishing its "revolutionary calendar" or allowing the opposition to demonstrate its growing power.

The anti-regime movement started as a protest against the alleged rigging of the June election that produced a landslide victory and a second four-year mandate for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The crowds' initial slogan was "Where Is My Vote?" The movement's accidental leaders, including former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi, who insists that he, and not Ahmadinejad, won the election, tried hard to keep the protest confined to limited demands such as a recount of the votes and, ultimately, a run-off in accordance with the Election Law.

Over the past eight months, however, the movement has developed beyond those objectives. The initial slogans that focused on vote rigging have all but disappeared. Their place has been taken by unambiguously anti-regime slogans such as "Death to the Dictator", "Freedom Now", and "Iranian Republic, Not Islamic Republic!"

Both Mr. Mousavi and Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, another defeated presidential election, also tried to prevent attacks on the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the hope of eventually making a deal with him. As part of such a deal they promised to "maintain and defend" the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The crowds rejected that by shouting: "Abandon uranium enrichment! Do something about the poor!"

It is clear that the pro-democracy movement is in no mood for deals with Khamenei, who is castigated for having betrayed his constitutional role of arbiter by siding with Ahmadinejad even before the official results of the election were declared.

Khamenei was supposed to stand above factions. By joining the foray, he has become another wrestler in the mud-pit. Therefore, it is no surprise that demonstrators now burn his effigies, tear up posters showing his image, and chant violent slogans against him. One popular slogan goes like this: "Khamenei is a murderer! His guardianship is invalid!"

This point has just been underlined by former President Muhammad Khatami. In an exceptionally courageous statement last week, Khatami effectively declared the termination of Khamenei's role as "Supreme Guide." The position, Khatami argued, was tenable only if the man holding it proved that he was a leader for all Iranians and not just one faction within the establishment.

By choosing crackdown as its strategy, the regime has radicalized the protest movement. Even such notorious dealmakers as Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President now opposed to Ahmadinejad, have made it clear they would not accept any formula that would leave the "landslide winner" in place.

A study of the 20 most popular slogans used by demonstrators across the country shows a clear switch to a position of regime change. Even rumors that the regime is working on scenarios for ditching Ahmadinejad, ostensibly on "health grounds", after the Iranian New Year in March, have failed to halt the spread of regime-change sentiments.

Understanding the mood of the nation, Mousavi and Karrubi have abandoned their earlier talk of "realizing the full potentials of the existing constitution".

More significantly, perhaps, Mousavi appears to have put his plans for an ill-defined "green organization" on the backburner. He is beginning to understand that the anti-regime movement is too wide and too diverse to fit into a centrally controlled framework.

The movement's diversity and plurality make it hard for the regime to contain and ultimately defeat. Over the past eight months, thousands of people have been arrested and hundreds killed in the streets. And, yet, the "decapitation" promised by General Jaafari appears to have produced no results.

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To make matters worse for the regime, the Shi'ite clergy, often regarded as the backbone of the Khomeinist system, is beginning to distance itself from the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad tandem.

Some ayatollahs, such as the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Bayat, San'ei, Borujerdi, Amoli and Zanjani have expressed especial concern regarding Ahmadinejad's claim of being in contact with the "Hidden Imam".

The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei tandem is also coming under attack for its alleged incompetence. Plagued by double-digit inflation, a massive flight of capital and unprecedented levels of unemployment, the economy is in meltdown mode. At the same time, divisions within the ruling clique mean that the president is unable to fill scores of key posts at middle levels of government.

Rapidly losing its popular base, the Khomeinist regime is becoming increasingly dependent on its coercive forces, especially General Aziz Jaafari's IRGC.

At some point, the general and his colleagues might decide that they have nothing to gain by risking their lives and fortunes defending a regime whose time may have passed. These days, IRGC commanders are appearing on TV almost every night presenting themselves as "guardians of the system". Jaafari himself says he is attracted by the "Turkish model", in which the army acts as a bulwark of the republic.

However, the general may not have all the time in the world to ponder his next move. The opposition movement is deepening and growing. Much work is under way to connect it to independent trade unions and hundreds of formal and informal associations that lead the civil society's fight against the evil of Khomeinism.

Iran has entered one of those phases in which history hesitates about which way to turn. What is certain is that the status quo has become untenable. Despite the threat of a military takeover, Iran may still have a chance to move toward a pluralist system of government.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian writer based in Europe.
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Title Annotation:Commentary, text and context
Author:Taheri, Amir
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Feb 12, 2010
Words:1118
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