A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Mess in Iran: Praetorian Coup or Clumsy Overreach?

UPDATE: Good continuing coverage at Tehran Bureau. Besides Juan Cole and Gary Sick, in the non-Mideast specialist blog world Andrew Sullivan is paying heavy attention to events in Tehran. Many complaints out there about lack of US media coverage, but nobody is getting through to Tehran on a consistent basis.

I guess I have to write on a Saturday, don't I? My family will just have to blame Ahmadinejad.

The main question seems to be how to characterize what has happened/is happening. A lot of Iranians are calling it a coup. If so, it's a praetorian one.

Let me say, first of all, that I suspect several things have happened, and the rumors are hard to verify, especially since texting and cell phones seem shut down and social networks are turned off. (Perhaps in modern coups, the equivalent of seizing the radio station is turning off Facebook.)

Since it's a fast developing situation, it's hard to say if it's true, as one is seeing reported, that 1) Interior Ministry electoral monitors themselves have resigned and declared the election unfair; 2) that the Interior Ministry called Mousavi Friday to tell him he was winning big, but then the official media declared Ahmadinejad the winner; 3) a rumor today (Saturday) that Rafsanjani has resigned as head of the Expediency Council, but not as Head of the Council of Experts, which still gives him a say in choosing Khamene'i's succcessor. Since it isn't clear which of these rumors are true, a certain caution in reaching conclusions is called for. But so far it seems to be either a praetorian coup in which the security forces and Guards Corps have jumped in to bloc Mousavi's victory, or a clumsy overreach in stealing the election by Ahmadinejad and, perhaps, the Supreme Leader's Office. The role of ‘Ali Khamene'i in all this is the puzzling key, I think: he has urged acceptance of the results, but was he involved in their (apparent) manipulation?

A persistent rumor is that Mousavi was arrested or detained while trying to reach Khamene'i to ask for his intervention. I think the major question is where Khamene'i stands in all this: is he behind the clearly dubious results, or did Ahmadinejad, with the Basij and the Guards Corps, impose a fait accompli that Khamene'i has no choice but to accept? That raises the central question of who's really in charge here. Did the Praetorian Guard just seize power and override the sitting Caesar?

Juan Cole has several cogent reasons why the election looks outrageously stolen. I think his reasons are sound ones, but the real question is whether whoever made the decision — Ahmadinejad, Khamene'i, the Guards Corps — overreached. Some people are remembering 30 years ago when the Shah sent his "Immortals" — his era's praetorians — against the protesting masses, and they (the Immortals) broke. That was the beginning of the end for the Shah. And Gary Sick, whose experience goes back to the last Revolution, has his initial postings up as well, including a useful timeline.

A lot of people are noting (including both Juan Cole and Gary Sick just cited) that the voting totals alleged are similar for all provinces, for city and rural, for regions with ethnic minorities, etc. Mousavi is Azeri but didn't do any better in Azerbaijan than Ahmadinejad. No previous Iranian election has shown such considtent patterns.

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, something major has clearly happened. But who made the decision. I think the answer to that question could be crucial in determining what happens next.


SNi said...


The announced results line up fairly well with a US-done poll, which showed:

1. Ahmedinajad beating Moussavi 2.4:1 overall
2. Ahmedinajad beating Moussavi 2:1 among Azeris
3. Karroubi & Rezaie with negligible numbers.

Since these are 3 things usually cited as "evidence" or "proof" (e.g. Cole) of fraud, does this make you re-evaluate at all??

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I do plan to respond to your comment, SNi, but probably tomorrow as I've just gotten in from a Sunday in the country with the family. In the meantime: I think whatever one thinks of the actual vote, the growing crackdown and wave of arrests suggests the government is panicky about something.

Gene said...

These are quite interesting, with explanation about a possible Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-IRGC alliance.

Renewed revolutionary zeal

Another coup for the hardliners

Iran's political coup

Iran: There will be blood

Egy Azziera said...

The 'theft' of the Iranian election. The big news of the moment. The Western media immediately jumped on board, calling the election a "fraud," "theft," and "a crime scene". The US, for whatever reason, supported the opposition in this election – probably with money and CIA. There was more objective evidence that George W. Bush stole his two elections than there is at this time of election theft in Iran.