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Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

In today’s Press-Regsiter: Iran’s battle of the insiders:

Iran’s battle of the insiders
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Special to the Press-Register

There is an understandable desire to view the ongoing drama in Iran as one driven primarily by street protests, and to be viewed through the prism of status-quo mullahs vs. democratic reformers.

However, such views are not only incorrect; they also distract from our ability to understand what is actually taking place.

It is important to realize that in such events, crowds rarely win the day. While we frequently romanticize the ability of the masses to take to the streets against tyranny as a means by which to effect dramatic change, history tells a different tale.

If a government can maintain control of its security forces, civilians stand little chance. Even massive popular protests will fail.

A quick trip through the not-so-distant past attests to this fact, including Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981 and China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

To really understand what is going on in Iran, we have to understand that the conflict is not one of passionate crowds and pro-democracy outsiders fighting anti-reform clerics. It’s a fight amongst existing elites within the established institutions of the Iranian state.

Let’s start with some of the main actors. The presidential election under dispute was between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Because of Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric of the past, it is natural for Western audiences to see him as the bad guy, which automatically casts Mousavi as the good guy.

For a host of reasons, it would be preferable for the U.S. and for Iran that Mousavi win the election. However, it would be a mistake to cast him as a crusading outsider who is seeking radical change in Iran.

Mousavi is a veteran of the 1979 Iranian revolution and has served in the Iranian government, including time as prime minister (1981-89). He is no outsider, nor is he a newcomer to the political scene.

It is also worth noting that one of his key allies in this situation is Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself president from 1989-97 and currently head of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expe diency Council.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad is allied with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was president from 1981-89 and who appointed six of the 12 members of the Guardian Council as well as the commanders of the armed forces.

What we have in Iran at the moment is a power struggle at the highest levels between well-established politicians. The street protests are simply a manifestation of this struggle, which pits elites who con trol or influence different key institutions of the state against one another.

At the moment, Khamenei is not only Supreme Leader; he also holds sway over the Guardian Council, and Ahmadinejad is the sitting president. Meanwhile, Rafsanjani chairs the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that has the task of choosing the Su preme Leader. It also has the power (at least in theory) to remove the Supreme Leader.

Indeed, there have been reports that Rafsanjani has gone to the holy city of Qom to consult with members of the Assembly with the very real potential for a confrontation between it and Khamenei. Further, the Expediency Council has the power to mediate disputes between the elected parliament (called the Majlis) and the Guardian Council.

Should the Guardian Council certify the election results, then it is possible that a legal dispute will emerge and the Expediency Council might have a role to play.

The disposition of the Majlis is not fully known at this time.

Why does all of this matter and what might it mean for an endgame?

First, it is extremely important to understand that the struggle is very much within the Iranian state, with very powerful actors being the main players. This event should not be viewed as insiders-vs.-outsiders, but as one dominated by important and powerful insiders.

Second, the outcome will tell us much about Iran — both in terms of its current institutional structures and also in terms of its future.

We will learn in the coming days, for example, exactly how supreme the Supreme Leader is. Indeed, at the end of all of this, it is quite likely that one set of elites (the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad faction or the Mousavi/Rafsanjani faction) will be out of power entirely.

If the Khamenei faction emerges the winner, it will likely have done so via repression and control of the security apparatus, leaving Iran more authoritarian than it was before this conflict began.

If the Mousavi faction wins, it will likely be because Rafsanjani was able to utilize his legal, institutional powers to defeat the Khamenei faction. If that outcome takes place, it may well mean a more liberalized Iran.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of the struggle, but regardless of how events play out over the coming weeks and months, one thing seems quite clear: Iran will never be the same.

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Troy University. He writes daily on politics at and can be reached via e-mail at

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2 Responses to “Policolumn: Iran”

  1. MSS Says:

    Very nice piece, but please, not “crusading outsider.” That has rather bad connotations in that part of the world, and to some of your readers here.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Ugh, yes: bad word choice on my part.

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