Opinion

Iran's protests do not a revolution make

Ahmadinejad's reelection signals an end to an internal power struggle that has been under way for 20 years.

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Many believed the election in Iran was going to mark a new beginning for the Islamic republic. But that was before Iran stood defiant before the world and declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president in an election that was likely rigged. In fact, his reelection signals an end to an internal struggle that has been under way for 20 years.

This less-than transparent electoral process also indicates that Iran will not fundamentally change just because there is a vocal opposition movement staging street demonstrations and some bold political leaders denouncing the election as illegitimate. Nor will it change because the supreme leader ordered a fraud probe in order to calm protesters.

Yes, Iran is polarized and even traditional conservatives – such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – have now found common cause with restive youth and women taking to the streets and demanding reform.

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Yes, there is now a significant divide within the once united conservative faction; some who are trying to undermine Ahmadinejad are pitted against those within the inner circle of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who back the president.

And Iranian society is clearly split along generational lines between the young, who comprise a majority of the population, and an older generation that is more religious and conservative.

But Ahmadinejad's reelection has once and for all consolidated power around Mr. Khamenei, the military, and the circle of hard-line political elites who form the core of the Iranian regime. The battle between this faction and all others has been waged in varying degrees since the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the state in 1979.

Since that time, many reformist political leaders, especially former President Mohammad Khatami, have tried to challenge the authoritarian state Khamenei has been slowly creating since he was anointed in 1989 as Mr. Khomeini's successor. Now, even those traditional conservatives, such as Mr. Rafsanjani and more hard-line conservatives like former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, who ran against Ahmadinejad, have been pushed aside.

This clear defeat for Mir Hossein Mousavi and all those who differ from Khamenei's revolutionary vision for Iran – conservative and reformer alike – sends another lesson to the world, particularly the United States:

Only another revolution – not just riots – can change the system. And a revolution is highly improbable in the foreseeable future. The idea that the genie of democracy escaped during this election season and now can't be placed back in the jar, as held by US and British pundits, is not only naive; this same thinking has been proved incorrect since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Consider predictions that were made by Iranian-Americans and US government officials in 1997 when Mr. Khatami came to power on a wave of youth support and eagerness for reform: He was predicted to be the leader who would ring in a new democratic era.

But the frailty of his presidency became apparent nearly as soon as it had begun.

In 1999, when thousands of students demonstrated across the country, the establishment deemed Khatami to be too much of a threat to the sustainability of the system. His limited powers were curtailed, and he became an impotent president.

Recent history is now being repeated. Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's opponent, is a far more conservative figure than Khatami and has managed to inspire millions of Iranians to once again become engaged in politics. They are disenchanted and angry that he did not win.

But, still, this does not mean a velvet revolution is afoot or even that the system will be forced to make compromises.

The opponents of the regime are repeatedly dwarfed by a system that places enormous power in the hands of Khamenei and the institutions he controls, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

It should have been no surprise that the poll was likely to be rigged, considering what was known before election day. Hundreds registered to run as candidates in the election, but few were permitted to be candidates. As in all previous elections over the past 30 years, the Council of Guardians, an appointed body of clerics and jurists, eliminated potential contenders for various reasons, including that some were women and others were believed to be opponents of the hard-liners within the regime.

In addition, the leadership of the IRGC publicly endorsed Ahmadinejad, even though it is understood to be illegal for the guards to directly insert themselves in politics.

In his victory speech this past weekend, Ahmadinejad said his reelection marked a new future for Iran. But, in fact, by clarifying the supreme leader's power, it signals a future that looks much like Iran's darkest past.

Geneive Abdo is an Iran analyst at the Century Foundation.

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