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On eve of Iran anniversary, talk of compromise

Opposition protesters are ready to rally when Iran's Islamic republic celebrates its 31st birthday on Thursday. Observers say both sides may be prepared to compromise after eight months of unrest.

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Among them are hard-line leaders of the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), whose ideological Basij militia fought postelection street battles.

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"Whoever finds compromise has to do something about the Revolutionary Guard, to defang them and send them back to their barracks, [even if they] keep some of their loot," says Dr. Milani.

Top Guard commanders have boasted that their intervention in the election in favor of Ahmadinejad saved Iran from self-destruction at the hands of reformists, and that their expansion of power after the vote was a "new stage" of the revolution. Yet even that force is subject to profound changes taking place in Iran.

"The IRGC command structure doesn't work in a vacuum; it works in the context of a society where the bulk of its own membership 12 years ago voted for [former reformist President Mohammad] Khatami," says Milani. "Continuing with their current path will compromise their chance of even getting to keep what they have already taken."

The reformist camp is also a big tent, including many who want to reform but preserve the current Islamic system.

But an increasing number of protesters want a more dramatic change, even calling for the death of Khamenei.

Still, both sides are trying to control radicals and are even hinting at moves toward a new accommodation. Defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi ushered in the new year with a list of demands that included releasing prisoners and freeing up the press, but didn't call for Ahmadinejad's removal.

In late January, another reformist leader, Mehdi Karroubi, called Ahmadinejad the "established" president – if not the legitimate one. And prominent cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, while standing by previous criticisms, signaled that only Khamenei could end the crisis. Conservatives, too, in December engaged in tepid "debates" on state TV that aired some criticism of Ahmadinejad.

"Everyone is giving [Khamenei] an opportunity to separate himself a little bit from Ahmadinejad," says Ms. Farhi. They are telling him, "Redirect the ship you are captaining.... You don't have to move very fast ... but give us a hint that a different direction is happening."

But Khamenei, who has drawn lessons from the fall of the shah and his Pahlavi dynasty, is likely to resist compromising.

"From the shah, Khamenei has learned that if you give an inch, they'll take it all. And he keeps saying: 'I'm not the shah,' " says Milani. "But the real lesson from the shah wasn't that he gave an inch in 1978 and he lost it. The real lesson is that if he had given half an inch in 1975, we might still be talking about the Pahlavis of Iran."

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