Iran I: A coup or a purge?

Trying to get news from Iran this morning is very difficult. Most contact with the outside world has been severed - including phone and cable traffic - while the internet is very unreliable and slow from all reports.

What information is getting out reveals a nation close to chaos but with the authorities evidently well prepared in advance for trouble.

So what does the Iranian election mean? Was it a coup by Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the Revolutionary Guards, done without the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei? Or is Khamenei behind the whole thing and this is an attempt to purge the "reformers" who threaten the position of the powerful clerics who run every facet of the country - its economy, its culture, its social structure, and especially its politics?

A good case can be made for both scenarios. Haaretz is reporting that the opposition leader who challenged Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has been arrested. There are reports that many visible opponents of the regime are also being systematically rounded up with many arrests. Opposition media is shut down. And as mentioned above, normal channels of communication have been interrupted.

The only real question seems to be at this point is who is controlling the Revolutionary Guards? They are the ones in the forefront of the crackdown. They are supposed to be under the direct control of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. But this amateurish, way too obvious election fraud would seem to be too inept if Khamenei and say, the senior Guard leadership was going to do the vote stealing. After all, it is widely believed they engineered the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 in the first place. However they did it, they were able to fool most of the international observers who were invited to watch the proceedings (more like the observers were kidding themselves but at least they were given a fig leaf to hide behind).

So it's not like they don't know how to be subtle about rigging an election. The heavy handededness of this election's shenanigans, however, might show more unsure hands at work in the Interior Ministry where the election was obviously stolen. And this would point to an Ahmadinejad-led cabal of loyal bureaucrats and friendly Guardsmen - a possibility I raise in my piece on what might have happened:

Ahmadinejad's biography has a couple of holes in it; specifically his time spent as a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force:

Ahmadinejad was reportedly a senior officer in the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards stationed at Ramazan Garrison near Kermanshah in western Iran. This was the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards' "Extra-territorial Operations," for mounting attacks beyond Iran's borders. Reports suggested that his work in the Revolutionary Guards was related to suppression of dissidents in Iran and abroad. Sources associated him with atrocities in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran and alleged he personally participated in covert operations around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

With the formation of the elite Qods (Jerusalem; literally ‘Holy') Force of the IRGC, Ahmadinejad became one of its senior commanders. It was reported that he directed assassinations in the Middle East and Europe, including the assassination of Iranian Kurdish leader Abdorrahman Qassemlou, who was shot dead by senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards in a Vienna flat in July 1989. According to Revolutionary Guard sources, Ahmadinejad was a key planner of the attack. He was also reported to have been involved in planning an attempt on the life of Salman Rushdie.

Ahmadinejad's connections to some very powerful elements in the Revolutionary Guards may have given him something no Iranian president has had previously; an independent power base in the Guards. Would it be enough to challenge Khamenei for control of the Guards? Khamenei has the senior leadership but perhaps some junior officers would be more loyal to Ahmadinejad. It is pure speculation but not without merit as Middle East expert Gordon Robinson writes:

Scenario Two: There has been a coup. Ahmedinejad and the security services have taken over. The Supreme Leader has been preserved as a figurehead, but the structures of clerical rule have effectively been gutted and are being replaced by a National Security State. Reports that facebook, twitter, text messaging and foreign TV broadcasts have been blocked, that foreign journalists are being expelled and that large concrete roadblocks (the kind that require a crane to move) have appeared in front of the Interior Ministry all feed a sense that what we are now seeing was pre-planned. Underlying this is the theory that Ahmedinejad and the people around him represent a new generation of Iranian leadership. He and his colleagues were young revolutionaries in 1979. Now in their 50s they have built careers inside the Revolutionary Guard and the other security services. They may be committed to the Islamic Republic as a concept, but they are not part of its clerical aristocracy and are now moving to push the clerics into an essentially ceremonial role. This theory in particular seems to be gaining credibility rapidly among professional Iran-watchers outside of the country.

If a coup, this is very, very bad news for the US and especially Israel. It is thought that Khamenei was something of a steadying force who countered Ahmadinejad's extreme radicalism with a more traditional and less confrontational approach. Several times over the last 4 years, Khamenei has appearedto slap down Ahmadinejad when he went too far, contradicting some wild pronouncements made by the president (he never intervened when Ahmadinejad threatened Israel). If that brake is gone, the Iranian president becomes very unpredictable.

Then there's the "panic" theory where the regime was overconfident in Ahmadinejad's victory and was reacting to the overwhelming vote for Mousavi and the other reform candidates. This explains why the stolen election appeared to be amateurish.  I find this less than compelling for the simple reason they were deploying regime forces before the polls closed.

With so many arrests of "reformers" (outside of Mousavi, no real big names have been taken into custody that we've heard about yet), it may yet turn out to be a simple purge and life will eventually settle back down to normal. But a coup, by its nature, breeds instability. And given the factional nature of the Iranian regime, it is a sure bet that some of these factions will not sit still for an Ahmadinejad power grab. In that case, a low level civil war will play itself out with many "disappearances" and "tragic accidents" as well as a "heart attack" or two before things get sorted out. We saw this kind of thing several times in the old Soviet Union so it shouldn't surprise us if we see something similar in Iran over the next year or so.