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Political Instability in Iran Leaves Future Somewhat Uncertain

  • Al Pessin

In front of portraits of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (L) and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joins a ceremony commemorating International Day Against Drug Abuse, at the Azadi [Freedom] spo

In front of portraits of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (L) and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joins a ceremony commemorating International Day Against Drug Abuse, at the Azadi [Freedom] spo

The political turmoil surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has raised questions about the stability of the country’s political system, and whether there might be an opening for the country's protest movement. Some analysts believe that while the president’s position has been weakened, it does not mean a fatal split in the hardline Iranian hierarchy.

After his re-election two years ago, Iran's conservative Ahmadinejad went through a power struggle with the country's more senior conservative politicians and clerics.

Even though Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his aides ensured Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the disputed 2009 election, they made clear the president did not have as much autonomy as he had thought.

Analysts say that the clerical establishment, at least for now, likely will allow the president to serve out his term in the interest of stability.

However, former British Ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton said the mullahs likely will turn to a less fiery loyalist for the presidential election in 2013.

“You will see somebody, I think, who is less populist in his approach, more of a conventional manager of the economy and society, and somebody who is less bombastic, who makes less wide-sounding promises that turn out to be unfulfillable,” said Dalton.

Dalton and other experts are quick to point out, though, that Ahmadinejad’s problems do not necessarily create an opening for reform in Iran.

“The Iranian clerical, military, security and governmental apparatus have been dedicated now for some time to limiting not only reformism within the Iranian establishment, but also any street politics or dissenting politics outside it," said Dalton. "So that trend remains firmly in place.”

Security expert Metsa Rahimi at the Janusian Group in London, said observers in the West should not mistake Iran's political squabbling for weakness, or as an opening for reform from the streets.

“Iran kind of had its moment a couple of years ago, and I think if we were to see it happening, we would have seen it happen already at least at some point this year," said Rahimi. "The Iranian government has had the experience of controlling mass unrest, certainly. And there was not going to be a big surprise like there was in Tunisia and Egypt."

She said many of the Green Movement’s young supporters have shown signs in recent months that they are giving up hope of dramatic political change.

“A lot of the youth in Iran, having had this moment in 2009, I feel, are almost tired of the effort they were putting in trying to drive change from the streets," said Rahimi. "And many Iranian youth, if they can, are starting to leave the country as opposed to trying to change the country.”

Although Iranians sought reform years before their Arab neighbors, former Ambassador Dalton said the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt may have an inspirational impact on Iran’s so-far unsuccessful protesters.

“I believe there are many in Iran who are saying, ‘The Tunisians could do it. The Egyptians could do it. Why couldn’t we in 2009? Why shouldn’t we try again in the future?’ There’s ashes there that are still warm and we can’t rule out it bursting into flame at some point in the future,” said Dalton.

Dalton said that possibility becomes more likely if Iran’s economy takes a turn for the worse. But he said if the price of oil remains high, as expected, a resumption of mass protests in Iran's streets is at best a “rather theoretical” scenario.

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