In Iran, Rival Regime Factions Play a High-Stakes Game of Chicken

In Iran, Rival Regime Factions Play a High-Stakes Game of Chicken

As the sun set on the fourth day of turmoil over Iran’s disputed election
result, the political conflict looked less like a “Tehran spring” challenge
to the Islamic regime than a high-stakes game of chicken among its rival

Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei confronts one hard reality:
if you summarily ignore the votes that millions of citizens have cast in
good faith, even if those votes are against your favorite, incumbent
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you could fatally undermine the popular
acceptance of Iran’s system of government. But opposition candidate
Mir-Hossein Mousavi faces an equally acute dilemma. As he urges his
supporters onto the streets to clash with authorities increasingly prone to
use violence, he risks bringing down the very system in which he holds a
great stake; on the other hand, holding them back risks simply conceding defeat to
Ahmadinejad, even if the verdict of the electorate said otherwise.

Tuesday began with the announcement that the Guardian Council, the
12-member conservative clerical body that oversees Iran’s elections, had
agreed to a partial recount of the votes, following opposition complaints
— but would not immediately order a new poll, as opposition candidates
have demanded. The council has not ruled out a do-over of the vote, but it
won’t deliver its verdict until late next week.

Mousavi had lowered expectations of fairness from the council, reminding
supporters on Monday that “many of its members during the election were not
impartial and supported the government candidate.” Still, he wasn’t rushing
to seek recourse in the parliament of the streets. Mousavi called off the
opposition rally his supporters had planned for 5 p.m. Tuesday in Tehran’s
Vali Asr Square, after Ahmadinejad’s government called its supporters to
rally against “looters and arsonists” at the same location for a 4 p.m. rally.
Mousavi urged his supporters to stay away “to protect their lives.”

The Ahmadinejad rally, which drew a substantial crowd, was a reminder
that despite the allegations of massive electoral fraud, the President retains
solid support among sizable sections of the population. And given his strong
backing among the security forces and the Basij neighborhood militia, he’s
ready to rumble. Mousavi wants to keep his supporters away from violent
clashes — which could quickly demoralize them — but as long as the
authorities and Ahmadinejad’s allies are willing to spill blood to
settle the contest on the streets, Mousavi’s options are narrowed.

Despite their candidate’s calls to stay home, Mousavi backers did in
fact rally in the streets of north Tehran on Tuesday, with many thousands
marching in silence to demonstrate their anger at the authorities. A young
demonstrator who spoke to the Los Angeles Times at the north Tehran
march underscored the complexity of the political conflict under way right
now. “We have no leader,” she said. “Mousavi is a temporary leader, but we
need someone to rally around.”

Mousavi is an unlikely leader of a mass “people-power” movement against
the government. A competent technocrat known for his managerial
skills, the soft-spoken conservative is very much a
creature of the Islamic revolution, having run the government in some of its
most difficult years in the 1980s. He is not even part of the reformist
movement led by former President Mohammed Khatami. Mousavi is a leader of
the pragmatic conservative wing of the regime, which has been alarmed by the
antics of President Ahmadinejad at home and abroad. He and his allies share
the reformists’ goal of getting rid of a President they believe has damaged
the Islamic Republic, and the reformists backed Mousavi rather than put up a
candidate of their own, believing he had a better chance of beating

No one knows this better than the Supreme
Leader himself. As reported by state media
on Tuesday, Khamenei met with Mousavi before Monday’s massive opposition
protest rally and blamed enemies of the Islamic revolution for the rioting
over the weekend. “You are a different kind from these people,” the Supreme
Leader is reported to have told Mousavi, “and it is necessary to follow up
things with composure and calm.” In other words, You’re one of us; let’s
keep it in the family.

It’s no surprise that Khamenei would try to divide the opposition,
achieving some sort of accord with those closest to the
conservative establishment, while isolating the reform movement and
its most enthusiastic supporters on the streets. Of course, the Supreme
Leader may be hampered by the swagger and militancy of Ahmadinejad and his
own supporters on the streets and in the regime, who appear to be in no mood
to compromise.

It’s not yet clear whether Mousavi plans to maintain the momentum of his
backers on the streets or fight his campaign primarily behind closed
doors within the various councils of the regime. “He’s got some very tough
decisions to make,” says Gary Sick, a Columbia University Iran scholar
and former National Security Council official. “If he keeps his people on
the streets confronting the authorities, he’s playing with fire. Mousavi,
like [fellow presidential candidate Mehdi] Kharroubi and Khatami, may be opposed to Ahmadinejad, but they’re very
much part of the Islamic revolution themselves. They were instrumental in
creating it, and they’ve been huge beneficiaries of the system. If they push
things to the point that risks bringing down the whole system, that would
sweep them away as well.”

The same, of course, is true for Khamenei and Ahmadinajad — they, too,
are playing a game of brinkmanship that puts the whole edifice of the
Islamic Republic at risk. People voted believing that their votes count; if
the outcome shows otherwise, the whole system loses its prime source of

Ahmadinejad doesn’t have things all his own way within the corridors of
power, of course. Mousavi has the backing of some very powerful players
within the regime, foremost among them former President Hashemi Rafsanjani
— a pragmatic conservative who chairs some key councils of the regime,
most important among them the Assembly of Experts, which chooses and can even
dismiss the Supreme Leader. Some reports have suggested that Rafsanjani is
currently in Qom, the seminarian city where much of Iran’s senior clergy
resides, assessing whether he can muster the votes for a challenge to
Khamenei by the Assembly of Experts. That would prompt an
unprecedented constitutional crisis in Iran and possibly risk the wrath of
the powerful Revolutionary Guard, a key Ahmadinejad power base. It
may nonetheless be dangled as a warning to Khamenei in the
behind-closed-doors bargaining that may ensue. The apparent swings in the
positions adopted by key regime figures like parliament speaker Ali
Larijani, who has alternated between urging the country to unite behind
Ahmadinejad and loudly condemning attacks by security forces on opposition
supporters, suggests a fierce battle may be under way for backing within the

Also weighing on Mousavi will be the fate of former President Khatami, who faced a similar challenge in 1999 when a mass movement took to
the streets to support his reformist agenda when conservatives in the regime
used their power to block his initiatives. Pro-reform
demonstrators were savagely and systematically attacked by the security
forces, and when they turned to Khatami for leadership, he essentially told
them to go home. Says Sick: “That was the point at which people lost confidence
in the reformist movement.”

See TIME’s covers from the 1979 Islamic revolution.

See pictures of Ahmadinejad’s supporters on