Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Ardeshir Moaveni 4/06/05

Iranian officials believe revolutionary developments in the former Soviet Union, including the recent political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, are being engineered by the United States. Authorities in Tehran are confident that the Islamic republic is not vulnerable to a "velvet" revolution. At the same time, experts say, the revolutionary trend may exert influence over the upcoming Iranian presidential election.

Iranian officials were guarded in their comments on the March 24 ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and his replacement by a provisional government led by erstwhile political allies turned pro-democracy advocates. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi expressed a desire for Kyrgyzstan’s political climate to "return to normal as soon as possible," the official IRNA news agency reported.

Kyrgyz politics, almost two weeks since Akayev’s ouster, remains in disarray. Political infighting has erupted over the provisional government’s controversial political appointments. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The provisional government scheduled its first formal cabinet meeting for April 7. Meanwhile, the country’s parliament has been unable to take up the issue of Akayev’s resignation, due to a lack of a quorum. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The political turnover in Kyrgyzstan dealt a blow to Iranian foreign policy. Tehran had cultivated closer ties with Akayev in recent years as part of an effort to frustrate a perceived US geopolitical strategy designed to encircle and isolate Iran. A visit by an Iranian delegation to Kyrgyzstan in late 2004 yielded several cooperation agreements covering trade and the export of electricity. In late 2003, Iran extended $10 million in assistance to Kyrgyzstan to stimulate commerce.

Representatives of the provisional government have stated that Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy course will shift significantly. Yet, experts in Bishkek, say such statements generally refer to relations with Kyrgyzstan’s two major political partners – the United States and Russia. It is likely, these experts add, that the United States will exert political pressure on Bishkek to downgrade its ties with Tehran.

The consensus opinion among Iran’s political elite is that the United States played a central role in the Kyrgyz revolution, as part of a broader strategy to remake the political order in the Muslim world and the former Soviet Union. Accordingly, Iranian politicians and pundits alike maintain that events in Kyrgyzstan are linked to the ongoing political turmoil in Lebanon, as well as the revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A commentary broadcast by Iranian state television on March 25 said the Kyrgyz revolution and the turmoil in Lebanon exposed "the expansionist and hegemonic policies of America."

The US government, the television commentary claimed, was motivated not by a desire to spread democratic ideals, but by an intent to gain control of natural resources in the Muslim world and former Soviet Union, including oil and gas, as well as uranium and other precious metals. The commentary went on to suggest that US officials were manipulating non-governmental organizations to help stoke popular protests that specifically aimed to topple incumbent governments.

While concerned about revolutionary developments elsewhere, members of Iran’s political elite, including those belonging to hard-line conservative factions, appear confident that the country is not susceptible to the kind of "velvet revolution" scenario that played out in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. A combination of repression, extensive government patronage and broad-based public apathy with politics -- underscored by low voter turnout in recent elections – has dulled the population’s appetite for mass political action.

In addition, conservative defenders of the Islamic republic, in the event of anti-government protests, could utilize a relatively small, but fervently supportive segment of the population to act as a counter-weight to those potentially pushing for change. Among the assets at the disposal of Iranian conservatives are armed units belonging to the Basij militia and the Republican Guards. A vast state security network is also in place, and is capable of early detection of efforts to mobilize the population for mass protests.

Iran’s conservative leaders, who dominate both the country’s elective political institutions and its religious oversight bodies, are especially concerned these days with containing the Internet’s power to spread information. During the run-up to the country’s June 17 presidential election, a source of fierce behind-the-scenes political infighting, Iran’s judiciary has cracked down on purveyors of information. Late in 2004, for example, authorities arrested web "bloggers" in an effort to discourage the circulation of independent political opinion and analysis.

In addition, the website ITIran has reported that the official blog of Mostafa Moeen, presidential candidate for the main reform party Iran Participation Front, has been censored by ParsOnline. A conservative ISP based in Tehran, ParsOnline’s screening practices go beyond the official governmental blacklist.

Political analysts in Tehran say recent developments in Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon could boost the presidential aspirations of Ali-Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council and a conservative-leaning pragmatist who served as chief executive from 1989-97. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Though widely expected to enter the presidential race, Rafsanjani has not yet formally done so. In serving in a variety of political positions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Rafsanjani’s political pragmatism has earned him a number of influential political enemies. As one of Iran’s most astute political operators, Rafsanjani has remained coy about his political plans in an effort to defeat hard-liner attempts to derail his likely candidacy. Many hardliners view a potential Rafsanjani presidency as an impediment to the implementation of a radical-conservative political agenda currently espoused by the Iranian parliament. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Rafsanjani has stated repeatedly that he will run only if there exists broad support for his candidacy, and he is called upon by the public to guide the nation out of a crisis situation. In recent public statements, Rafsanjani has sought to portray recent events in Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon as being part of just such a looming geopolitical crisis for Iran.

In comments broadcast on Iranian radio March 25, Rafsanjani said "you can see what they [US officials] have done in Kyrgyzstan," going on to allege that the United States was also meddling in Lebanon and Iraq. "We are faced with a creeping move designed by America aimed at dominating other countries and plundering their natural resources," Rafsanjani added. "We hope to repel America’s evil intentions by relying on God and the [spirit of the Iranian] revolution."

Outside of the political limelight, Rafsanjani is also working vigorously to assemble a broad-based political coalition in support of his presidential candidacy. He has reached out to representatives of practically every political faction, except the neo-conservative Abadgaran group, offering promises of political posts within his potential administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The opaque nature of Iranian politics makes it difficult to assess whether Rafsanjani’s outreach initiative has been successful or not, analysts in Tehran say.

Editor’s Note: Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian politics."