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Iran: The Revolution of the Kepis

It's an opaque revolution, a coup d'etat against the very mullahs at the heart of the mullahs' republic that has been plotted within the confines of the offices of the Supreme Guide's inner-circle guard. The knives are now drawn between the turbaned old guard and the Pasdaran - "celebrated" since their participation in the Iran-Iraq war. Thirty years after the clerics took power in Iran, it is the most powerful cleric among them, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, who has decided to put an end to their continuously eroding domination in order to promote the regime's military. In order to achieve this militarization of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Guide has not had to evoke American threats, to declare a state of emergency, or to proclaim martial law. He's settled simply for "organizing" the elections this Friday, March 14, with great care.

For experts in the decryption of Islamic Republic paradoxes, this evolution is not particularly surprising. "The Supreme Guide has been preparing this substitution of the Guardians of the Revolution for the network of mullahs for years. He has always hidden a kepi [French military cap] under his turban. He has spent the greater part of his time managing the armed forces," an Iranian political scientist explains. "And he has understood that in the face of the dynamism of the upcoming generations who do not identify at all with the regime's ideological substratum, the government can maintain itself only by militarizing." Therefore, the Council of Guardians of the Revolution has made the selection of the candidacies. For the first time in a country that takes great pride in presenting itself as one of the only democracies in the region, Interior Ministry commissions discarded over 2,000 candidates for election for ideological and religious reasons. Mohammad Khatami, the reformers' leader and president of the Islamic Republic from 1997 to 2005, described this mass disqualification as a "catastrophe" that could "endanger the system and society." It is no surprise, therefore, that the reformers will be the big losers in these elections, since they're in the running for only 111 of the Parliament's 290 seats. But Rafsandjani's associates have also been weakened and dissuaded from running. The latter - who still leads the Assembly of Experts that is theoretically in charge of controlling the nomination of the Supreme Guide - is, in fact, continuously leaching power.

"In the early days of the Islamic Revolution, power was tricephalic. There was Khomeini's son, who led the intelligence services; Rafsandjani, at the head of the mullahs and the Bazaar, and Khamenei, who controlled the revolutionary organizations. The latter has supplanted all his rivals to the point of concentrating all sovereign powers within his own hands," explains a former apparatchik. In this context, President of the Republic Ahmadinejad, whose term is expiring, has served to allow the Guide to get rid of his rivals: the Guide chose to go negative because he needed that phase of populism to supplant Rafsandjani. Now that's one mission virtually accomplished."

The other issue in the elections is to show the interchangeable nature of President Ahmadinejad. So the election is also, simultaneously, a primary among the conservatives, designed to select future presidential candidates. Opposite the "men of principle," as the Iranian president's allies have dubbed themselves, the "pragmatists" include former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, who has admitting having had differences with the president over the strategy to adopt vis-à-vis the Western powers; the popular Tehran mayor, Mohammed Qalibaf, and a former Guardians of the Revolution commandant, Mohsen Rezaii. All three of these men represent movements that are still conservative, but that could block the president's decisions within Parliament. What movement will emerge victorious from the elections? Can Ahmadinejad and his populism win the campaign in spite of his disastrous economic management that plunged the country into the doldrums even as the price of oil tripled? In a political life that abounds in paradox, that is not the least among them. Nevertheless, even though the elections have been "fixed," and are being fought between hand-picked candidates, the electoral battle is caustic and it is difficult to see who will win it in the end. The only certainty is that behind this democratic screen, the Supreme Guide consolidates his power, bolsters the regime, and alienates himself a bit more from the mullahs and civil society.

(Translation: Leslie Thatcher ) .

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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