Saturday 20 Apr 2019 | 13:56 | SYDNEY
Saturday 20 Apr 2019 | 13:56 | SYDNEY

Iran elections: Two coup theories


Anthony Bubalo

This post is part of the Iranian elections 2009 debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

15 June 2009 16:43

This post is part of the Iranian elections 2009 debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In my previous post I presented circumstantial evidence suggesting that something much more irregular than usual occurred in Iran’s weekend presidential election. We may never know for sure what happened, though what transpires over coming days and weeks, especially what occurs to key figures like former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani as well as the candidates from this election, will give greater or lesser credence to the theory of a coup.

Since the revolution, the regime has relied on imperfect, unfair but reasonably competitive elections to demonstrate its popular legitimacy. If hardliners have carried out a coup, then someone has decided they no longer need legitimacy and can rely on coercion. They may well be right, at least in the short term.

As has been widely reported, there have been outbreaks of mass protest in Tehran, with a few reports of demonstration elsewhere as well. Some of these protests seem quite large, as shown in this YouTube footage, though on its own this is probably not going to trouble the regime security forces much. 


More interesting is what happens inside the regime. To understand this we need to understand who has undertaken the coup (again, if that is what has occurred). To my mind there are two possibilities, with some variations between them:

  1. Ahmadinejad, his supporters in the regime and the Revolutionary Guard preempted the election result, presenting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with a fait accompli that he was not prepared to countermand. This theory rests on the assumption that Khamenei is not as strong as people assume. Faced with a choice between backing the military and a younger generation of revolutionaries around Ahmadinejad (that would keep Khamenei around as a figurehead), versus the old guard around his some-time rival, former President Rafsanjani, Khamenei chose the former.
  2. The other possibility is that this has been instigated by the Supreme Leader himself or someone close to him. This theory rests on the thesis that the Leader is using this opportunity to purge the regime of old guard figures like Rafsanjani, as well as regime reformists, perhaps fearful the election was going to once again strengthen their hand. The Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani are the direct heirs of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s power has been slipping in recent years, he is the one figure in the regime who could potentially take on the Supreme Leader in the right circumstances. 

If it is the first scenario, then there may be a way back for Rafsanjani and Musavi, if the former can convince the Supreme Leader to change his mind in some face-saving way. If it is the second scenario, then Rafsanjani, Musavi and those aligned with them in the regime may have no way back, at least using the avenues available to them within the regime. This leaves the intriguing, but much less likely possibility of Musavi and possibly Rafsanjani going outside the system and placing themselves at the head of some form of popular movement against the regime — so far, all Musavi has called for is continued peaceful protests against the result.

If there has been a coup, and if it does succeed in purging the regime of more pragmatic and reformist figures, then predicting decision-making within the regime will suddenly get a lot more straight-forward. After Khomeini’s death, the regime developed a number of power centres, whose competition for influence often paralysed decision-making – including on issues such as relations with the US. The regime may now become a lot more internally cohesive, but I will explain tomorrow why this will make Obama’s efforts at diplomacy with Iran a lot harder.