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A friend of mine, who first visited Tehran in the days of the Shah, tells me that, way back then, it was almost impossible to decide whether one was in Paris, or somewhere in the Middle East. He next went to Tehran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. By contrast, he says, everyone was dressed in black, and everyone conversed in whispers, afraid of surveillance. He himself said that he rapidly developed the impression that he was being followed.
Since the overthrow of the Shah, Iran has been to all intents and purposes an Islamic state, controlled by the Supreme Leader (originally Ayatollah Khomeni, now Ayatollah Khamenei) and (de facto) the Council of Guardians, although under the Constitution the President is de jure the next highest state authority. And last week, of course, there was an election. For some reason many Iranians seem not merely surprised but somewhat put out by the overwhelming vote apparently received by President Ahmadinejad, and have been indulging in silent protests, some of which seem to have been put down a tad roughly.
One of many questions that I've been asking myself is: What is the longest that any totalitarian regime can be expected to survive without being prepared to make any ideological changes? The thousand year Reich managed twelve years, the USSR under Stalin 31 years, and Cuba under Fidel (down, Eliot, down) - er - nearly fifty.
So there are some questions that may be interesting to discuss. The longevity one, what next for Iran, and doubtless several more that others can raise. In the meantime, yesterday, as most Webdiarists will be aware,
The address lasted more than an hour and was split into two sections. The first was principally a theological monologue. The second dealt largely with the turmoil gripping the country. Here are the key phrases, and what they mean.
"The competitions have ended. All those who have voted for these candidates will, God willing, receive their due reward. They all belong to the revolutionary front … Not just the 24 million votes that have been cast for the chosen president. Forty million voted for the revolution."
Implicit is a declaration that, notwithstanding offers to recount votes, last week's result will stand. Despite urging the complainants to go through "legal channels", Khamenei is in effect forestalling the outcome of such moves by presenting the 24 million votes credited to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("the chosen president") as an uncontested fact.
"The legal mechanism for elections would not allow any cheating. Those involved in the election process know this, especially when there are 11 million [Ahmadinejad's claimed victory margin] votes between two people. Sometimes the difference is 100,000, so at the time there might be some doubts. But how can 11 million votes be replaced or changed?"
Khamenei is dismissing out of hand the fraud accusations that triggered the street demonstrations of recent days.
"You should remember the last will and testament of the late imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] – the law determines what should be done. Why are elections held? So that any differences would be settled at the ballot box … not at the street level.
By invoking Khomeini's famous words ("the nation's vote is the final word"), he seems to be implying that Mousavi and Karroubi and their followers are straying outside the limits enshrined by the Islamic revolution, and questioning their legitimacy.
"Street challenges are not acceptable after the election. I want everybody on all sides to put an end to this method. If they don't, the consequences and the riots should be shouldered by those who don't put an end to it … If there are any consequences, it will directly affect the leaders behind the scenes."
These are ominous remarks which appear to warn of a looming crackdown. The "leaders behind the scenes" may refer to the two defeated reformist candidates and – even more significantly – Rafsanjani, who is universally accepted as Mousavi's most important backer.