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Iran untwittered

Sorry, desk-chair revolutionary twitterers across the globe and a heartfelt excuse to the many Iranians out in the street for tramping on their dreams but I fear that this is just not going to end well. Iran's conservative revolutionary-religious establishment with president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the Supreme Leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei as two of its most obvious exponents, will just not allow the 'moderates' to gain power again. Both a senior member of Mr Ahmedinejad’s party and a senior reformist cleric indicated just prior to the elections what was about to happen. They both predicted, one confidently and the other anxiously, that the conservatives would not willingly relinquish their hold on power.

It looks as if an actual conservative decision to that effect was taken all the way back during Mohammed Khatami’s presidency, maybe only after his reformist block won the parliamentary elections in 2000. Even now it is unclear how fair the election was of Mr Ahmadinejad in 2005. Mehdi Karoubi, supported by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, complained about interference but this was never taken up officially.

In 2006, less than a year after president Ahmedinejad came to power, reformists were signalling a huge purge of state and parastatal institutions in which all their sympathisers were being sidelined or fired. This was not limited to senior civil servants but was implemented throughout the system, including state corporations, foundations and anything else that had any remote connection to the levers of power. One prominent reformist at the time said, “the conservatives are determined that whatever happens, the reformists will never again be able to regain power.”

Fast forward to almost the present day: huge numbers of people who were either reformist or more likely fed up with the whole idea of the Islamic Republic wavered about bothering to vote in the presidential elections. In Tehran at least, out of several dozen people interviewed, the overwhelming majority was pro-Mousavi, but then there were many people too who said that they were afraid that their vote would be wasted because of fraud and that participation would be used by the conservatives as a way of legitimising the system.

That feeling of impotence among reformists was the original bet of the conservatives, pre-green movement. The idea was to make many reformist minded voters stay at home again as happened in 2005. Just weeks before the elections a senior member of the pro-Ahmedinejad faction in parliament dismissed the reformists’ ardour. “These people are weak. They’d rather stay at home and be comfortable,” said Hamidreza Taraghi. Apart from showing a huge lack of understanding of what was going on in his own country, it also revealed the enormous arrogance of the ruling faction.

But it was arrogance backed by steel: “It does not matter who wins the vote. In the end it is only the Supreme Leader who matters, so we are not worried,” Taraghi said. Granted, at the time that could have meant that the presidency was merely a sinecure in the Islamic Republic. But seeing what happened over the last couple of days, it can also be interpreted as meaning that the conservatives would not give up power, no matter what, and that they knew that they were being backed by ayatollah Khamenei.

Around the same time in Qom, senior reformist grand ayatollah Yousef Sane’i was blunt about the need for many people to come and vote. “They are trying through propaganda to make people stay away from the polls. But it is imperative this time that the people turn up and carry out their duty to vote.” He was mostly echoing the official reformist theme in the run-up to the elections that sought a large turnout as a way of ensuring at least a second round and as a precautions against fraud. Because surely if overwhelming numbers voted against Mr Ahmedinejad, then it would be impossible to fake it.

But the grand ayatollah went further, sounding a dire and prophetic warning of what could happen in case that the conservatives somehow managed to hang on and Mr Ahmedinejad was allowed to continue. “If this continues, our foreign policy will be confronted with severe difficulties, the economy of the country will be devastated and the people may become alienated from the Islamic Republic.” He repeated this one more time when pressed on it: “if the same policies are continued it could widen the gap between the people and the Islamic Republic.”

That last concern of grand ayatollah Sane’i cuts to the core of another big problem in Iran’s Islamic system. The clergy know that they rule to a degree by the grace of the people’s consent. What seems to separate many reformist clerics from the conservatives is merely that they worry more about this and are less willing to use aggressive means to enforce this consent if necessary. Ayatollah Sane’i voiced the fears of a large part of the establishment that the people would in the end opt to abandon the whole Islamic system rather than be content with piecemeal and stuttering reforms.

The conservatives have the same concerns but have come to a very different conclusion. Their revolution, just as the one in Soviet Russia, can only be guaranteed by the use of force and state intimidation. Even though Mir-Hossein Mousavi is a loyal follower of the revolution of 1979, many in the movement that has gathered around him would rather do away with the whole Islamic Republic. And that will just not be allowed to happen.