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Updated: Oct. 14, 2011

Iran has been a quasi-theocracy since the ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The United States has been at odds with Iran over its suppression of the Green Movement and its support for militant groups around the region like Hamas and Hezbollah, but primarily over a nuclear program that much of the international community believes is meant to develop weapons. For more on Iran’s nuclear program, click here.

The regime solidified its power in 2009, when it violently subdued the so-called Green Movement, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protested elections that were widely believed to have been rigged in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government quashed dissent through the shooting of demonstrators, mass trials, torture, lengthy jail sentences and even executions of some of those taking part.

In February 2011, the opposition movement showed brief signs of life, as 20,000 people took part in demonstrations ostensibly called to offer support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But the movement fizzled, as the government responded by beating protesters and putting the two most prominent Green leaders, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, under what appeared to be house arrest.

In May 2011, a struggle for power among the conservatives who run the country, and in particular between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spilled into public view. The fight conforms to a pattern of presidential politics that has troubled the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. The system allows for two presidents, one divine, the other democratic. The divine leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, holds most of the power levers, controlling the military, the judiciary and the state broadcasting services.

The divine leader is also permanent, while elected presidents serve a maximum of eight years. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessors — Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who also clashed with the supreme leader over prerogatives — have gradually faded from view. Mr. Ahmadinejad is determined to avoid their fate, and that, say Iran experts, set off the showdown.

In September 2011, to pave the way for his annual visit to the United Nations, Mr. Ahmadinejad announced with great fanfare the imminent release of two American hikers sentenced to eight years for espionage. Not 24 hours later, Iran’s courts issued a stinging public rebuke: they said he did not have the authority to free the prisoners.

On Oct. 11, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that federal authorities had foiled a plot by men linked to the Iranian government to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and to bomb Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington.



The unrest that emerged in February 2011 dates back to the presidential election of June 2009, but more broadly is the product of a long-running struggle between the more moderate and more conservative elements of the elite of the country’s theocracy.

For eight years, from 1997 to 2005, the country’s president was Mohamed Khatami. He was regarded as a moderate interested in improving ties with the West. But in Iran’s complex system of overlapping power structures, his freedom of action was limited by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni, a conservative. And the president’s overtures to the United States were largely rebuffed by the Bush administration.

His years in office coincided with a stretch of low global oil prices. The 2005 presidential election took place against a backdrop of economic dissatisfaction, and Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected on a mandate to distribute the country’s growing oil income among the poor.

The son of a blacksmith, he was an unknown figure in the country’s politics who had only served as Tehran’s mayor for two years and earlier as a provincial governor for four years. But with the support of the country’s religious and military circles — who had been frustrated with the policies of Mr. Khatami, his moderate predecessor, Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to a large rural constituency who voted for him in hope for economic change.

Mr. Ahmadinejad soon became known on the international stage as the face of Iran’s defiance over its nuclear program and hostility towards Israel. He shocked the world when he called the Holocaust a “myth’ and repeated an old slogan from the early days of the 1979 revolution, saying “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

A Disputed Election and Its Violent Aftermath

The major candidates in the 2009 presidential election were the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister.

Mr. Moussavi served as prime minister from 1980 to 1988. He is well remembered by many Iranians for managing the country during its eight-year war with Iraq, and for introducing food rationing. An architect and painter, he has not held a government post since the Constitution was amended to eliminate the position of prime minister in 1989.

In the course of the campaign, the candidates exchanged accusations that were extraordinarily strong for Iranian politics

Before the voting, supporters of Mr. Moussavi were hopeful, given the large and energetic crowds that had been turning out at his rallies. But early on the morning of June 13, only two hours after polls had closed from the previous day’s voting, Mr. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, with 63 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Mr. Moussavi.

Mr. Moussavi and a number of other losing candidates denounced the results and rallies were held in cities across the country. Ayatollah Khamenei initially swung between statements in support of Mr. Ahmadinejad and conciliatory gestures. But after a week of large protests and skirmishes between demonstrators and security forces, he gave an angry sermon in which he warned of violence if dissent continued.

The results were appealed to the nation’s powerful Guardian Council, which acknowledged that the number of votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the actual number of voters by three million, but insisted that the discrepancies did not violate Iranian law or affect the outcome of the election.

Opponents maintained their defiance, but protests faded away in the face of attacks and the arrest of thousands of demonstrators. A few conservatives expressed revulsion at the sight of unarmed protesters being beaten, even shot, by government forces. Only 105 out of the 290 members of Parliament took part in a victory celebration for Mr. Ahmadinejad on June 23. The absence of so many lawmakers, including the speaker, Ali Larijani, a powerful conservative, was striking. In early July, an influential clerical association based in the city of Qum, the center of the country’s spiritual life, called the new government illegitimate.

With a mass trial of more than 100 alleged dissidents under way, Mr. Ahmadinejad was formally endorsed as Iran‘s leader for a second term by Mr. Khameni. But prominent opponents stayed away from the event, and did so again when Mr. Ahmadinejad was sworn in on Aug. 6 for a second term.

A Challenge From Traditional Conservatives

After a year in which outpourings of public anger failed to effect tangible change, the dust settled in 2010 to once again reveal a more basic split within Iran’s political elite. Having successfully suppressed the opposition uprising that followed the disputed presidential election, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters are renewing their efforts to marginalize another rival group — Iran‘s traditional conservatives.

The rift is partly a generational one, with Mr. Ahmadinejad leading a combative cohort of conservatives supported by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. On the other side is an older generation of leaders who derive their authority from their links to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Reformist lawmakers now represent a largely impotent minority in the Parliament.

The older conservatives, including clerics, lawmakers and leaders of the bazaar, which is the center of Iran’s ancient system of trade and commerce, have long questioned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s competence and even accused his ministers of corruption. But in 2010 they went further, accusing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction of distorting the principles of the Islamic Revolution and following a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy.

To some, those criticisms amounted to a veiled plea by the old-line conservatives to Ayatollah Khameni to rein in the president or even to remove him — a plea Mr. Khameni rebuffed, leaving Mr. Ahmadinejad more firmly in control than ever.

The End of Subsidies

Iran’s subsidies regime, introduced to ensure a fair distribution of limited goods during the Iran-Iraq war, has placed enormous strains on the country’s finances, with energy subsidies alone costing $114 billion a year. That coupled with gasoline shortages stemming from international sanctions prompted the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad to take a step that his predecessors have avoided for fear of the potentially high political costs: ending selected subsidies.

The subsidies, which had until now kept the basic price of gasoline at around 38 cents a gallon were drastically cut at midnight on Dec. 19, 2010, quadrupling the rationed fuel price overnight and pushing price at which motorists can purchase an unlimited amount of gas to a staggering, for Iranians, $2.55 a gallon. In the following weeks, subsidies were also reduced on flour, water and diesel. The regime braced for the kind of angry protests that followed the introduction of fuel rationing in 2007, but none followed.

Iran’s state-directed economy has long been plagued by corruption, inflation, inefficiencies and unemployment, which is particularly high among young people. The problems have damaged Iran’s ability to compete in world markets. Ending state controls and subsidies have long been seen as the first step in reviving a moribund economy that the C.I.A. estimates grew by an anemic 1.5 percent in 2009. Analysts say the unemployment and inflation rates are about 20 percent, nearly double the official figures of 11.8 percent and 12.2 percent respectively.

Growing Influence

The popular revolts shaking the Arab world have begun to shift the balance of power in the region, bolstering Iran’s position while weakening and unnerving its rival, Saudi Arabia. Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders who were its strong adversaries and has begun to project its growing influence.

In February 2011, Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since its revolution in 1979, and Egypt’s new military leaders allowed them to pass.

The uprisings have made Iran’s standing stronger in spite of its challenges at home, with a troubled economy, high unemployment and a determined political opposition.

In early 2011, Iran demonstrated its emboldened attitude in Lebanon when its ally, Hezbollah, forced the collapse of the pro-Western government of Saad Hariri. Mr. Hariri was replaced with a prime minister backed by Hezbollah, a move that analysts say was undertaken with Iran’s support.

The turmoil in the Mideast has shredded a regional paradigm in which a trio of states aligned with the West supported engaging Israel and containing its enemies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, experts said. The pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is in tatters. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been ousted, King Abdullah of Jordan was struggling to control discontent in his kingdom and Saudi Arabia, an American ally and a Sunni nation that jousts with Shiite Iran for regional influence, has been left alone to face a rising challenge to its regional role.

In Iraq, Iran was blamed by the United States in 2011 for a series of attacks by Shiite militia on American forces, attacks that subsided after the Baghdad government took firmer measures in the Shiite-dominated south. American officials said that Iran sees Iraq as an arena for proxy attacks on the United States, and that it hopes to take credit for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A Bizarre Plot

On Oct. 11, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador began with a meeting in Mexico in May, “the first of a series that would result in an international conspiracy by elements of the Iranian government” to pay $1.5 million to murder the ambassador on United States soil.

The men accused of plotting the attacks were Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri. Mr. Holder said the two men were connected to the secretive Quds Force, a division of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that has carried out operations in other countries. The Justice Department said in a statement that Mr. Shakuri, a member of the Quds force, remained at large. Mr. Arbabsiar, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested on Sept. 29.

Iran’s leaders marshaled a furious formal rejection of the accusations, calling the case a cynical fabrication meant to vilify Iran and distract Americans from their own severe economic problems, highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

President Obama vowed on Oct. 13 to push for what he called the “toughest sanctions” against Iran, saying that the United States had strong evidence that Iranian officials were complicit in the alleged plot.

The president did not lay out any specific new sanctions against Iran; his administration is considering a number of measures, but has limited leverage and would have to muster international support to impose anything with real teeth.

Iran escalated its rebuttal of the American charges, saying the claims about the alleged plot were so ludicrous that even politicians and the media in the United States were expressing skepticism about them.

While Mr. Obama echoed assertions by other administration officials that Iranian officials were complicit in the alleged plot, he did not go as far as some officials did when they told reporters that they had concluded that the operation had been discussed at the highest levels of the Iranian government.



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last update: 3/29/2017 2:54