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General News    H3'ed 2/17/11

The Back Story on Iran's Clashes (A Special Report)

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[Keller recently used the New York Times magazine to disparage WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, as ex-FBI official Coleen Rowley has noted.]

The reason why Ahmadinejad apparently did win the 2009 election was that his support was concentrated among the urban and rural poor who benefited from government food giveaways and jobs programs and who tend to listen more to conservative clerics in the mosques.

Mousavi, who came in second in the election, seemed to acknowledge this point when he released his supposed proof of the rigged election, accusing Ahmadinejad of buying votes by providing food and higher wages for the poor. At some Mousavi rallies, his supporters reportedly would chant "death to the potatoes!" in a joking reference to Ahmadinejad's food distributions.

Yet, while passing out food and raising pay may be a sign of "machine politics," such tactics are not normally associated with election fraud. In the United States, they are usually called the "power of incumbency."

Generally speaking, Mousavi had the backing of the urban middle class and the well-educated, especially in the more cosmopolitan capital of Tehran where universities became a center for protests against Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad's policies -- and his offensive comments about the Holocaust -- have created hardships for this voting bloc, which has found it hard to travel and do business in the face of Western sanctions and restrictions.

Beyond repudiating Ahmadinejad's obnoxious behavior, reducing the power of the mullahs may be a worthy goal, too. Having spent time in Iran in the early 1990s and witnessing the constraints on women's rights, I personally share that sentiment. But it is hypocritical for U.S. pundits to talk about protests seeking to overturn the choice of a voting majority as "pro-democracy."

A Troubling History

There is also the question of whether Mousavi and Karrubi are true reformers or simply represent a split in Iran's power structure.

While prime minister in the 1980s, Mousavi presided over some of the Islamic Republic's most brutal purges. In 1990, when I interviewed Karrubi in Tehran, he was considered a conservative cleric connected -- along with his brother Hassan -- to arms-trafficking and other corruption.

Mousavi and the Karrubis -- along with their billionaire ally, ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- were part of the group that favored secret contacts with the United States and Israel to get military supplies for fighting the eight-year war with Iraq. Even as hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers died, the war was a lucrative business opportunity for the well-connected.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's current spiritual leader and the key supporter of President Ahmadinejad, was more the ideological purist, apparently opposing the strategy in 1980 that involved going behind President Jimmy Carter's back to gain promises of weapons from Israel and the future Reagan administration.

Khamenei appears to have favored a straightforward arrangement with the Carter administration for settling the dispute over 52 American hostages seized by Iranian radicals in 1979 and held through the U.S. election in 1980.

In retaliation for the hostage-taking, President Carter had frozen Iran's assets, imposed an arms embargo and attempted a failed rescue mission in April 1980. Carter also was struggling to fend off a strong campaign challenge from Republican Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin was furious at Carter for having pushed Israel into the Camp David peace deal with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that required Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for normalized relations. Begin feared worse from a Carter second term, with more pressure for permitting a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Begin also was upset at Carter's perceived failure to protect the Shah of Iran, who had been an Israeli strategic ally. Begin was worried, too, about Iraq with its powerful army massing near oil-rich Iranian territory.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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