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Michael Axworthy: Crisis of legitimacy leaves reformers few choices

The Islamic Republic of Iran is now facing a crisis of legitimacy, with the basis of the state and the entire system set up by the revolution 30 years ago, called into question.

The government has never before interfered with elections in such a total way. This wasn't just a case of manipulating the nature of the candidates, but fixing the result itself. And this represents a major change in the politics of the Islamic Republic. It wasn't so much an election, as a coup, carried out by the regime against its own people.

It is conceivable that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have won more than 60 per cent of the vote although the impression was widespread that there was a burgeoning wave of support for Mir Hossein Mousavi in the final week. But the election results were handled in a way that has to raise deep suspicions. The vote was not broken down by region which has always been the case previously. The announcement of Ahmadinejad's success and his endorsement by the Supreme Leader came much earlier than in previous contests.

But the most compelling pointer is that the security forces were heading for the streets even as the results were being announced. They surrounded the Interior Ministry and Mousavi's campaign headquarters in a way that suggests this was thoroughly organised and planned in advance. With hindsight, it looks as if the regime worked to prevent a repeat of the surprise outcomes that marked the 1997 and 2005 presidential elections.

Ever since the 1979 revolution, there have been two strands in Iran, the Islamic and the democratic. Increasingly, the Islamic strand has been less about religion than about legitimising the ruling clique. But until now, it was also possible for people to cling to the belief that the Islamic revolution was about ridding Iran of the autocracy of the Shah's time. They could believe that the government was a genuine, albeit imperfect, expression of the people's will.

That has gone, and instead, a crisis has arisen over a series of deep-seated beliefs and structures inherited from the revolution and before. These include the cherished belief that the revolution removed oppressive government and established a system of social justice consistent with the earliest forms of Shi'ism and the writings of influential thinkers such as Ali Shariati.

The regime's conduct in these elections is a reflection of its weakness. Iran's rulers could not rely on popular support so instead have had to turn to naked force, which may work in the short term but seriously undermines their legitimacy.

Those within the political establishment who clung to the ideal of an Iranian democracy, those like Mousavi, who believed that within itself, the system allowed scope for reform and renewal, have a real dilemma. For them to see young people being beaten up by the police to uphold a rigged election and to ensure the political survival of the ruling cabal is shocking.

For the opposition, the difficulty is that all of the levers of power, the structures of government and the media are in the hands of the regime.

So the candidates who lost can either demand resistance, passive or otherwise, bearing in mind that many Iranians are deeply fearful of the uncertainty and violence that could flow from a mass uprising. Or they have to knuckle under and accept an illegitimate authoritarian government, and one that is heading more and more in the direction of totalitarianism. And that is a sad and dangerous prospect.

The writer is director of the centre for Persian and Iranian studies at Exeter University and author of 'Iran: Empire of the Mind'