Think Again

Think Again: Iran’s Green Movement

Think Again: Iran’s Green Movement

"The Green Movement Is Winning."

Yes, but over time. The answer depends on what "winning" means. One thing Western observers should have learned from 30 years of second-guessing Iran and Iranians is that second-guessing Iran and Iranians is often a mistake, and predicting the imminent demise of the Islamic theocracy is unrealistic.

What is evident is that if we consider Iran’s pro-democracy "green movement" not as a revolution but as a civil rights movement — as the leaders of the movement do — then a "win" must be measured over time. The movement’s aim is not for a sudden and complete overthrow of Iran’s political system. That may disappoint both extremes of the American and Iranian political spectrums, left and right, and especially U.S. neoconservatives hoping for regime change.

Seen in this light, it’s evident that the green movement has already "won" in many respects, if a win means that many Iranians are no longer resigned to the undemocratic aspects of a political system that has in the last three decades regressed, rather than progressed, in affording its citizens the rights promised to them under Iran’s own Constitution.

The Islamic Republic’s fractured leadership recognizes this, as is evident in its schizophrenic reaction to events since the disputed June election. Although the hard-liners in power may be able to suppress general unrest by sheer force, the leadership is also aware that elections in the Islamic state can never be held as they were in 2009 (even conservatives have called for a more transparent electoral system), nor can the authorities completely silence opposition politicians and their supporters or ignore their demands over the long term.

It augurs well for eventual democratic reform in Iran that the green movement continues to exist at all. Despite all efforts by the authorities to portray it as a dangerous counterrevolution, the green movement continues to attract supporters and sympathizers from even the clergy and conservative Iranians.

"The Green Movement Is Radicalizing."

Only in part. It’s important to remember that Iran’s green movement began well before protests broke out in June 2009. The origins were in the mowj-e-sabz, also known as the "green wave," a campaign to support the presidential bid of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ran against conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The green wave’s goals were to wrest the presidency and executive power away from radical hard-liners whose term in office had been marked by economic incompetence, foreign-policy adventurism, and an ideological doctrine that included new limits on civil rights and that Mousavi’s supporters believed was unsuited to Iranian interests in the 21st century.

After the disputed election results, the green movement morphed from a political campaign into a campaign to annul the presidential election — and then, more broadly, into a movement to restore the civil liberties promised by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. With every instance of recent government tyranny, from show trials of opposition politicians and journalists to the beatings and murders of some demonstrators on Iran’s streets, the movement has grown more steadfast in its demands for the rights of the people.

Over time, and particularly with the government’s continued use of brutal force against its citizens, some Iranians are no longer satisfied with the stated goals of the green movement, but are looking to topple the Islamic regime altogether. For instance, we hear in the Western media many instances of Iranians clamoring for an "Iranian," rather than Islamic, republic (a call that Mousavi has disavowed) or for "death to the supreme leader." Meanwhile we see on YouTube and our TVs footage of Iranians violently confronting security forces.

However, the radical elements claiming to be a part of the green movement only speak for a small minority of Iranians. The majority still want peaceful reform of the system and not necessarily a wholesale revolution, bloody or otherwise. That’s why, in the most recent Ashura demonstrations, for example, large groups of peaceful marchers actually prevented some of the movement’s radicalized elements from beating or attacking security forces. Although accurate polling information is not available, based on what we hear and see of the leaders of the green movement and many of its supporters, radicalization is still limited to a minority of protesters.

The green movement’s leaders recognize that any radicalization on their part will only bring down the state’s iron fist. They are also cautious because they know that if movement leaders call for regime change rather than reform and adherence to the Constitution, they will only have proven the government’s assertion that the movement’s goal all along has been to topple the system.

"The Revolutionary Guards Will Do Anything to Keep Khamenei in Power."

Don’t bet on it. The Revolutionary Guards are tasked with protecting the legacy of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its embodiment in the vali-e-faqih, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Guard’s top leaders are military men who have served many years in the ranks and as such are unlikely to disobey the orders of their commander in chief. Their view, as they have expressed repeatedly in public fora, is that the green movement and its leaders are a threat to the revolution and to the supreme leader. But they are probably more concerned with protecting the position of the leader (and their own power and pervasive influence in Iranian business and politics) than they are in protecting a particular individual.

There are many former top commanders of the Guards, such as Mohsen Rezai (a defeated candidate in the presidential election), Mohammad Qalibaf (Tehran’s popular mayor), and Ali Larijani (speaker of the parliament), who oppose Ahmadinejad (and have influence with the Guards), but have not so far challenged the supreme leader. That doesn’t mean, though, that they would not look to replace Khamenei should it become apparent that he is an obstacle to the regime’s stability. Although any moves against the supreme leader are highly unlikely at this point (and he still has the support of the majority of the members of the Assembly of Experts, the body that elects, monitors, and can even impeach him), that doesn’t mean that such a challenge could never happen.

"The Time for Compromise Is Over."

Not in Iran, it ain’t. The supreme leader, the Revolutionary Guards, and almost all of the hard-liners in government have said that they will tolerate no more dissent; they have said that there will be no compromise and that the green movement’s demands will not be met. But that doesn’t actually mean that some form of compromise isn’t possible.

For starters, the green movement’s leaders may recognize that they could become irrelevant if they are unwilling to either become more revolutionary (as some of their supporters already have), or compromise to protect the longevity of their movement as a civil rights campaign.

On Jan. 1, Mousavi listed the green movement’s demands on civil rights and other reforms, but significantly he was no longer calling for an annulment of the 2009 election. Meanwhile, at the most recent meeting of the Expediency Council, the body that arbitrates disputes between Iran’s executive and legislative branches, Mohsen Rezai, the conservative challenger to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election, suggested that the government should listen to Mousavi’s demands, describing them as "constructive." (Some Iran observers say the green movement is leaderless and argue that a headless movement will ultimately fail. And yet we’re still hearing chants of "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" at every protest. That’s Mousavi.)

Both sides realize that the continuing unrest threatens the country’s stability and that neither side is looking to reform the regime into oblivion. The current standoff makes no one happy. The odds aren’t horrible that some form of compromise might occur in 2010, a compromise that would allow both sides to claim advances if not outright victory.

"The Green Movement Wants or Needs Foreign Support."

Dead wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is insulting and patronizing to suggest, as many commentators do, that without foreign help or support the green movement cannot be successful, that Iranians on their own are incapable of commanding their own destiny.

U.S. President Barack Obama has so far expressed only moral support for Iranians fighting for their civil rights and has rightly articulated the unrest in Iran as a purely Iranian affair. Lacking relations with Iran, Obama can do little to help the green movement, but plenty to hurt it. Coming out squarely on the side of the opposition in Iran is likely to undermine its credibility, and perhaps even lend credence to the government’s assertion that the movement is a foreign-inspired plot that will rob Iran of its independence.

That the green movement has survived, and even grown, in the absence of foreign support (even moral support in its inception) is evidence that Iranians are perfectly capable of maintaining a civil rights movement and agitating for democratic change without the prodding, influence, or support of foreigners. Furthermore, if there is only one aspect of the Islamic Revolution that almost all Iranians can agree on as positive, it’s that key events, such as the spontaneous unrest after the election and all the way back to the revolution itself, have happened independent of foreign influence.

The most potentially damaging accusation the government has made against the green movement is that it is a foreign plot to foment a "velvet" or "color" revolution that will once again render Iran subservient to a greater power. But this accusation has not stuck because the movement’s leaders have always eschewed any foreign support and framed their fight as a purely Iranian one.

The idea that foreign support is either necessary or important to the green movement’s ability to achieve its goals is as preposterous as imagining, say in 1965, that overt Soviet support of the civil rights movement in the United States was necessary for that movement to be successful.

For observers sitting in the United States or anywhere outside Iran, it is tempting to draw conclusions about the green movement or even the health of the Islamic regime based on what little information we are able to gather and what various analysts believe, given the extreme restrictions Iran has placed on journalists and reporting from Iran. However, Iran often defies expectations and has proven maddeningly immune from adhering to conventional wisdom. Listen to an Iranian exile opposed to the Islamic regime for five minutes and you’ll be convinced that the regime’s days are numbered not in years, but in months. Listen to a regime apologist for five minutes and you might be persuaded that Western powers are indeed fomenting the revolt and that the government will weather the storm and emerge as powerful as ever.

The truth, of course, always lies somewhere in between. The green movement is most definitely real, cannot be completely suppressed, and will undoubtedly have a long-term effect on the politics of the Islamic Republic. What began with the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 has finally culminated in a civil rights movement that by any name will continue to put pressure on the regime to reform, pressure that it can only ignore at the peril of its own demise.