Iran's Opposition Leader Mir Hossein Mousavi
Every good political movement has a leader. South Africa had Mandela. India had Gandhi. Even 1979 Iran had Khomeini.
When protests broke out after the Iranian presidential elections this past June, that leader was supposed to be Mir Hossein Mousavi. But as time went on he was trumped by Mehdi Karroubi, who dared to speak out against abuses in prison such as torture and rape. Six months later, Karroubi has become less visible, and both reformist leaders were absent from December 7th demonstrations on Student Day, one of several public holidays normally reserved for pro-regime demonstrations that the opposition has used to hold its own rallies.
Mousavi and Karoubi at Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral in Qom, December 21
The Green Movement has its shortcomings, chief among them the lack of leadership on the part of Mousavi and Karroubi. That their stars have begun to fade is not, however, the death knell for the opposition that it may appear to be. Given the reformist campaign itself, as well as the political environment in Iran, it is no surprise that Mousavi and Karroubi have not become the reformist versions of Khomeini many may have hoped. Although the opposition is facing a leadership void that is growing with each passing day, in the long run this is a natural process that the movement needs in order to realize its true potential. Indeed, the very nature of the reformist campaign itself made it unlikely that either Mousavi or Karroubi would have emerged leaders of a new opposition movement.
To understand the roots of this leadership crisis, one needs to go back to the period before the presidential campaign. Heading into the election there was speculation that former president Khatami would run again. Many reformists thought he should and could easily defeat the vulnerable incumbent Ahmadinejad. When he opted to stay on the political sidelines, a bevy of potential reformist candidates came and passed. Eventually reformists settled on Mir Hossein Mousavi, the last Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic, who spent eight years in office during the war period with Iraq. Since 1989 Mousavi had eschewed politics for art and architecture, and was not well-known to the young reformists who later flooded the streets with chants such as "Ya Hussein, Mir-Hossein" (a dual-purpose slogan invoking the revered 3rd Shia Imam and Mousavi himself).
Karroubi, the second and initially more marginal reformist candidate for this election, was more known to potential voters, having run unsuccessfully in 2005, but was still a bit of a quixotic figure for reformists. The cleric and two-time speaker of Parliament started his own party after his failed presidential bid in 2005 and had a bold, independent streak that has both endeared him to voters (such as when he went public with allegations that rape was being used as a tool of coercion in Iranian prisons) and alienated him from more establishment-types (such as when he ran his own slate of candidates during the parliamentary elections of 2008).
In retrospect, it is remarkable that Mousavi-and after the election, Karroubi-were able to claim the mantle of leadership, however tenuously, for as long as they did. Iran is an extremely young country. Almost two-thirds of the country is under the age of 30 and have little to no memory of the Islamic Revolution where both candidates began their political careers. What do the young people who continue to march courageously through the streets have in common with these former revolutionaries-turned-reformists who are more than twice their age?
For a while the answer to this question was simple: the candidates and their supporters were opposed to Ahmadinejad. More than any other person, Ahmadinejad was the uniting force behind the opposition. More radical elements of the reformist bloc disavowed boycotting the election as they had done in 2005, worried that repeating this would open the door to another term of Ahmadinejad. Prior supporters turned against him as Iran's economy experienced skyrocketing inflation and unemployment despite record oil prices, and as the country suffered increasing international isolation and further sanctions largely due to the president's bombastic rhetoric. Despite these and other governance shortcomings, the turning point in the campaign was the televised presidential debates, the first in Iranian history.
One week before the election, Ahmadinejad squared off against Mousavi and lashed out at his political opponents. He accused high-ranking politicians (most notably Rafsanjani), their children, and even their wives of financial corruption. While this type of negative campaigning may be common in other countries, in Iran this was utterly unheard of. People were appalled by Ahmadinejad's accusations and the regime airing its "dirty laundry." Their worst fears about Ahmadinejad grew further when, in later debates, he glibly dismissed statistics showing economic decline, insisting on the accomplishments of his administration despite the facts put clearly in front of him.
After the debates, the reformist campaign gained momentum in an incredibly short time. For his part, Mousavi did gradually grow into the role of presidential candidate on the campaign trail and was helped in large part by his charismatic wife Zahra Rahnavand (the "Michele Obama" of Iran). When the election results came in and people poured into the streets in protest, they naturally turned to Mousavi. But as the political crisis carried on, and the fundamental issue gradually shifted from Ahmadinejad and a stolen election to larger questions like what direction the country was headed in, being against Ahmadinejad was simply not enough. Appearances by Mousavi and other top reformists at rallies were gradually replaced by online messages and public statements urging non-violence and supporting people's right to assembly but rarely calling for specific action or mass protests.
This is not to belittle the efforts of Mousavi and others. The regime reacted to the post-election aftermath by rounding up and arresting key reformist advisors, essentially trying to deprive reformist leaders of their support system. And we still do not know for sure whether Mousavi and others are under house arrest or what the security situation is for them. Yet Mousavi himself admitted to playing catch-up with the movement when it exploded onto the streets after the election. Given that Mousavi was less a driver and more an accidental leader of this movement, it should be no surprise that his tenure as symbolic head of the opposition has dwindled.
In light of how the reformist campaign was organized, this should not be all that surprising. The campaign drew its strength from a bottom-up, decentralized organization, best captured by the phrase "for every person, one camp" ("camp" being the word used to describe the loose political groups that formed at local levels). Part of the reason that protests and the opposition have survived six months after the election is this particular structure. Despite hundreds of arrests, show trials and brutal repression, the regime has been unable to stop the opposition. There is no way squash the green movement by severing the body from the head simply because there is no singular head. Numerous "camps" lead locally, and when people are arrested new local leaders have emerged thanks to this autonomous structure.
The particular campaign and demographic factors undoubtedly contributed to the current leadership void in Iran, but the most important and often overlooked factor in this is the political structure of Iran itself. The very idea of the Islamic Republic is a paradoxical combination of a government whose sovereignty comes both from the people and from religion. The "republican" parts of government - members of parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and president - are elected by popular vote. Candidates for these offices are subject to rigorous vetting by unelected, religious bodies of government. There is freedom to vote, but not freedom for who to vote for. People wishing to stand for office must show sufficient fealty to the regime and Supreme Leader and are routinely disqualified for their reformist leanings.
Opposition supporters at Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral in Qom, December 21
Candidates for office have always faced this screening process, but this came to an apex during Khatami's presidency when 2,000 reformist candidates were disqualified from running during the 2004 parliamentary elections. Hard-line elements of the regime that control these "supervisory" bodies continue to disqualify potentially influential reformists for fear that another reformist era could bring about the demise of the Islamic Republic. Although some reformists are allowed to stand for office in order to provide at least a façade of democracy in Iranians elections, those that pass are not a threat to the system.
Although Mousavi and Karroubi's political positions differ sharply from Ahmadinejad and other elements of the government, they are believers in the fundamental tenets of the Islamic Republic. Since the election, their positions and statements have become more radical, but in all of these they are careful to not appear overly anti-regime. In the immediate aftermath of the election this may have been acceptable. If Khamenei agreed to a re-run or overturn of the election, the masses of people on the streets would have been, temporarily at least, satisfied with that concession. But as time passes and as the opposition becomes more radicalized, the establishment-saving, reform-from-within approach that Mousavi and Karroubi favor has become less tenable.
This speaks to the fundamental issue the opposition must now confront. What is the reform movement's defining ideology? Is it to reform or rebuild? Ballots or boycotts? This question was left unanswered following Khatami's two terms in office. More radical elements were disappointed during his eight years in office and concluded that true reform could never come about under the current system. Other elements believed the structure could be salvaged, and that the only way reform could emerge was by working from within. Reformists were able to put these differences aside and come together when faced with the threat of another term of Ahmadinejad, but this question can no longer be ignored.
More radical elements take the June presidential election as evidence that reform-from-within is simply impossible. After all, reformists are seemingly not allowed in the system in the first place. Others are not yet ready to make that leap. They disagree with the direction the country has taken in recent years, but are not yet ready to give up on the Islamic Republic.
Leadership is undoubtedly important for the future success of the opposition movement, but the more fundamental issue is its very direction. Once a common direction and future strategy is decided, the leadership question can be resolved more organically, rather than trying to force reformist politicians with little in common with their grassroots support into the mold of leadership.About the author: H. Graham Underwood is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in Iranian affairs. He currently resides in Washington, DC.
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