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Iran's Protest Movement Must Prepare for the Morning After

By Nader Habibi

Summary: After December 20th Iran's protest movement has entered a more violent and unpredictable phase. One of the many possible courses of events in the next few months is a sudden regime collapse which can plunge the country into revolutionary chaos. The Green Movement must draft a plan for governing the country during a temporary transition period after such an unexpected regime collapse.

Before the death of Ayatollah Montazeri on December 20th most analysts believed that Iran's protest movement was moving at a slow pace and it was primarily a student protest movement that was contained to university campuses.  The political events after December 20th however, point to a significant escalation and broadening of the movement. In the past ten days protests have spread to city streets and large numbers of non-students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds have participated in the protests. The level of violence security forces against the protesters has also increased sharply in recent days and in some occasions has provoked violent reactions by the protestors.

Furthermore, unlike previous protests in which the level of violence was limited to injuries, the December 27 protests (on the occasion of Ashura) resulted in at least 8 fatalities and hundreds of injuries. The funeral and 7th day remembrance ceremonies for these fallen protestors will lead to fresh mass protests in the next few weeks and will increase the risk of further escalation.

Based on the experience of similar mass protest movements in other parts of the world in recent decades, what is certain at this stage of the political struggle in Iran is that the course of events in the next few weeks is completely uncertain.  It is possible that the struggle can drag on for several weeks and even months. It is also possible that the Islamic regime in its current structure might collapse suddenly, much sooner than anyone is currently anticipating.

Several plausible scenarios can lead to a sudden regime collapse. One scenario is that a number of prominent cleric leaders (Grand Ayatollahs) who have been silent up until now might reject the legitimacy of the current government and declare cooperation with the regime un-Islamic. Such a Fatwa (declaration) can trigger a wave of desertions among the Baseej and Revolutionary Guards, and lead to a regime collapse within a few days.

Another possible scenario is an internal rift among the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards that will diminish the ability of the ruling regime to suppress the violence and will hence allow the protestors to occupy several strategic government buildings. This development will trigger a chain reaction that can also result in a regime collapse within a short period of time (a few days.) 

Yet a third scenario that one can imagine is a sudden increase in the number of protest casualties which can intensify the public anger and motivate thousands of silent observers to join the ranks of protestors. As a result, the number of protesters will increase from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands or even millions. This sudden increase in size of protests can overwhelm and demoralize the regime supporters and lead to a quick regime collapse.

Overall, while the future of the protest movement is completely uncertain the possibility of a sudden regime collapse in the near future can not be ignored. The leaders of the Green movement and Iranian intellectuals who support the current protest movement must start thinking and planning for the aftermath of such a sudden regime collapse.  What are they going to do the morning after?

The experience of the first few months after the collapse of Shah's regime can offer some insight. Despite the fact that the revolutionary movement at that time had a clear leader (Ayatollah Khomeini) the first few months were chaotic. Public properties were looted or damaged. Large quantities of light weapons were stolen from military warehouses and revolutionary vigilantes killed hundreds of people for cooperation with the Pahlavi regime. After a very short period of revolutionary solidarity factional fighting for political power broke out. It took several years for one faction (the current Islamic regime) to gain full control and restore stability. Even then the stability was brought about by massive violence and at the expense of democracy and freedom.

The chaos that follows a sudden regime collapse under current conditions of Iran can be even more damaging than the 1979 Islamic revolution. The reason for this claim is that the Green Movement is a decentralized movement with no single universally accepted leader. There is also a possibility that the current informal leaders of the movement (Mr. Musavi and Mr. Karrubi) will be assassinated before a regime collapse.

It is therefore necessary for the intellectuals and political activists (both inside and outside of Iran) who support the protest movement to cooperate in preparing a plan for maintenance of social order and prevention of chaos in the event of a sudden regime collapse. A key element of such a plan is the clear articulation of the democratic and inclusive nature of the political system that is advocated by the protest movement. This step will encourage positive and cooperative behavior by the largest number of people because of the inherent fairness and equal rights that that most people associate with a democratic political system. Furthermore, in light of the ethnic, cultural and ideological diversity of Iran's population, a democratic vision is the only arrangement that can promote social and political stability.

It is also important to present this democratic vision of Iran's future political system to the people as soon as possible and increase public awareness of this vision before a possible regime collapse. Raising democratic awareness is necessary so that if and when the existing political order crumbles there will be enough mass support for democracy to discourage people from joining extremist groups which reject democracy. It was the mass appeal of democracy in Eastern European countries that allowed for an orderly transition to democracy when their ruling communist regimes collapsed in 1989.

Another important step that must be taken as soon as possible is to develop a network for exchange of ideas among active members of the protest movement on how the government institutions will be maintained during a temporary transition period before fair and democratic referendums can be held on a new constitution. This network can then elect a committee to develop a detailed plan for governance of the country during the transition period after a regime collapse.

The exact details of such a plan are beyond the scope of this brief article but in addition to domestic affairs it must also include clear recommendations for preserving  the country's defensive capabilities. In 1979 the revolutionary forces were so preoccupied with the danger of a military counter-revolutionary coup that they severely weakened Iran's defense institutions. It was this internal assault on military that emboldened Saddam Hussein to attack Iran. The external hostilities toward Iran are now more severe than 1979 and the country will face many dangers if its core defense forces are weakened during the initial chaos that usually follows a regime collapse.

Another adverse consequence of revolutionary chaos that will follow a sudden regime collapse in the absence of a well designed plan is the likelihood of foreign intervention in Iran's political affairs. By offering support for one faction of the other foreign powers can increase their influence but the impact on Iran will be a political outcome similar to Iraq or Afghanistan-a fragmented and weak central government that will remain vulnerable to foreign intervention and factional feuds.

About the author: Nader Habibi is a faculty of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

... Payvand News - 12/29/09 ... --

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