Iran's Green Movement In The Doldrums?
By Hossein Aryan,
The events that have roiled Iran since the
disputed June 12, 2009, presidential election are unprecedented in the 31-year
history of the Islamic republic. Never before have citizens protested in such
numbers to demand their rights be respected. In spite of repression, torture,
widespread arrests and even killings by the regime, the people took to the
streets, although intermittently.
And never before have the rifts among the ruling factions been so noticeable.
An opposition supporter during protests in Tehran last June
Iran's Green Movement does not seem to be a
passing phenomenon, and it has taken both hard-line regime elements and Western
observers by surprise.
The turbulence in Iran should not be viewed as a clash between reformists with
secularist tendencies and an entrenched ruling clique. It is, rather, a power
struggle between two camps.
In one camp is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC),
and senior hard-line clerics who advocate for the status quo and a vigorous
clampdown against the protests.
"Elected institutions are anathema to a religious
government," Yazdi, who is Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, said last July, "and
should be no more than window dressing."
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
In early August, railing against protesters and opponents in a speech to the
Association of Basij Scholars in Mashhad, Ahmadinejad said: "Let the swearing-in
ceremony occur, and then we will take them by the collar and slam their heads
into the ceiling."
The opposite camp, known as the Green Movement, comprises reformists and
pragmatists who gravitate toward Mir Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi, Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, the Militant Cleric Society, and other
moderate clerics. It must not be forgotten that the leaders of this camp fully
support the Islamic regime and seek ways of reconciling the people and the
The fissures that emerged in the ranks of the political and clerical elite after
the presidential election has widened and is now more visible than ever.
Khamenei's backing of Ahmadinejad and his hasty endorsement of the election
results provoked protests that dented the legitimacy of the regime and
For the time being, the regime has surmounted the crisis over its authority, but
shadows still hang over its legitimacy. Khamenei knows that it will take more
than continued repression to maintain the security of the regime. At the same
time, though, the Green Movement made a weaker-than-expected showing on February
11, when the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic republic was
expected to serve as a pretext for mass demonstrations. Since then, the regime
has been working on new strategies to solidify its position.
Greens Are Fragmented
The Green Movement is not merely about Musavi and Karrubi. It is an amorphous
amalgamation of various groups and people, espousing a wide range of political
philosophies and goals.
Some, like Musavi, want to reclaim the revolution within the framework of the
current constitution. Others want to strengthen the elements of republicanism
and democracy within the exiting order. And there are also people within the
Green Movement who see an opportunity to do away with the Islamic regime
As a result, the Green Movement is fragmented. It
lacks the kind of structure that the anti-Shah opposition had in 1979. It is
local, sporadic, and does not have a central nervous system or a coherent
ideology. However, this should be little comfort to the regime, because the
longer the movement survives and holds together, the more it is likely to
produce its own leaders. In fact, the ability of the movement to sustain itself
and generate intermittent rallies, in spite of its fragmentation, is the most
remarkable aspect of what we have seen in Iran since last June.
However, the movement has not been able to garner broad support among bazaar
merchants, labor unions, and other social groups. Musavi emphasized this
shortcoming in his Norouz message, saying the Green Movement must expand its
reach to all segments of society.
The protests in Iran seem to be stuck in a rut, although on December 27 (Ashura)
the demonstrations spread to a number of smaller cities for the first time. But
the social composition of the demonstrators remains the same: They are largely
young (many of them are women), well-dressed, and educated with mobile phones
and Internet 2.0 skills (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
Four Layers Of Security
Nonetheless, the regime is treating the Green Movement as a serious threat to
its authority. It has four layers of security forces to maintain domestic
security, protect the regime, and deal with any unrest. The first layer is the
Law Enforcement Force (police force).
The second is the Basij Resistance Force (BRF), with
a nominal strength of 13.6 million, of which about 1.5 million men and women
with basic military and riot-control training can be easily deployed. The
backbone of this force is 1905 Ashura, 446 Al-Zahra (for women), and 259 Iman
Hussein battalions, as well as some 52,000 Karbala and Zolfaqar combat groups.
The head of the Basij militia is directly subordinate to the commander of the
Members of the IRGC listen to a speech by the
The third layer -- the most resolute group -- is the IRGC, which now numbers
120,000. As well as being a major player in the political and military arenas,
the IRGC is an economic juggernaut and the largest beneficiary of government
contracts. Many former commanders of this force have taken senior positions in
the executive branch, especially in the Intelligence and Interior ministries.
The enmity of these commanders toward the reformists or toward any effort to
change the status quo became evident in July 1999 when student protests in
Tehran convinced them (and Khamenei) that then-President Khatami's reformist
agenda was too great a threat to the Islamic regime. As a result, 24 IRGC
commanders sent Khatami a letter criticizing his reform efforts and accusing him
of endangering the revolutionary order.
In their letter, the signatories said they were reserving the right to interfere
in politics in the name of their mandate to protect the Islamic regime. The
letter was largely viewed as a direct threat of a coup, and one of the
signatories was Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the current IRGC commander.
The fourth layer of regime security is the military (Artesh), with 430,000
troops. This force, assigned to protect the country's borders, plays no
political role and is unlikely to suppress domestic unrest.
Crucial Security Arrangements
Most of the protests over the last 10 months have taken place in Tehran
Province, and security arrangements there are crucial for the regime. And the
Basij militia is playing the key role. Recently, in order to provide for better
coordination with policy in the event of unrest, the IRGC divided the Tehran
Basij into 22 units, one for each district of the capital (previously, there
were six Basij units there). Greater Tehran has a population of about 8.5
million people, while the entire province is home to about 12 million.
Overall command responsibility for dealing with
unrest in Tehran is vested in the Sarollah Headquarters, which controls two
elite divisions of the IRGC and all the Basij militia and police units in the
entire province. The IRGC's Mohammad Rasulallah Division is charged with
maintaining security throughout greater Tehran, while the Seyyed ol-Shohada
Division has responsibility for the rest of the province.
Member of the Basij militia
The Sarollah Headquarters is commanded by the head of the IRGC and acts under
the direct orders of the supreme leader. It receives intelligence from the
Intelligence Ministry, the intelligence branch of the police force, and the
newly enlarged Intelligence Organization of the IRGC itself. The latter handles
a number of tasks, including waging the cyber-campaign against the Green
Movement and foreign media that are viewed as waging a "soft-power war" against
the Islamic republic.
Encouraged by the success of the Ashura protests in December, the Greens were
expected to stage even larger protests on the February anniversary of the
founding of the Islamic republic. Musavi and Karrubi both called for people to
take to the streets for protests to coincide with the anniversary.
However, the government was well prepared this time. Khamenei denounced the
opposition as "counterrevolutionaries" who were being exploited by the country's
foreign enemies - the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. Iranians "will
punch them in their mouths to shock them," Khamenei said. In the end, the regime
held its anniversary celebrations and prevented the opposition from staging
Thorn In The Side
Though not an existential threat, the Green Movement has been a major thorn in
the side of the regime. However, the poor performance of the movement in
February indicates the regime is gaining the upper hand. Khamenei's Norouz
message to the nation, in which he condemned the protesters and those who
support them, indicated that he has regained much of his authority, although the
regime's legitimacy remains in doubt.
The regime seems to be holding the Green Movement in
check, which has activists frustrated. The Greens have no open means of
organizing their supporters, developing a long-term strategy, or airing their
views. They remain under siege. Building "the desired society requires patience,
perseverance, and endurance against the hardships and challenges ahead," Musavi
told a group of activists on April 22. "We must create a coherent civil society
using all available resources in the country."
A statue of the poet Ferdowsi sports a green
scarf in Tehran
photo by Zhubin Najafi
However, none of the outstanding issues of Iran's domestic situation that have
been highlighted by the Green Movement has been resolved, meaning that the
regime remains vulnerable. Among these issues, I'd list rivalries for power,
disagreement on the balance between religious and republican elements of the
regime, political differences among leading clerics, and disagreements on
IRGC commanders will continue to act to keep Khamenei in power, but this does
not mean that they will not consider replacing him if he is judged to be a
liability or a threat to the preservation of the regime. But the regime itself
is not a monolith, and the IRGC and the Basij are not entirely immune to the
arguments of the Green Movement or the public's bitterness at the failure of the
regime to provide freedom and prosperity.
It is always difficult to predict the future in Iranian politics, but I'd argue
the most likely scenario for the next few years could be a continuation of the
current war of attrition between the regime and the Green Movement or its
successors. The regime will continue to deny the opposition the ability to
challenge it effectively, while being unable to eliminate the sources of the
discontent fuelling the Green protests. At the same time, it would be
unrealistic to expect the demise of the regime any time soon, unless the Green
Movement develops new methods of organizing itself, capitalizing on its gains,
and broadening its appeal.
Hossein Aryan is deputy director of RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda.
The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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