By Tara Mahtafar,
WASHINGTON-The unprecedented violence in Iran seen in the December 27 Ashura protests-which was committed by the regime and the opposition-showcased the emboldened opposition movement's capacity for civil disobedience as well as a decline in both the psychological and physical effectiveness of the regime's repressive security forces.
poster for Ashura protests
While nine protesters were slain and dozens
injured, protesters managed to corner the black-clad anti-riot guards that
Iranians call "Robocops," capture and disarm a number of security forces, knock
basij forces off motorbikes, and set fire to police vehicles. For many Iranians,
Ashura marked a milestone in the opposition's tenacity and scale. However, the
dynamics that have sustained the anti-government movement this far, although
well-developed, have led to a glaring deficiency that is beginning to raise
The opposition, which relies on a decentralized grassroots network (both web-based and at a local level) for organization and communication, faces the danger of erosion once the current strategy of staging demonstrations on a pre-set "calendar" (December's Ashura, November's Students Day, September's Jerusalem Day, and the upcoming 1979 revolution anniversary in February) runs out of dates. This is especially a problem, as isolated protests are unlikely to pressure Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hard-line ruling bloc to back down. It is likely that if the opposition's campaign fails to yield a resolution by the one-year mark of the 2009 elections, the impetus to go on may peter out or the movement may abandon its principle of nonviolence and be driven underground and radicalized into armed struggle.
A grave flaw weakening Iran's democratic movement today is a lack of concrete leadership. Mir Hossein Moussavi, the movement's figurehead, is a very different leader from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-a fact that testifies to the increased political sophistication of Iranian society today. Moussavi is pushing for reform rather than revolution, and thus does not urge people to pour out into streets on a regular basis. Moussavi sells no ideology nor holds Khomeini's idol-like status and charisma among religious Iranians. While Khomeini sent messages to his public from the safety of Paris, Moussavi is under close surveillance in his Tehran home and in danger of being arrested.
Finally, Moussavi's role as leader is largely
symbolic-a point he has often repeated in his seventeen formal declarations
released to date. As early as June 20, Moussavi stated, "I believe that the
motivation and creativity of people can pursue and attain your legitimate rights
through new civil personalities. Stay assured that I will remain next to you,"
and, "The people's movement chose green as its symbol. I confess that in this, I
In another statement on September 5, Moussavi emphasized the responsibility that social networks must shoulder in propelling the movement forward: "Today, what plays the strongest role in our society is a capable and self-evolving social network that has stretched among a large group of people. . . . As a response to questions like what do we do, what I suggest is the consolidation of this social network."
Although some fault Moussavi's hands-off leadership style, most opposition supporters laud the critical function he has served: initiating public charges of electoral fraud, maintaining a firm commitment to standing up to the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad axis, widening the rift within the elite, and consolidating the opposition under the banner of the nonviolent pro-democracy Green Movement. As its symbolic leader, Moussavi retains the authority to call mass demonstrations at will, if he chooses to call for more protests beyond the aforesaid strategic calendar. But in terms of delineating a blueprint for democratic transition, or of furthering the scope and efficiency of the movement, he is unable or unwilling to lead more actively at present.
A second weakness that Moussavi's role as sole leader poses for the movement is that his arrest would create a difficult-to-fill political void that could dampen the opposition's morale and slow down its progress.
The grassroots network that the opposition has cultivated and is sustained by-a large part of which is web-based-provides a decentralized but ready platform for Iranians inside Iran to collaborate with the Iranian political community based abroad. Prominent public figures, such as Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and ex-Revolutionary Guards architect Mohsen Sazegara, who have been politically active in the post-election aftermath, as well as former Islamic Republic parliamentarians and ministers and even dissident clerics, are in an unrestricted position to use this network to form a coalition of leadership based outside of Iran.
Such a coalition would not supplant Moussavi as de facto leader, but would supplement the effort spearheaded by reformist leaders (Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami) inside the country.
By projecting a unified voice that represents strong political clout and a democratic mission, this type of coalition could plug into the grassroots base of the movement in Iran and provide it with the centralized superstructure it currently lacks. By establishing a presence accessible via the Internet and satellite television, the coalition can introduce a higher level of organization to the beleaguered and fettered opposition.
Without presuming to "direct" the course of the movement (an act that would lend credence to the Iranian regime's accusations of plots to overthrow the system), the coalition's web/satellite platform can supply a space for discourse to occur on vital issues that are not yet being addressed in any coherent way: the movement's core demands as well as goals and aspirations for the democratic Iran it is striving toward.
Panels and roundtables can bring Iranian economists, academics, and political analysts before the opposition audience to discuss various topics related to the ways in which Iran is currently being governed and executively managed. Experts can debate solutions to existing problems-including the nuclear conflict, economic policies, and relations with the region and the international community.
The vibrant opposition, mainly composed of Iran's majority youth and urban middle class, has proved its capacity in braving attacks, imprisonment, torture, and deaths, but lacks the resources and freedom for growth, organization, and development of clear goals and vision, due to the severe limitations within the country. The Iranian expatriate political community, however, can work together to establish an effective platform to serve this vital function.
Tara Mahtafar is the managing editor of PBS Frontline's Tehran Bureau. Now based in Washington, she worked as a journalist in Tehran for several years until August 2009.
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