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Interview: Iran's Green movement is revolutionary; Musavi and Karubi, have become liabilities


By Behdad Bordbar

protesters in Tehran on December 27

June 12 was the first anniversary of Iran's tenth presidential election. I had a chance to discuss the development and challenges of the Green movement with Dr Mahmood Delkhasteh.*

BB In its contemporary history, Iran experienced three major social movements: the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the oil nationalization movement (1951-1953) and the Islamic Revolution (1979). Despite this, we have been unable to establish democracy. What makes the Green movement different?

MD It is true that although the goal of all three movements was to establish freedom and independence, all failed to achieve this.  Upon closer look, however, each of these apparent failures has brought us closer to establishing democracy.  Despotism in Iran has historically had three interrelated internal bases: economic (big landownership in the rural economy and the bazaar in urban life), political (the monarchy) and cultural (the clergy).  The Shah had to abolish big landownership in the 1960s, which, in combination with the weakening of oil income and the import economy, also drastically weakened the bazaar. The monarchy was abolished in the 1979 revolution. After this, the re-emergence of dictatorship was based only on its cultural base, the clergy, which made it fragile. In order to overcome this fragility, the regime implemented a policy of crisis making (the current one being, of course, nuclear).  During the presidency of Ahmadinejad, the revolutionary guards have gradually either pushed the clergy away or deserted them. The ruling regime is the most fragile the country has ever experienced. 

The Green movement emerged within this context, which is why the regime has relied so much on brute force. It lacks virtually any legitimacy.  Now we have a government, built on a rigged election, which is thus completely paralyzed. Except from signing the agreement with Turkey and Brazil in regard to the nuclear issue, Iran has not been able to carry out any serious policy. The Green movement therefore has a greater chance of establishing democracy than ever before. However, unlike other revolutions, it suffers from a lack of visionary and decisive leadership. In other words, the leadership of the Green movement is its Achilles heel. Their aim is not to establish a democracy, but a limited form of freedom, through implementing the constitution, in which the leader has total authority over state and society. The majority of  the public want to see the end of this regime, while their leaders have remained fiercely reformist. This is the main reason for the weakening of the movement.   

Despite the brutal oppression by authorities, what makes you optimistic about future of the movement?

I am optimistic because the ruling military-financial mafia has nothing to offer to the young but threats and violence.  Their sheer ineptitude and widespread corruption at every level of state and government has made it impossible to seek, let alone implement long-term solutions. Take the Tiananmen square massacre in comparison. The Chinese government was determined not to relinquish political power, but offered them economic progress and prosperity. As a result, China has emerged as a global economic power.  Even this is not possible in Iran, due to the nature and organization of the regime. So young people are faced with a stark choice of watching their hopes for the future collapse at the bloody hands of a thoroughly corrupt regime, or replacing it with a democratic government. There are no other choices. The history of the last hundred years tells us that whenever Iranians have been faced with such a decision, they have chosen life and freedom over slow death under despotism.

However, my optimism is not permanent or absolute. This is because never power dissolves itself; it has to be dissolved again and again. In order to accomplish this, the Iranian people should abandon the vain hope of reforming this system. It is only in the death of such naive hope that revolutionary hope will be born. Unfortunately, reformist intellectuals have managed to equate the idea of revolution with violence and despotism, and reform with non-violence and democracy. This has created a climate of fear amongst the young, who are afraid to bring this movement to its logical conclusion.  As long as this politics of fear dominates the understanding of revolution, the movement cannot become widespread.

How do you characterize this movement? Do you think it is a reformist project, a civil rights movement or a revolutionary struggle?

To define a movement, we have to understand its demands within the context in which it takes place. What is being demanded of what? In this approach, situating the guiding principles as stated in demonstrations against the status quo, the Green Movement can only be considered revolutionary.  Contrast it, for example, to the American Civil Rights Movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. waged his crusade for racial equality, he justified his demands by referring to the US Declaration of Independence, which established a foundational principle that all men should be considered equal to one another. It was clear that this should include Black men and all women, but that in practice did not. But demanding the realization of the guiding principle of the country's formation did not require structural changes (i.e., revolution). It rather required the implementation of the principles that could be said to exist in the Declaration of Independence. In Iran, however, demands for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights are made within the framework of a constitution where an unelected supreme leader has absolute power over all layers of state, government and society.  The system is structurally incapable of implementing the popular demands, and thus has to be removed. This is why the nature of the Green movement is revolutionary, and why its leaders, Musavi and Karubi, have become liabilities.

The protests began to oppose a fraudulent election; the first slogan was "Where is my vote?" Why, within a few days, did the demonstrators turn from chanting slogans like 'death to dictator', ' independence, freedom, Iranian republic', to demanding regime change?

This is an interesting question.  Why would a protest against a regime that supposedly came to power as a result of one of the most popular revolutions of the twentieth century so quickly turn to demand its removal? To answer that, we have to look at the history of the revolution, particularly the first two-and-a-half years. During this time, a fierce internal battle was waged between those who demanded that Khomeini fulfill his promises, made while in exile, to support the establishment of a democratic regime, on the one hand, and those seeking to establish a religious dictatorship. This struggle ended in a coup against the elected president, A. H. Banisadr,  in June 1981.  If we define the 1979 revolution according to its declared goals (the establishment of democracy and an Islamic discourse of freedom), then since the 1981 coup the regime, lost its legitimacy with the majority of the public.  We easily can argue that since then, Iran has been run by a counter-revolutionary regime.

This is well known to the regime, which is why after Khatami's election and subsequent isolation within the regime, he not only failed to mobilize a mass movement to compensate his isolation within the regime, but even condemned the students uprising in 1998, which was spontaneously mobilized in his support.  So the spontaneous protests against last year vote rigging, in effect, just mirrored the actual nature of the public.

What do you think about rule of Iranians in Diaspora? How significant are our actions in supporting the democratic movement in Iran?

I have yet to come across a social movement, in which the Diaspora did not play a key role.  Before and during the Constitutional Revolution, the Iranian Diaspora in the Caucasus, Iraq and Europe played a major role.  This was also the case during the nationalization of oil and more effectively in the 1979 revolution, when students outside Iran participated in the struggle.  The role of Diaspora in this uprising is even more important than in the previous ones, not only because there has been a major increase in the numbers of Iranians living outside Iran, but also because the communication revolution has made it possible to communicate with Iranians inside Iran and exchange vital information.  The regime's ability to shed blood  has decreased because it can hardly hide its atrocities.  We have very few photographs of Black Friday, for example, but many film clips of individuals killed by this regime.  The coordination to expose the regime's brutality, between Iranians inside and outside Iran, is phenomenal.

The other role that the Diaspora has played is just as important as the first, if not more so.  Many exiled intellectuals have widened the intellectual field of discussion about events happening within Iran, as they say things that those living within Iran cannot. Global public opinion is also vital for the movement, as it prevents governments from making secret deals with the Iranian regime. Exiled Iranians have thus been able to help mobilize global support for the movement through sharing uncensored information.

* Mahmood Delkhasteh is an Iranian scholar and commentator. He regularly writes for the Guardian, Huffington Post and Open Democracy.

 * Behdad Bordbar is a freelance journalist working with Radio Zamaneh an Amsterdam- based Persian language radio.

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