What Makes Iran's Green Movement So Difficult To Read?
By Golnaz Esfandiari,
Despite predictions of their impending fall, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
(right) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have remained firmly in the
driver's seat in Iran.
Since Iran erupted into political crisis nearly a
year ago, there has been no shortage of predictions regarding the course the
country would take.
Some insisted the opposition movement whose ranks swelled after the June
presidential election would quickly fade. Others claimed the mass street
protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection would result in the
collapse of the Islamic establishment.
Eleven months after the contentious vote, neither of those predictions has
Street protests have declined, but the opposition movement has proved resilient.
Despite a crackdown that led to the death of more than 70 people and the arrests
of several hundreds, opposition leaders have remained true to their stance that
the election was stolen.
The Iranian establishment, meanwhile, has remained firmly in power -- due in
large part to its increased reliance on its security apparatus.
Turning Point That Wasn't
The February 11 anniversary of Iran' s 1979 Islamic Revolution highlighted just
how far off the mark some forecasts have been.
Iranians traditionally come out in droves to celebrate the annual state holiday.
A number of observers suggested that this year's events would mark a turning
point in the postelection crisis, predicting that 3 million opposition
supporters would take to the streets.
Even informed analysts, such as the U.S.-based Mohsen Sazegara, who helped found
the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps 30 years ago, predicted the anniversary
would pave the way for a "final action" against the Iranian government.
"On February 11, the people of Iran will show they
are not afraid of what the government has done in the last step, what we call
the second wave of brutality of the regime. So after February 11, the balance of
power will be changed between the nation and the regime; the nation will be more
powerful," "Foreign Policy" magazine quoted Sazegara as saying in a February 8
Iran's security forces
weren't about to let the opposition take over the February 11 anniversary.
Instead, the day turned out to be a huge disappointment for the opposition. The
establishment went on the offensive, preventing the anticipated show of force by
the opposition, and only scattered protests were reported in Tehran and several
The Regime Fights Back
It has proved nearly impossible to assess the strength of the Iranian regime
from afar, says Geneve Abdo, director of the Iran program at The Century
Foundation, a public-policy research institution headquartered in New York. And
underestimations, she suggests, are a key reason why many predictions have
missed the mark.
In the weeks following the election, Iranians did turn out en masse in Tehran
and other cities to voice their conviction that Ahmadinejad's victory the result
of massive fraud. In the capital, some demonstrations were estimated to have
been 3 million strong.
But the Iranian establishment eventually gained the upper hand. "What happened
after that quickly -- as it has happened historically -- is that the state, they
regrouped," Abdo explains. "They increased the presence of the Revolutionary
Guard, the Basij, they made a plan.
"And, as we know, they're very strategic, so what happened, by February the
whole situation had changed. In those intervening months the regime had figured
out how to completely intimidate the population. They arrested people, they
tortured people, they committed gross human rights violations to intimidate the
population, and they also increased dramatically not only the security presence
on the ground but they also became a lot more sophisticated in
As exhibited on February 11, all the strategizing by the Iranian establishment
made it difficult for the opposition to repeat the showings of support they had
had in the summer.
Searching For A Leader
But it isn't the only reason. The opposition's own lack of centralized
leadership appears to have contributed to the smaller-than-expected turnout in
February, and to the difficulties in predicting the course of the Green Movement
As prominent Tehran-based analyst Abbas Abdi noted
in a March interview, any movement without a real leader acts chaotically. "For
example, [when] people come to the street, the police attack them. One of them
escapes; one stays and is being beaten by the police, and one beats the police.
Each of them decides on his own," Abdi was quoted as saying in an interview with
the Persian service of Deutsche Welle.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein
Musavi said that what was important was that "this idea has been born."
Akbar Mahdi, a professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, says
different voices within the movement make it difficult to determine its true
message. "Because this is a very open movement that hasn't found its form yet, a
number of opportunists have come forward -- making it hard to say who's right
and who's wrong, who's real or fake," he says.
In recent months, various dissidents, political activists, and intellectuals
outside Iran have posed as spokespeople for the Green Movement. On occasion,
they have expressed demands -- calls for a national strike, for instance -- that
have not been endorsed by the leaders of the opposition movement within Iran.
And the problem is that some Western journalists, analysts, and politicians have
been relying heavily on them as sources for information on the goings-on inside
Abdo says all Iranians have such a stake in the outcome of the crisis, and that
there is a tendency to predict what one wishes for rather than what is likely to
be in realistic terms. "I think what happens to Iranians who come out of Iran --
even those who have been here only a year -- is that they project onto these
situations their analyses what they hope for, rather than what is existing in
reality," she says.
Abdo, who has covered Iran for many years, says that Iran -- because of its many
inherent contradictions -- is "interesting but also so difficult to understand."
She notes that Iran "was supposed to be a republic, but they don't have free and
fair elections, and public opinion doesn't have as great a role as in what we
know to be republics. You have a state founded upon religion, but the state
actions are very un-Islamic. You have a state that has been created on an
ideology that's in confrontation with the West, but to some degree seeks Western
Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, says that one
has to put the Green Movement in its historical context in order to begin
"The roots of this movement in the past are in the historical gap between the
majority of the people who want democracy, and a minority who want Iran to be
ruled by a religious dictatorship," Milani says. "This [gap] and the
incapability of the regime in solving the basic problems of the society,
including economic issues, and the fact that Iranian leaders did not keep their
promises that clerics would not interfere in politics -- all of these factors
will also guarantee the continuation of this movement until it reaches its
demand. And that is democracy in Iran."
Fighting The Long Fight
Analysts believe key factors such as leadership, and
momentum, and coordination will determine the future. Mir Hossein Musavi, who
finished a distant second to Ahmadinejad in the contentious election that
prompted Iran's political crisis, appears unbowed by the challenges ahead.
Is Iran's opposition prepared for a long
In February, Musavi said that the strategy of the Green Movement was to boost
public awareness. "Any change requires awareness throughout the society," Musavi
said in an interview with the "Kaleme" website, which supports him. He added
that street public awareness was not boosted by streets protests alone.
Just this week, he expanded on his comments to a group of reformists in East
Azerbaijan Province. "It is impossible to deny the roots of this movement. This
movement will lift the veils of ignorance," "Kaleme" quoted Musavi as saying on
May 3. "The greatest achievement is when [we see that] the nation reaches a
consensus on various occasions. What matters is that this idea has been born."
Musavi went on to cite the need for "new ways for connecting the body of the
movement to the [reformist] leaders, the reformist parties' interaction with the
people, and specific regional issues," according to the website.
Whatever strategy is pursued, it is apparent that it will take time to
implement. As well-known political activist Habibollah Peyman said last month,
most people have now realized that "the transition from a society grappling with
various forms of dictatorship to a free, healthy, and democratic body is a
long-term and gradual transformation."
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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