The significance of today’s largely abortive demonstrations for the Iran’s Green movement is exercising analysts and activists. The Islamic Republic’s security apparatus managed to stifle the opposition’s attempt to hijack the 31st anniversary celebrations of the Islamic revolution.
“It’s pretty clear that Greens everywhere will feel demoralized… The overall feeling is one of disappointment,” a well-placed Tehran source told The [London] Times. “The opposition miscalculated,” said another.
But the demonstrations were neither a victory for the regime nor a defeat for the Green movement, said Fatimeh Haghighatjoo, a former reformist member of the Majlis (Iran’s parliament).
“They had planned to prevent the protesters from participating in the event today for weeks,” she said. “We are talking about a government that is armed to its teeth and is willing to use violence.”
The regime has only “proven that it is capable of disrupting protests if they are focused [on] one place like today,” she said.
Some suggest that the events confirmed the resilience of a militarized regime that has secured the allegiance of a critical mass of the security services, contrary to suggestions that the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia are not politically monolithic and include many members sympathetic to the Green movement.
“Unfortunately, the green protesters are no match for the mullahs’ security infrastructure, personified by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia,” notes one observer. “Rumors about the regime’s death are very premature.”
The granddaughter of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 revolution, was reportedly detained in today’s 22 Bahman protests. In one respect, the Green movement’s challenge to the regime reflects an intra-elite struggle over Khomeini’s legacy.
“After Ahmadinejad took power, he promised a return to the ideals of the revolution, Washington-based analyst Rasool Nafisi says. “The return to those ideals has shown that it’s all about putting people in jail and pressuring them — like the early years of the revolution. Therefore, it dashed the hopes of those observers who were hoping for a relatively democratic system. “
Stanford University’s Abbas Milani also suggests that the Green Movement’s success and resilience is linked to the Islamic revolution’s failure failed to measure up to expectations.
“If you look at the statements of [Ayatollah Khomeini] in the months leading to the revolution, it was all about democracy. He promised a democratic government,” he says. “When the Velayat Faqih principle was [adopted], people realized that a historic promise had not been kept.”
The regime’s suffocation of the Bahman 22 protests will disappoint observers who have been suggesting that Iran is on the verge or regime change. But other analysts insist such analyses misinterpret the nature of the Green opposition.
“The ideals of the Islamic revolution are very important for most of the opposition supporters,” said Hamid Jalaeipour, a sociology professor at the University of Tehran. “This is about a fight against tyranny, not about bringing down the entire system.”
Many of the Green opposition’s purported leaders, anxious to reform rather than transcend the Islamic Republic, have been concerned at the movement’s grass roots radicalization. Mir Hossein Mousavi recently cautioned activists that calls to overthrow the constitution would damage the movement more than “the radicalism of totalitarians”.
“This is a movement that isn’t trying to make a revolution in the sense of toppling a regime,” argues Milani, director of Stanford’s Iran Democracy Project. “It’s making a revolution in trying to make a democratic change.”
In any case, he contends, the Green movement has yet to develop any real levers for forcing change and currently lacks a strategy for engaging the strategically vital oil workers that were instrumental in toppling the Shah.
“There were very strong labor strikes — that’s what really broke the back of the old regime,” Milani said. “We know from documents that when the oil industry when on strike, the regime had no choice”
But the regime is still “confronting a democracy movement that has grown larger despite an almost total lack of organization and charismatic leadership,” claims analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht. A successful Green movement challenge to the Islamic Republic would have profound consequences:
A democratic revolution in Tehran could well prove the most momentous Mideastern event since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. A politically freer Iran would bring front and center the great Islamic debate of our times: How can one be both a good Muslim and a democrat? How does one pay homage to Islamic law but give ultimate authority to the people’s elected representatives? How can a Muslim import the best of the West without suffering debilitating guilt?
The regime may have secured valuable breathing space and temporarily stalled the Green movement’s momentum. But its legitimacy is still severely tarnished and Ahmedinejad remains vulnerable.
“Even if he stays in power until the end of his term, he will be the weakest president since the revolution,” according to an Iranian analyst.