Just as the Shah inadvertently served as the best recruiter for the Islamic Revolution, so Iran’s Supreme Leader has bolstered the opposition, a Washington meeting heard today. But the Green movement is young and urgently needs development, said a former regime luminary.
The opposition needs to expand its geographical base beyond Tehran, spread its social base among ethnic minorities and the emerging labor movement, and improve its “functional organization”, drawing on the experience of other non-violent movements for democratic change, Mohsen Sazagara told a Foreign Policy Initiative meeting on prospects for regime change.
The Green movement has a strategy for engaging the mostazafan, the mass of poor Iranians to which President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has appealed with a clever and purposeful use of class rhetoric. It is preparing to hijack official celebrations on May 1, international workers’ day, highlighting workers’ concerns with factory closures and unemployment precipitated by the influx of cheap Chinese goods.
“We follow the Solidarity movement,” said Sazagara, telling workers “if you want bread, you need freedom too.”
The country is facing a “turbulent summer” of “political ferment”, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, as the end of subsidies for basic commodities threatens to spark protests among the country’s working class.
The regime’s three principal goals are to provoke fissures in the movement and fear in society, repress the movement’s social networks, and disrupt the information and broadcasting it realizes are so essential to the opposition’s decentralized structures, said the Washington-based exile.
The Revolutionary Guards’ ‘cyber army’ had hacked into and sabotaged his own website, removing the footage of his regular broadcasts into the country that, following assistance from Google, are now available again on sites like YouTube and Facebook.
The Green movement will spend the next year consolidating its networks, training activists in key organizational skills and expanding outreach to Iran’s poor, exploiting the hardships resulting from the regime’s economic mismanagement, said Sazegara.
He had devoted his youth to establishing the Islamic Republic, and now commits his time and energy to reversing the Islamic Revolution, he recently said. Credited with initiating the Revolutionary Guards, Sazegara is now an exiled critic of the Pasdaran’s growing power in political, financial, media and military spheres. He now describes the regime as “a religious dictatorship” and the Guards as “a corrupt and dangerous mafia.”
The regime is comparable to Stalin’s Soviet Union, albeit without the coherent ideology and systematic organization, said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is currently writing a biography of the Supreme Leader.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refuses to be judged according to the constitution or the principles of the Islamic Revolution and has turned against the first generation revolutionaries, many of whom have been killed, imprisoned or exiled. (“Yes, like me,” said Sazagara, a former associate of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and an architect of the Revolutionary Guards. He has since “been their guest several times,” he noted ruefully.)
“I don’t know whether the regime has weapons of mass destruction, but it has a weapon of self-destruction” said Khalaji, whose own father has fallen foul of the regime. Khamenei’s decisions since the stolen election of June 12 had undermined the regime’s legitimacy and enhanced the Green movement’s standing.
“The regime has got a lot more aggressive, and it’s going to be more aggressive in coming months,” the seminary-trained Khalaji recently said. “[Khamenei] thinks, ‘If I can have even 20-30 percent of the people with me, and have systematic pressure on the other 70 percent, I can lead for a long time and there wouldn’t be a serious threat against me,’”
But the regime has learned the lessons of the Islamic Revolution, establishing the IRGC and the basij to defend the state. The Green movement’s disparate networks are currently not well-placed to challenge this repressive apparatus, he suggested.
The Islamic Republic has indeed devoured its own and has “severe problems of replication” now that the opposition “owns the best and the brightest”, said analyst Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The regime may resemble 1930s Russia, but intellectually fertile and culturally diverse Iranians “make bad totalitarians”.
The rise of the Green movement is a fundamental challenge to a core assumption of the Obama administration’s Iran strategy, said Takeyh. Using diplomatic pressure and sanctions to bring Tehran to the negotiating table does not take into account the “questionable longevity of the regime,” he said.
In any case, “it is a strangely Marxist mistake” to believe that economic considerations will influence this regime’s behavior. Experience confirms that the Islamic Republic is prepared to take an economic hit to advance its ideological or political agenda.
The administration’s policy of engaging Tehran was knocked off course by the disputed June 12 election that, Takeyh has noted, prompting what he called a “perceptible deflation of hope” within the administration.
Given the “disappearing” diplomatic options for confronting Tehran over its nuclear program, it is striking that the administration is neither tightening the deadline for sanctions nor reaching out to help the Green movement, said Elliott Abrams, his CFR colleague.