Has Iran’s Green movement been gamed, lamely confronting a regime wise to its tactics and strategy? Or is the country’s democratic movement at an historic high, more robust than at any time over the past century?
The opposition Green movement peaked when, according to Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, three million protesters took to capital’s streets last June 15.
The protest was arguably the greatest single such mobilization in recent history, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour told a Washington meeting today.
But the reliance on street protests proved to be inherently flawed. The Green movement was committed to a strategy for which the regime had painstakingly prepared.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convinced of external plots to promote a velvet revolution in Iran, had commissioned in-depth analyses of democratic transitions in post-communist states, eager to identify appropriate strategies for frustrating or repressing such a color revolution.
“When the only play in your play book is street protests, you’re dependent on the sacrificial tendencies of your supporters,” he said, and many Green movement activists were incarcerated or intimidated into staying at home.
Nor has Mir Hussein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, the Green movement‘s nominal leaders, demonstrated any strategic astuteness or tactical innovation. Mousavi has called for the movement to reach out to labor unions, teachers and poorer Iranians, but there is little evidence that has happened.
The opposition needs to reach out to “Ali the Plumber”, engaging Iran’s working class and labor unions, Sadjadpour argued. But it’s a credit to the leaders’ decency that they have avoided cheap economic populism, he said, and it’s “a tall order” to organize strikes when the country’s labor movement “is just as amorphous as the Green movement itself.”
“There is no sign of strategic thinking or changes in organization,” he said. But that is partly due to the level of repression and constraints on communications within the movement’s leadership and between them and the wider movement.
Despite the Green movement’s shortcomings, the Islamic Republic remains in “political purgatory,” Abbas Milani insisted, as the regime has no solutions to the country’s deep-seated economic, demographic and social crises.
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini exploited Iranians’ democratic aspirations to seize power before imposing theocratic rule, said Milani. Recent research confirms that he uttered “not one word about velayat-e faqih” during his pre-revolutionary exile.
But the same coalition of forces that has pressed for democratic reform since Iran’s constitutional revolution remains robust. Its social base has never been so strong, nor its democratic discourse more polished.
While the Revolutionary Guards Corps has effectively mounted a de facto military coup, seizing control of large swathes of the economy and state, it remains politically fractured, with significant support for the Green movement within its ranks.
The economy remains the regime’s Achilles Heel, said Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iran Democracy Project. The forthcoming withdrawal of $90 billion worth of food and fuel subsidies will hit many of the country’s poor and working classes who will also resent the parallel disbursement of $40 billion in handouts to regime cronies.
President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s economic populism is not paying political dividends, said Columbia University’s Gary Sick, at least judging by the notably depleted numbers that greet his public appearances. TV footage suggests that the large crowds he attracted a year ago have dwindled to a mere handful of distracted supporters.
But Ahmedinejad has succeeded in establishing an impressively extensive network of his supporters in public positions, from the lowest level of local administrations to the apex of state power. He has in effect, supplanted the political base that his nemesis Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani enjoyed amongst government personnel.
The IRGC and Khamenei effectively stole Khomeini’s political legacy, replacing the post-revolutionary regime with their own radical second generation nizam or political order.
Nobody knows what the next flashpoint will be or which events will provide the catalyst for the next challenge to the regime, said Sick.
But the last year’s events confirm that the very nature of the Islamic Revolution has fundamentally changed, he argued. While Khomeini tried to take the military out of politics, the Revolutionary Guards are now in charge.
The regime has alienated the clergy and the tight control of the recent Khomeini anniversary celebrations show that it “doesn’t trust the street.”
The Green opposition may be on the back foot but it appears resilient. This isn’t a “bumper sticker” movement, he noted recently.
“We seem to believe that if the demonstrations are big, the regime will fall in a day, and if there are no demonstrations, the whole movement has disappeared,” he argued. “Neither of those are true. It’s not that simple.”
But the Green opposition – “a movement without a leader” – is not yet in a position to take advantage of the regime’s loss of legitimacy.
For the moment at least, it looks like another case where the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.