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What Makes Iran's Green Movement So Difficult To Read?

  • 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.

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 panned out.

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.

Iran's security forces weren't about to let the opposition take over the February 11 anniversary.
"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 interview.

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 other cities.

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 communication-technology tactics."

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 itself.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi said that what was important was that "this idea has been born."
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.

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 Iran.

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.

Understanding Iran

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 approval."

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 understanding it.

"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

Is Iran's opposition prepared for a long struggle?
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.

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."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at EsfandiariG@rferl.org

     

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