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Iran's Green Movement In The Doldrums?

An opposition supporter during protests in Tehran last June
An opposition supporter during protests in Tehran last June
The events that have roiled Iran since the disputed June 12, 2009, presidential election are unprecedented in the 31-year history of the Islamic republic. Never before have citizens protested in such numbers to demand their rights be respected. In spite of repression, torture, widespread arrests, and even killings by the regime, the people took to the streets, although intermittently.

And never before have the rifts among the ruling factions been so noticeable.

Iran's Green Movement does not seem to be a passing phenomenon, and it has taken both hard-line regime elements and Western observers by surprise.

The turbulence in Iran should not be viewed as a clash between reformists with secularist tendencies and an entrenched ruling clique. It is, rather, a power struggle between two camps.

'Window Dressing'

In one camp is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and senior hard-line clerics who advocate for the status quo and a vigorous clampdown against the protests.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
"Elected institutions are anathema to a religious government," Yazdi, who is Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, said last July, "and should be no more than window dressing."

In early August, railing against protesters and opponents in a speech to the Association of Basij Scholars in Mashhad, Ahmadinejad said, "Let the swearing-in ceremony occur, and then we will take them by the collar and slam their heads into the ceiling."

The opposite camp, known as the Green Movement, comprises reformists and pragmatists who gravitate toward Mir Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, the Militant Clerics Association, and other moderate clerics. It must not be forgotten that the leaders of this camp fully support the Islamic regime and seek ways of reconciling the people and the state.

The fissures that emerged in the ranks of the political and clerical elite after the presidential election has widened and is now more visible than ever. Khamenei's backing of Ahmadinejad and his hasty endorsement of the election results provoked protests that dented the legitimacy of the regime and Khamenei's authority.

For the time being, the regime has surmounted the crisis over its authority, but shadows still hang over its legitimacy. Khamenei knows that it will take more than continued repression to maintain the security of the regime. At the same time, though, the Green Movement made a weaker-than-expected showing on February 11, when the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic republic was expected to serve as a pretext for mass demonstrations. Since then, the regime has been working on new strategies to solidify its position.

Greens Are Fragmented

The Green Movement is not merely about Musavi and Karrubi. It is an amorphous amalgamation of various groups and people, espousing a wide range of political philosophies and goals.

Some, like Musavi, want to reclaim the revolution within the framework of the current constitution. Others want to strengthen the elements of republicanism and democracy within the exiting order. And there are also people within the Green Movement who see an opportunity to do away with the Islamic regime entirely.

Mir Hossein Musavi
As a result, the Green Movement is fragmented. It lacks the kind of structure that the opposition to the shah had in 1979. It is local, sporadic, and does not have a central nervous system or a coherent ideology. However, this should be little comfort to the regime, because the longer the movement survives and holds together, the more it is likely to produce its own leaders. In fact, the ability of the movement to sustain itself and generate intermittent rallies, in spite of its fragmentation, is the most remarkable aspect of what we have seen in Iran since last June.

However, the movement has not been able to garner broad support among bazaar merchants, labor unions, and other social groups. Musavi emphasized this shortcoming in his Norouz message, saying the Green Movement must expand its reach to all segments of society.

The protests in Iran seem to be stuck in a rut, although on December 27 (Ashura) the demonstrations spread to a number of smaller cities for the first time. But the social composition of the demonstrators remains the same: They are largely young (many of them are women), well-dressed, and educated with mobile phones and Internet 2.0 skills (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

Four Layers Of Security

Nonetheless, the regime is treating the Green Movement as a serious threat to its authority. It has four layers of security forces to maintain domestic security, protect the regime, and deal with any unrest. The first layer is the Law Enforcement Force (police force).

Members of the IRGC listen to a speech by the supreme leader.
The second is the Basij Resistance Force (BRF), with a nominal strength of 13.6 million, of which about 1.5 million men and women with basic military and riot-control training can be easily deployed. The backbone of this force is 1905 Ashura, 446 Al-Zahra (for women), and 259 Iman Hussein battalions, as well as some 52,000 Karbala and Zolfaqar combat groups. The head of the Basij militia is directly subordinate to the commander of the IRGC.

The third layer -- the most resolute group -- is the IRGC, which now numbers 120,000. As well as being a major player in the political and military arenas, the IRGC is an economic juggernaut and the largest beneficiary of government contracts. Many former commanders of this force have taken senior positions in the executive branch, especially in the Intelligence and Interior ministries.

The enmity of these commanders toward the reformists or toward any effort to change the status quo became evident in July 1999 when student protests in Tehran convinced them (and Khamenei) that then-President Khatami's reformist agenda was too great a threat to the Islamic regime. As a result, 24 IRGC commanders sent Khatami a letter criticizing his reform efforts and accusing him of endangering the revolutionary order.

In their letter, the signatories said they were reserving the right to interfere in politics in the name of their mandate to protect the Islamic regime. The letter was largely viewed as a direct threat of a coup, and one of the signatories was Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the current IRGC commander.

The fourth layer of regime security is the military (Artesh), with 430,000 troops. This force, assigned to protect the country's borders, plays no political role and is unlikely to suppress domestic unrest.

Crucial Security Arrangements

Most of the protests over the last 10 months have taken place in Tehran Province, and security arrangements there are crucial for the regime. And the Basij militia is playing the key role. Recently, in order to provide for better coordination with policy in the event of unrest, the IRGC divided the Tehran Basij into 22 units, one for each district of the capital (previously, there were six Basij units there). Greater Tehran has a population of about 8.5 million people, while the entire province is home to about 12 million.

Member of the Basij militia
Overall command responsibility for dealing with unrest in Tehran is vested in the Sarollah Headquarters, which controls two elite divisions of the IRGC and all the Basij militia and police units in the entire province. The IRGC’s Mohammad Rasulallah Division is charged with maintaining security throughout greater Tehran, while the Seyyed ol-Shohada Division has responsibility for the rest of the province.

The Sarollah Headquarters is commanded by the head of the IRGC and acts under the direct orders of the supreme leader. It receives intelligence from the Intelligence Ministry, the intelligence branch of the police force, and the newly enlarged Intelligence Organization of the IRGC itself. The latter handles a number of tasks, including waging the cybercampaign against the Green Movement and foreign media that are viewed as waging a "soft-power war" against the Islamic republic.

Encouraged by the success of the Ashura protests in December, the Greens were expected to stage even larger protests on the February anniversary of the founding of the Islamic republic. Musavi and Karrubi both called for people to take to the streets for protests to coincide with the anniversary.

However, the government was well prepared this time. Khamenei denounced the opposition as "counterrevolutionaries" who were being exploited by the country's foreign enemies – the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. Iranians “will punch them in their mouths to shock them," Khamenei said. In the end, the regime held its anniversary celebrations and prevented the opposition from staging significant protests.

Thorn In The Side

Though not an existential threat, the Green Movement has been a major thorn in the side of the regime. However, the poor performance of the movement in February indicates the regime is gaining the upper hand. Khamenei's Norouz message to the nation, in which he condemned the protesters and those who support them, indicated that he has regained much of his authority, although the regime's legitimacy remains in doubt.

A statue of the poet Ferdowsi sports a green scarf in Tehran
The regime seems to be holding the Green Movement in check, which has activists frustrated. The Greens have no open means of organizing their supporters, developing a long-term strategy, or airing their views. They remain under siege. Building "the desired society requires patience, perseverance, and endurance against the hardships and challenges ahead," Musavi told a group of activists on April 22. "We must create a coherent civil society using all available resources in the country."

However, none of the outstanding issues of Iran's domestic situation that have been highlighted by the Green Movement has been resolved, meaning that the regime remains vulnerable. Among these issues, I'd list rivalries for power, disagreement on the balance between religious and republican elements of the regime, political differences among leading clerics, and disagreements on economic policies.

IRGC commanders will continue to act to keep Khamenei in power, but this does not mean that they will not consider replacing him if he is judged to be a liability or a threat to the preservation of the regime. But the regime itself is not a monolith, and the IRGC and the Basij are not entirely immune to the arguments of the Green Movement or the public's bitterness at the failure of the regime to provide freedom and prosperity.

It is always difficult to predict the future in Iranian politics, but I'd argue the most likely scenario for the next few years could be a continuation of the current war of attrition between the regime and the Green Movement or its successors. The regime will continue to deny the opposition the ability to challenge it effectively, while being unable to eliminate the sources of the discontent fuelling the Green protests. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to expect the demise of the regime any time soon, unless the Green Movement develops new methods of organizing itself, capitalizing on its gains, and broadening its appeal.

Hossein Aryan is deputy director of RFE/RL’s Persian-language Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL