Turning Point: Where is the Green Movement headed?
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
02 Jan 2010 03:39
First off, let's be realistic. Many Iranians would like to believe that the hardline regime is in its death throes. But such optimism must be tempered. The hardliners' ability to maintain power through force has not been diminished and is likely to outlast the Islamic Republic's crisis of legitimacy. The struggle for democracy in Iran is a Marathon, not a sprint. There is still a long way to go.
Reports indicate that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has moved anti-riot armored vehicles into Tehran and other large cities. This means that although the Green Movement is much stronger than at its inception, the near future may not bring an all-out victory or defeat, but cycles of unrest and repression, unless the Movement takes its next steps carefully and realistically. What are those steps?
First and foremost, the Green Movement must continue to act in a nonviolent manner. The call for nonviolence has angered some. Perhaps they don't realize that the nonviolent nature of the Green Movement has been the most important reason for its success so far.
It should also be noted that there is a vast difference between self-defense -- which is legitimate -- and adopting violence as a tactic, which can only hurt the Green Movement. The former scenario means that the Movement defends itself -- physically, if necessary -- when attacked; the latter implies that the Movement goes on the offensive and employs force and violence. The two are not identical.
But how would violence hurt the Green Movement?
First, if violence is imposed on the hardliners, they will fight to the end, simply because they have no place to go. When Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was being toppled thirty years ago, his core supporters could move to Europe or the United States -- and many did. There are no such options for the hardliners. They have no place to go. I doubt that even the government or people of Syria or Shiite-controlled areas of Lebanon or Iraq will be hospitable toward them.
Add to this the mentality of many of the top IRGC commanders who believe that they should have been killed more than two decades ago in the Iran-Iraq war and who look upon their survival as a sort of "bonus." Many have no fear of losing their lives, which makes them even more dangerous. They will not don women's clothing to escape Iran the way Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic's first president, did after he was sacked in June 1981. I believe most, if not all of them would refuse exile, even if they had such an option (which they do not).
In September 2007 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the unusual step of abruptly replacing the top IRGC commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi and replacing him with Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari. Why? Because General Jafari firmly believes that the West wants to create a "velvet revolution" in Iran to overthrow the Islamic Republic. As one of his first acts, General Jafari decentralized the decision-making process for the IRGC commanders by creating 31 local command centers in the 31 provincial capitals around the country. He made it clear that he was taking that step to be better prepared to confront the "internal enemy." He said he viewed the "internal threat" more dangerous than the external one, another indication that the IRGC was prepared for battle.
Second, if the Green Movement turns to violence, we may see Tehran's equivalent of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre in China, when thousands were slaughtered by the Chinese army. Indeed, China has supplied the IRGC with the same anti-riot armored vehicles that it used on the students. We should keep in mind that the Chinese democratic movement was also very strong at the time (although provocations by foreign countries were also influential in those events); after the slaughter, however, the movement was essentially destroyed. In summary, the IRGC is ready to fight to the end, should the Green Movement resort to force.
Third, the fact that a Tienanmen-style event has not yet occurred, may indicate that even within the higher IRGC echelons there is a split on how to deal with the crisis. If the IRGC high command had been unified, we would have probably seen the use of violence on a much larger scale. At the same time, we have not witnessed the arrest of some key figures yet.
After former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was supposedly defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of the 2005 presidential election, Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly told him, "If you had won the election, the IRGC would have assassinated you." So the fact that Rafsanjani and the people around him, who are deeply despised by many of the hardliners, have still not been arrested may be yet another strong indication that the IRGC high command is not unified. We should keep in mind that after Banisadr's 1981 ouster, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointed Rafsanajani as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces until the end of the war, which enabled him to foster close relations with many of the young IRGC commanders who are now in high positions.
Similarly, despite much rhetoric against Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former president Mohammad Khatami, they have not been arrested yet, even though the hardliners at the top of the IRGC command, such as Brigadier General Yadollah Javani (head of the political directorate of the IRGC), General Jafari, and Brigadier General Seyyed Masoud Jazayeri (deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces), have repeatedly called for their arrest, as well as the arrest of Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, the leftist cleric who is viewed by the hardliners as the key figure behind the scene.
We should add to this the fact that the regular army has been totally silent. The only notable figure who has spoken out is the chief of staff of the armed forces, Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, a close friend of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khamenei (who was the president at the time) frequently visited the war front and forged a friendship with some of the commanders, including General Firoozabadi [who is actually a physician]. But, aside from him, the regular army has been completely silent.
Fourth, violently confronting the IRGC and the Basij militia might lead to a civil war, pitting the people and possibly a large part of the regular army against the IRGC and Basij. Given that ethnic minorities make up a significant portion of the population, and have been suffering for decades (before and after the 1979 Revolution) as a result of cultural and economic discrimination at the hands of the central government, a large-scale confrontation between the people and the armed forces may stoke separatist tendencies among them. It is certainly true that the vast majority of the people consider themselves first and foremost Iranian, then a Turk, Kurd, Lor or other ethnicity, but there are also extremists among ethnic minorities who harbor separatist tendencies, and are supported by foreign powers, in particular Israel.
A group based in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan, that refers to Iran's Azerbaijan provinces as "southern Azerbaijan," advocates a merger with the Republic of Azerbaijan -- never mind that it was the Republic that was actually part of Iran up until 1828. The group was treated with political significance by the George W. Bush administration.
Another group called the Ahwaz Liberation Organization, which says it wants to liberate "Arab Khuzestan" from Iran, is reportedly supported by British agents.
Then, there is the Jundallah group that claims to fight on behalf of the Baluchi people. Though it says that it harbors no separatist claims, one can never be sure what may happen if Iran is thrown into total chaos, particularly given the support that the United States is believed to have provided it. Add to this the fact that right-wing Israeli politicians, and even academics in the United States (such as Bernard Lewis of Princeton University), have spoken favorably about breaking Iran up for years. Israel, in particular, has been active in Iraq's Kurdistan for years.
We must keep in mind that more than three decades ago, when the 1979 Revolution was gathering steam, the Cold war was at its height, Iran was in the Western camp and shared a long border with the Soviet Union. Therefore, its territorial integrity was guaranteed. In the event of a conflict now, I am not sure that would be the case. Perhaps the only factor that can prevent such a potential danger is for the Green Movement to remain nonviolent.
It is often claimed by those who support economic sanctions against Iran that they can eventually lead to the downfall of the Islamic Republic. The example often cited to bolster their argument is South Africa. Aside from the fact that there have been many cases in which sanctions had no effect -- Iraq, Cuba and North Korea, to name just a few -- the apartheid regime gave up power in South Africa because the White minority came to realize that resisting the Black majority would be futile and lead to a loss of political and economic power anyway. At the same time, the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela and his comrades, had assured the White leaders that there would be no campaign of revenge against them. Sanctions actually played only a small part in bringing down the apartheid regime.
Similarly, the split in the IRGC high command, and the silence of the regular army, must be used to advantage. The rank and file of the armed forces and the Basij militia must come to the realization that the rule of the hardliners is no longer tenable, and that if the confrontation continues, they will eventually lose everything and be faced with nowhere to go. That will not be possible if the Green Movement turns violent. Only a nonviolent confrontation will be able to attract a great number of the armed forces.
Next, the Green Movement needs a national leadership team. It is true that the Movement has so far been a horizontal one, meaning every supporter has acted as a sort of local leader, but a national movement also needs national leaders. It is one thing to send e-mails and Tweets inviting people to take part in demonstrations, but what is really needed is to form a leadership team and prepare it for transition to a new stage of the struggle, or even for a new government. An important reason for the success of the 1979 Revolution was that it had a recognized leader and a leadership team [as opposed to what happened after the Revolution.]
Who are some of the possible candidates for the leadership team? Some say that the leaders will emerge from the ranks of the youth, particularly those in the universities. This is both idealistic and naïve. Iran is a complex country in one of the most turbulent regions of the world. It faces significant problems with the international community over such important issues as its nuclear program. These facts alone illustrate that Iran and the Green Movement need experienced leadership.
As always, there are the pretenders. The monarchists, for example, advocate Reza Pahlavi for this role. But he has lived his entire adult life outside Iran, and monarchy has no significant base of support in Iran. The Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (MKO) also likes to make claims to leadership. But in addition to its numerous acts of treason against Iran and Iranians, its structure is strikingly similar to the Islamic Republic: It has a Supreme Leader (Masoud Rajavi) and an Ahmadinejad-style "president" (Maryam Rajavi).
There are also pretenders to the leadership like Mohsen Sazegara and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who keep sending messages "to the people Iran," as if they were the true leaders of the Green Movement, but in fact are trying to position themselves to become one. But Sazegara opposed voting in the June 12 election, had close relations with arch-hawks such as Michael Rubin [an advocate of sanctions and possibly war with Iran] at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has been no friend to the Iranian people. He had close ties with the Washington Institute for Near East for Near East Policy, an offshoot of AIPAC, before gravitating toward the Green Movement out of pure opportunism.
This leaves us with the reformist leaders in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was the true spiritual leader of the Movement before his untimely death, but there is no question, at least in my mind, that Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami currently symbolize the Green Movement. Among the three, Karroubi has been the most outspoken, Khatami the most cautious, and Mousavi the most prudent.
All three have grown with the Movement. Khatami no longer just alludes to the excesses of the regime, but has taken increasingly firmer positions against it. Mousavi no longer uses the language of the 1979 Revolution [except for tactical reasons sometimes], and has taken increasingly tougher positions as well. For him, just as for many Iranians, this is no longer about the rigged election, but the future of Iran. And, Karroubi, though always frank, has taken unprecedented positions in the history of the Islamic Republic. Just recently he said that the crimes committed on the day of Ashura were not even something the Shah ever did.
Up until recently, the jury was still out on whether the trio truly led the Green Movement. It was particularly unclear whether Mousavi was truly interested in fundamental changes, or even had what it took to stand up for anything. Two important points about Mousavi must be considered.
One, by all indications, he is recognized by most of the supporters of the Green Movement inside Iran, as well as the hardliners, as the symbol and the leader of the opposition. What some Iranians in the Diaspora -- particularly the monarchists -- claim is that "he is just an excuse." That is absurd. True, he was an excuse for many Iranians in the Diaspora, but I do not believe he was, or is for those living in Iran. The manner by which he has handled the assassination of his nephew on Ashura, refusing to issue a statement about it, saying there was no difference between his nephew and other martyrs of the Movement, has only added to the respect that most people in Iran have for him.
Second, Mousavi's role in the political killings of the 1980s is exaggerated. He was not in charge of the judiciary, nor did he control the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC, which carried out the executions. He does bear a tremendous moral responsibility and at some point he must clarify his own thinking about the killings and his silence throughout the years. But, without meaning to take away any significance from those historical and catastrophic events, I believe that at the moment that is not the most urgent issue at hand.
In my view, Mousavi's most recent statement No. 17 issued on Thursday has truly demonstrated his political skill and has elevated him to the true national leader of the opposition. Some say that by implicitly recognizing Ahmadinejad's government he has in effect retreated. This is simplistic thinking and absurd for at least three reasons.
One, accepting a government as a reality is not the same as accepting its legitimacy as a product of an election free of fraud. The hardliners control all levers of power -- money, military, executive decision-making, the judiciary, and the propaganda machine that is the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (the national radio and TV networks). The only real power that the Green Movement has is its infectious popularity.
Second, it is naïve to believe that the hardliners do not have any social base; they do. They are probably supported by up to 20 percent of the population -- and armed to the teeth. If we are to believe the various leaks out of the Interior Ministry right after the rigged June 12 presidential election, Ahmadinejad received about 11 million votes, representing 25 percent of eligible voters, which is also consistent with what the internal polls of the reformists had indicated.
Third, immediately after seemingly accepting the reality of Ahmadinejad's government and declaring that he was not afraid to die for the cause of the people and the Green Movement, Mousavi mentioned the "uncommon support" that Ahmadinejad received, meaning support by the IRGC and Ayatollah Khamenei himself. In other words, Mousavi was saying that without that support, the government will be immediately revealed to be shaky at best. In addition, Mousavi mocked Ahmadinejad's performance, and sarcastically pointed out that, although he and his comrades are accused of having links with foreign governments, it is Ahmadinejad who sent congratulatory letters to the leaders of the same nations. He also said pointedly that,
Suppose that through arrests and violence, silencing people and shutting down the [reformist] newspapers and [other] means of mass communication, calm and silence return to society. What are you [the hardliners] going to do about [the fact that] people's judgment about [the legitimacy of the] political establishment has changed? What are you going to do about the destruction of the legitimacy [of the political system]? What are you going to do about the world's rebuke and astonishment at [your] government's use of so much violence against your own people? What are you going to do about all the unsolved economic problems that due to the utter incompetence of the government continue to deteriorate? Based on what base of competence, national resolve [for supporting the government] and effective foreign policy are you going to remove the shadow of foreign powers that demand more concessions and [approve more] resolutions [at the United Nations Security Council]?
Thus, it is clear that Mousavi has only nodded to the fact that there is a government, however illegitimate, with much power behind it. Besides, this nod to the [illegitimate] government creates more divisions in the conservative camp. Many in that camp are not happy about what is happening, truly believe that the nation is in a deep crisis, and want to do something drastic about it.
Mousavi waited until after Wednesday's pro-government counter-demonstrations by the hardliners, in which he, his comrades, and the entire Green Movement were threatened with physical annihilation, to issue his statement. This was very clever and prudent. Mousavi's goal, as I have also emphasized in my analyses, is to keep the Movement peaceful, hopeful, and upbeat, which explains why he issued his statement after the counter-demonstrations.
Once the issue of the leadership has been settled -- and it seems to have been -- the next important issue is organization at the national level. The Green Movement demonstrated on Ashura that it was willing to pay any price to to resist the military-clerical dictatorship and advance democracy. Such an expression of readiness by the people must be reciprocated by the leadership by presenting them with ideas and solutions for the crisis -- one that reflects a national consensus. It is clear that the hardliners have been trying their best to prevent the emergence of such a consensus, but it is the task of a true national leadership to come up with a solution, regardless of the pressure and difficulties.
The first step toward developing such a consensus is, in my opinion, for Mousavi to place less emphasis on the religious aspects of his thinking; I say this as a practicing Muslim myself. No one can expect Mousavi to set aside his religious thinking and system of belief, but it is not unreasonable to expect him not to emphasize a "true religious government," even if he thinks that it can be democratic; instead he must emphasize those aspects of his thinking that foster national unity. Mousavi is a true patriot and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing Iranian patriotism.
At the same time, the strength of the Green Movement should be its acceptance of different schools of thought. People from all walks of life with all shades of thinking support the Movement. On Ashura, people demonstrated their national unity, regardless of their different ideologies. I have no doubt that some may still believe that a "true" Islamic Republic (however it might be defined) can be democratic, but there are others, who probably outnumber the first group, who do not believe so. This fact must be recognized by the leadership and, in particular, by Mousavi. All Mousavi needs to do is think back to the 1979 Revolution. At that time too there was a national movement. Many practicing Muslims, such as the author, supported the Revolution precisely because we thought that it would lead to the establishment of a democratic government.
I perfectly understand Mousavi's caution. Religion still influences a significant segment of the population, particularly in small towns and villages. Why else would hardliners use violence on Ashura to force people to defend themselves, and then use their own violence as an excuse to stage counter-demonstrations (under the pretext that the religious tradition has been insulted) and call for physical elimination of the opposition? In sum then, Mousavi should de-emphasize a religious political structure, not reject religion all together.
If these principles are recognized, then, Mousavi's nine demands, as laid out in his statement No. 13 can be used as the basis for continuing to advance the Green Movement. The nine demands are,
1. Formation of a truth commission, such that its findings and verdicts are accepted by all sides, for investigating the violations of law and fraud during and after the election, and punishing those who were responsible.
2. Revising the election law in such a way that free and fair elections can be held.
3. Identifying and punishing those who were responsible for the crimes that have been committed in all organs of the government, including military, police, and the media.
4. Providing support and assistance to the victims of the post-election crackdown, especially the families of those who lost loved ones; releasing from prison all the campaign workers and political activists, dismissing the bogus charges against them, restoring their credibility and putting an end to all the threats being made against them.
5. Putting into practice Article 168 of the Constitution by defining precisely what constitutes a political offense, and using a jury when the alleged offenders are put on trial.
6. Guaranteeing freedom of the press, and changing the one-sided behavior of the Voice and Visage in order to eliminate all the limitations on its programs, so that the political parties can use the Voice and Visage to express their positions regarding various issues, and revising the law that governs the Voice and Visage, to make it responsive to people's demand.
7. Putting in practice Article 44 of the Constitution regarding privatization, so that private radio and television can also be created.
8. Passing legislation to forbid the military from intervening in political as well as economic affairs.
9. Releasing all the political prisoners.
Note that in his latest statement, Mousavi mentioned five of the nine demands as the starting point, but also said that other demands can be added.
By acting in such a prudent manner, Mousavi has put the onus on the hardliners and elevated himself to the level of a true national leader of the Green Movement. He has also made it clear that he wishes for the Green Movement to remain nonviolent. By advancing national unity and democratic principles, as well as de-emphasizing religious aspects of his thinking, Mousavi can be the best figure to lead Iran's march toward democracy.
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