Were the Greens Defeated?
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
12 Feb 2010 20:13
Alas! The envisioned triumph did not happen, and it was clear to some, this author included, that it was never likely. Why? For several reasons:
One was that just as the Green Movement gains experience, so also do the hardliners. They have learned, based on the demonstrations that took place on both November 4, the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover, and December 27, the Day of Ashura, that saturating the streets of Tehran with security and plainclothes intelligence agents, as well as the Basij militia, is effective at preventing the formation of large clusters of Green supporters and undermining their capacity to demonstrate. This tactic was successfully utilized on February 11. Wherever Green supporters did try to gather, they were beaten up badly by the security forces.
It would have deeply embarrassed the hardliners if Green supporters had successfully staged large-scale demonstrations on the anniversary of the day that brought to power the very political system that they always claim is supported by the Iranian masses. It should have been clear that they would do everything in their power to prevent that from happening.
Indeed, the hardliners took unprecedented steps. They saturated Azadi Square--where Iran's president has always delivered his speech on the anniversary of the Revolution--and the streets around it with their own supporters on Wednesday night, February 10, to prevent protesters from getting close to the area. Tens of thousands of people were bused in for this purpose from cities and villages around Tehran.
The hardliners also installed loudspeakers along a corridor extending from Imam Hussein Square in east Tehran to Azadi Square in the west, and used them to broadcast revolutionary and religious slogans, disrupting the efforts of Green supporters to organize effective protest chants.
The harsh crackdown on the demonstrators was clearly intended to terrify people and make them think twice before they participate in any future demonstration. The hardliners have made it clear that the photographs and video images taken of Green supporters during the demonstrations would be used against them in court. These actions follow the jailing of thousands of people, including dozens of reformist leaders, journalists, and human rights advocates; the murders of at least a hundred, including the prominent assassinations of Ali Mousavi, Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew, and physics professor Masoud Ali-Mohammadi; and the systematic infliction of rape and sodomy on many young people.
The demonstrations thus did not take place the way many had envisioned. Make no mistake, though. A large number of Green supporters did show up, as evidenced by their many clashes with security forces, not just in Tehran but in Esfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Ahvaz, and other cities, as well. Still, the more idealistic supporters of the Movement had envisioned the Revolution's anniversary in a very different way. So, does the way things turned out imply defeat for the Green Movement? Has it been driven underground? I believe not.
First, the very fact that on the thirty-first anniversary of the Revolution, the hardliners had to saturate Tehran and other large cities with security forces just to prevent peaceful demonstrations by the opposition represents a significant victory for Green supporters. This is the day when the people are supposed to come out freely and celebrate the establishment of the political system that the hardliners claim they support, and yet there was an unofficial state of emergency, with tens of thousands of security forces patrolling the streets.
I was reminded of the days following September 11, 1973, when Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile, was overthrown in a coup planned by the CIA and carried out by the Chilean military. In those days, the capital of Santiago was similarly saturated by the military, people were beaten en masse, thousands were jailed, and many were killed or disappeared. (The 1981 movie Missing, written and directed by Costa-Gavras, recounts these events.)
So, what kind of victory could this represent for the regime? As Mousavi said on January 1, in his statement number 17, addressed to the hardliners,
Suppose through arrests, violence, shutting people's mouths, and closing newspapers and means of mass communication that calm and silence return to the society. What are you going to do about the fact that people's judgment of the political establishment has changed? What are you going to do about the destruction of its legitimacy? What are you going to do about the rebukes of the world and its astonishment about the degree of violence that the government has used against its 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 worsen? On what basis can you claim the competence, national consensus, and effective foreign policy necessary to remove the shadow of foreign powers demanding ever more concessions?
In short, this was not a victory, but a defeat for the hardliners. Eight months after the rigged presidential election of June 12, the Green Movement is alive and well. Indeed, the hardliners were sufficiently terrified of the Movement that they deployed anti-riot forces to surround the headquarters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (there were even reports that he and his family had been spirited away to a secret location); the broadcast centers for national television and radio, the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic; and many other government institutions. Mousavi was forcefully prevented from participating in the demonstrations and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, was assaulted, as were Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami.
These events should teach the supporters of the Green Movement a few lessons. First, the Movement needs effective organization and leadership. Some have claimed that people can simply inform each other of demonstration plans via Facebook, Twitter, and other such means. But, as events on Thursday, as well as the Day of Ashura, demonstrated, such ideas are naïve and impractical. Even the hardliners recognize the importance of organization and, hence, expert organizers. This is exactly why Behzad Nabavi, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Mohsen Aminzadeh, and Mohsen Mirdamadi, political activists for decades who have proven to be excellent organizers, have been jailed since soon after the election. In fact, according to Nabavi, their arrest warrants were issued a few days before the election.
A related observation is that Mousavi and Karroubi were too cautious. They did not provide any specific plans. It is not enough to call on supporters to participate in the "celebration" of the anniversary of the Revolution. Even important foreign-based pro-Green websites, such as Jaras, were overly restrained. They called on people to dress conservatively and even chant some of the same slogans favored by the hardliners.
Although some may disagree, the question of leadership has, in my opinion, largely been settled. Mir Hossein Mousavi is the leader of the Green Movement. But he needs to be in more contact with the people, speak to them more frequently, try to organize various events by giving Movement supporters specific suggestions and instructions, and set aside his caution. It is not enough to issue statements in reaction to external developments. Karroubi, Khatami, and others also play important roles. Together with Mousavi, they must develop a unified voice and common positions. As Mousavi has said repeatedly, they must agree on a "minimum set of demands," speak about them forcefully and often, and avoid airing their differences.
Another crucial lesson is that the tactics for confronting the hardliners must change constantly. They must be dynamic. If the same tactics are routinely employed, the hardliners adapt and learn how to defuse them, as Thursday's events clearly demonstrated. The tactics must also become more sophisticated. The most effective are those that target the economic interests of the hardliners, and make it more difficult for Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei to govern.
The final lesson is that the struggle for democracy in Iran is a war of attrition, not a swift "shock and awe" campaign, a marathon, not a sprint. Because the Islamic Republic has degenerated into a military junta, and because a military force always loses a war of attrition to irregular forces--that is, the people--the Green Movement and its leaders need to be patient, carefully analyze developments, and develop realistic and achievable goals that advance the cause of democracy.
There is a new dawn in the struggle of the Iranian people for democracy and the rule of law. The Green Movement must develop the necessary organization and adjust its tactics dynamically in order to make further progress during this turbulent era.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau