Iranian DNA or Fear of Déjà vu?
by TARA MAHTAFAR in Washington, D.C.
03 Mar 2010 17:59
Is the Green opposition beset by the inability of Iranians to work together, or is it simply trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1979?
[ analysis ] The one merit to 22 Bahman's failed 'Trojan Horse' plan was its exposure of the Green Movement's Achilles' Heel: the seeming inability to unify the scattered opposition, brainstorm the movement's future, and plan a viable strategy for change.
Observers are questioning the implications of this exposed weakness. Analyst Abbas Abdi believes the recent diminished turnout will spur the development of "new tactics" for the movement, and Columbia's Gary Sick points out that protesters "lack a clear agenda." However, these reflections are overshadowed by a larger question: Does the opposition's fragmentation and slapdash dynamics stem from an innate inability for Iranians to coordinate action toward a common goal? Or, are various actors within the opposition treading cautiously, wary of a repeat of 1979's failed inclusion of pluralism in an Iranian democracy?
First, let's look at the shortcomings of the individual actors within the opposition. Their strengths have been explored thoroughly here on Tehran Bureau, so I'll skip the deserved accolades and focus on defects.
For a movement born of broad popular support for reform and spearheaded by the Reformist Big Three (Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami), a disconnect exists between the rhetoric and action of the movement's nominal leaders vis-à-vis the proactive grassroots body they ostensibly represent. For instance, these leaders have never invited open interaction with their supporters, a fact that stands at odds with their sweeping advocacy of free discourse and accountability to the public. If Mousavi is able to issue one-way declarations and video messages, surely he can take a page out of his own election campaign and arrange for a live, interactive Twitter Q&A session. Even as a gesture, it would set an example for transparency and open interaction between leaders and their public.
The de facto Green leader has also failed to acknowledge the criticism voiced by protesters questioning the legitimacy of the supreme leader - criticism which began last July and has since escalated into slogans slamming Khamenei as the direct target of the movement's wrath and foretelling his downfall. Mousavi has thus far dismissed these calls on the street as a radical aberration in an otherwise allegedly pro-velayat faqih majority. His reticence is understandable, given the fine line he must walk in extending a hand of compromise to the hardliner camp while staying true to his self-declared 'minimum demands' for his Green supporters. But this tightrope act has perhaps eclipsed his capacity and willingness to engage with the increasingly anti-Khamenei sentiment of the movement. This is while the late Ayatollah Montazeri had candidly denounced the supreme leader's legitimacy of rule early on in the post-election aftermath. Mousavi, at some point, must directly address this not-so-nascent concern.
Opposition figures based abroad -- prominent intellectuals, activists, scholars, analysts, and ex-Islamic Republic officials -- are notoriously loath to working together as a unified political front. As Inside Iran reports, Akbar Ganji and Mohsen Kadivar were at each other's throats just weeks after signing a joint statement. Shirin Ebadi, Iran's sole Nobel laureate, has according to several firsthand accounts, declined to head supplementary Green leadership outside of the country, claiming she prefers to confine her activity to the realm of human rights. Mohsen Sazegara dubs himself the "Asphalt General" -- responsible for "feet on the street," the former IRGC architect says -- but many of his dissident counterparts attach to him the stigma of alleged CIA backing. Fringe groups like the Monarchists and the MEK meanwhile pound the anti-reformist drum, calling for outright regime change louder than the most devout neo-conservatives.
These dissident voices, far from a cohesive force supporting the opposition at work on the streets of Iran, operate in isolated cliques and pursue separate agendas. In doing so, they squander opportunity for initiatives that require freedom and resources not available to the internal leaders in Iran, and therefore could significantly contribute to the movement's advancement.
During lapses between street protests, the day-to-day activism by the movement's grassroots base is most visible online, in op-eds, blogs, social media, and "netizen" amateur footage. As many analysts note, the Web-based grassroots networks have taken shape as a non-hierarchical and decentralized structure. While there are undoubted advantages to the model, the downside is that it has thus far impeded the forming of broader, structured collaborations among the millions of scattered opposition supporters.
Advocacy groups, such as United for Iran, Where is My Vote NY and Week in Green, for the most part work on their own. Dozens of blogger-run websites have sprung up since last summer, vying for attention in an over-saturated media landscape. It appears that the motto "Every Iranian is a Medium" has been interpreted as "Every Iranian is an Island" -- no one seems inclined to collaborate together or pool resources to create "umbrella" media and advocacy groups that could build a farther scope and reach, expedite the circulation of information and expand discourse on the movement's strategy and goals.
A diaspora umbrella group, while maintaining diversity within unity, would be in a position for stronger fundraising and a larger budget to expand its activities and platform. This in turn could enable it to foster a higher level of organization among opposition supporters and thus pave the way for new functions and tactics for Green supporters inside the country.
The Weak Link
With this brief overview in mind, we should ask once more: What is the weak link that has thus far hampered the emergence of supplementary leadership and stronger platforms within the opposition?
These are vital requisites for the movement's endurance and progress. Obviously, the Greens have come a long way in the past nine months. But by June 12, 2010, a year after the elections, if the opposition finds itself at a stalemate without viable means to effect change, the movement is in danger of falling into decline as supporters sink into apathy or despair.
The weight of this responsibility -- to save the movement from waning -- rests primarily with the opposition outside of Iran, who can act unrestrictedly and have far better access to resources for coalition-building and for finding constructive approaches to galvanize and empower those on the inside.
Everyone seems to agree that these steps are crucial for the survival of the Green Movement, yet no one has stepped up and taken initiative. A line I hear over and over from members of the Iranian political community in Washington and other cities is: "We Iranians can't work together." Another oft-repeated cop-out is, "Not yet rulers, [and] there's [already] a power struggle over ruling" [hanuz hakem nashode, sar-e hakemiyat davast]. Rather than connoting aggression, this dictum seems to suggest a defensive stance born out of the fear of a potential sidelining if and when the movement succeeds, as was done to liberals and leftists in the aftermath of the original revolution.
If the best and brightest in the pro-democracy opposition can't put ego-driven rivalries aside and pool their forces for the greater good, what hope is there that a so-called majority of Iranians will ever succeed in instating true representative government?
Tara Mahtafar covers politics and activism for Tehran Bureau.
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