The Green Movement at One Year
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
08 Jun 2010 18:49
June 12 marks the first anniversary of Iran's tenth presidential election. Iranian people participated in the voting en masse, not just inside the country, but all over the world in the diaspora: 85 percent of those eligible cast a vote. There was great hope that the election would close a sad chapter in Iran's recent history -- the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and usher in a new era with a more open and tolerant society, representing the first concrete steps toward a democratic political system.
But the people's hopes were dashed after the hardliners rigged the election and committed fraud on a large scale to declare Ahmadinejad the "victor." Protests broke out, beginning with a massive demonstration on June 15 in Tehran. According to Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, three million people took part. Alireza Zakani, a hardline Majles (parliament) deputy, quoted former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the effect that at least 3.5 million people had participated. Whatever the precise figure, it was one of the largest demonstrations in Iran's history. The protests strengthened the Green Movement that emerged just before the election and plunged the country into a deep crisis that has yet to end. The protests began with a simple question, "Where is my vote?" But people's demands quickly broadened until the very foundations of the Islamic Republic were brought into question. In previous articles, I have chronicled these events and those that followed over the past year.
A well-known reporter for the New York Times who has spent years in the Middle East, asked me the other day where I believe Iran and the Green Movement stand one year after the rigged election, and what changes, if any, the movement has brought. In my view, the changes have been deep and lasting, both for the large majority of Iranians who aspire to live in a democracy and for the hardline fundamentalist leadership and its supporters. After years in which the world's view of Iranian society had been deeply distorted, the Green Movement succeeded in drawing a much truer picture of the country's people, a young, educated, highly dynamic population that wants a democratic political system, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental human rights, regardless of citizens' political leanings, gender, and ethnicity.
At the same time, the Green Movement has also revealed the true face of the hardline fundamentalists, a narrow segment of the population that is willing to do whatever it takes to retain power, including jailing a large number of people; holding Stalinist show trials that have resulted in long jail sentences for Reformist leaders, university students, human rights advocates, and ordinary citizens; torturing, sodomizing, and murdering protestors; assassinating innocent victims in order to send a "message" to the people and the movement's leadership; and even refusing to return the bodies of executed young political activists to their families.
With few exceptions, elections in Iran have never been democratic or fair. The regime often bars opposition figures from running. The ruling elite utilizes the vast resources of the nation in order to promote its own candidates and, at the same time, prohibits the opposition from speaking to the public through its own dailies, weeklies, and other publications and from operating its own TV channels and radio stations. The opposition is not given any time -- let alone equal time -- on the national TV and radio network to address the public.
On the other hand, since the 1979 Revolution, elections have been held regularly and on schedule. With few exceptions, they have been competitive in the sense that there have always been contrasting views about the important issues facing the nation, at least some candidates have supported at least some of the people's aspirations, and the outcome was not known in advance. In short, the elections were not of the type that are held in some U.S. allies in the region, such as Egypt -- foregone conclusions. Moreover, the ruling establishment usually went along with the results, even when they were not to its liking.
But last year's election showed that the ruling establishment is no longer willing to accept displeasing outcomes, because it recognizes that it cannot win competitive elections, let alone democratic and fair ones. It thus resorted to fraud.
As a result, the hardline leadership lost any residual legitimacy that it might have had, not only in Iran, but around the globe as well. It can no longer boast to the people of the Middle East and the Islamic world about its "religious democracy." The process of voting was turned into an exercise in futility. There is no point in participating in the electoral process when there is no guarantee that the opposition can run and people's votes will be respected. In my view, this is the first important fruit of the Green Movement: It forced the hardliners, in order to retain power, to transform the elections from a dynamic process to a meaningless event, thereby annulling any rightful claim to that power.
The second important change in Iran's political scene is that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became a direct, public target of people's anger. His role in creating the crisis that the nation faces, his decision to take sides with a small coterie against a very large majority, his condoning of violence -- as in his Friday Prayer sermon last June 19 -- have transformed him into a despicable figure in the eyes of many Iranians. An important psychological barrier has been broken: Khamenei is now explicitly held responsible for the ills of the nation.
The country is ruled under a system that Khamenei has upheld since he was appointed Supreme Leader in 1989. The Constitution bestows upon him absolute power. With this power, which he has not hesitated to use, comes responsibility, including that for the present state of affairs, in which a small group of reactionaries led by Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have squandered the nation's resources through unprecedented levels of corruption, nepotism, and outright theft, as oppression of the people continues unabated and the jails grow overcrowded with political prisoners.
Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the head of the National Auditing Organization, recently reported to Khamenei that Ahmadinejad's administration is the most corrupt since the 1979 Revolution. Pourmohammadi was Ahmadinejad's first minister of the interior and is a hardliner himself. His report thus represents a very important development, as the hardliners, and even a substantial part of the population, have long considered the Rafsanjani administration as the benchmark of corruption. Although the report was not publicized -- Khamenei ordered it suppressed -- it does indicate that even leading hardliners now recognize the depth of the problems with Ahmadinejad and his government.
More important is the fact that the protests against the election fraud quickly turned into protests against all that has gone wrong in Iran over the last 30 years and, in particular, since 1989 after the war with Iraq ended and Khamenei came to power. People finally expressed what they wanted loud and clear, and showed that they are no longer willing to passively accept what the hardliners do to them. They were, and still are, willing to make great sacrifices. At least 110 people have been confirmed dead. Several people have been assassinated, from Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephewto Professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi and others.
Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard -- Mousavi's wife -- and former President Mohammad Khatami have not allowed this innocent blood to be wasted. They have resisted tremendous pressures, have kept up speaking against the crimes, and as the people's demands have broadened, so also have the steps these leaders taken to reinforce the movement. It is difficult for some, especially in the diaspora, to believe it, but the fact is the four have courageously spoken against the very political system in whose creation they played important roles.
Another important change is that the Revolutionary Guards were finally forced to admit publicly that they are the true power in Iran. It was already known that major figures in Ahmadinejad's cabinet, as well as many provincial governors, mayors, and Majles deputies are former Guard officers, and that Ahmadinejad could not have been elected in 2005 without the massive support of the Guards and the Basij militia. But it was last year's election, when the fraud was led by a one-time Guard officer, former Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli, and its aftermath that forced the corps' high command to set aside any pretense. Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards' top commander, said last week, "Before being a military organization, the IRGC is a security-political organization." Other Guard commanders have publicly admitted how their forces played the lead role in the violent crackdown, because the police and Ministry of Intelligence operatives could not control the protests.
Another important change in Iran's political scene brought about by the Green Movement is that the deep fissures among the clerics finally came to the surface. Except for a small reactionary minority that benefits from the present state of affairs and hides behind the Supreme Leader, most are not happy about what is going on. They recognize that Khamenei's blind support of Ahmadinejad is hurting both the nation and Islam. Some ayatollahs, such as Yousef Sanei, Asadollah Bayat, and Mohammad Ali Dastgheyb, have spoken publicly and courageously against the crimes that are transpiring. Many other ayatollahs, including Abdollah Javadi Amoli (the Larijanis' maternal uncle), Ebrahim Amini, Musa Shobeiri Zanjani, and Hossein Vahid Khorasani, have refused to meet with Ahmadinejad or congratulate him on his "reelection." Still others, such as Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi and, especially, Ayatollah Sayyed Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, have tried behind the scenes to resolve the crisis. Perhaps most importantly, the hardliners can no longer deny their desire to remove Rafsanjani from the political scene, and the resulting power struggle is now being played out openly.
The hardliners are keenly aware of the gaping fissures and extremely sensitive to their public discussion. When Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush, the distinguished Islamic scholar, recently urged the clerics in Qom to move to Najaf, Iraq, to demonstrate their displeasure, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi -- a corrupt reactionary who, together with his son, has been accused of stealing national assets -- declared him an apostate. Kayhan, the daily mouthpiece of the hardliners, prominently displayed the declaration.
Another fruit of the Green Movement has been the emergence of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Dr. Rahnavard -- and, to a lesser extent, Khatami -- as its leaders and symbols, even though they humbly make no claim to such status. By imposing Ahmadinejad on Iran, and in particular transforming Mousavi into the symbol of resistance, the hardliners have committed a strategic blunder that has cost them dearly. If Mousavi had been elected, he would have begun making meaningful, but incremental, changes in the system.
Some say that a President Mousavi would have been the second coming of Khatami who, despite being genuinely good and uncorrupted, often acted weakly. I disagree. I believe that, had he been elected, Mousavi would have resisted Khamenei's interference in the state's affairs -- a view supported by the events of the past year. Khatami put it best when he told his young angry supporters after he withdrew from the presidential race, "I am the man of Friday, but Mir Hossein is the man of Saturday." Iranian elections are held on Fridays -- the "man of Friday" can win the votes. "The man of Saturday," the day after the elections, is the man capable of resisting the hardliners once in office. The hardliners saw Mousavi in a similar light, which is why they were so fiercely opposed to him.
Mousavi's transformation has been manifested not only in his rejection of what the hardliners do in the name of the Islamic Republic and Islam. It has also been demonstrated by his gradual move, which began before last year's election, toward genuinely democratic positions. He has supported the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, pluralism within the Green Movement, and respect for the ideas of others. At the same time, he has condemned all the crimes perpetrated by the regime. In this regard, both Mousavi and Karroubi are way ahead of Khatami at the height of the Reformist movement of 1997-2000.
Mousavi has also made it clear that he draws no line between himself and any other supporter of the Green Movement. For example, when his own nephew was assassinated, his wife Dr. Rahnavard was assaulted, his brother-in-law Shapour Kazemi (a completely apolitical engineer scientist) was arrested on bogus charges, and his aides were thrown in jail, he restrained his outrage, declaring that he is no different from the rest of the Iranian people as a victim of the hardliners' crimes.
Mousavi's declaration on January 1, 2010, that Ahmadinejad's government is illegitimate and illegal, yet still responsible for the nation, was a political masterstroke. He made it clear that because the hardliners control all levers of power and resources in Iran, they are also responsible for whatever may happen to the country, both domestically and internationally. He issued two warnings. He counseled against making radical demands that are not quickly achievable, and may only push the nation toward large-scale bloodshed and a resulting loss of support for the movement. He has stated emphatically, "We should agree on a minimum set of demands so that we can attract the maximum support." He also predicted that the hardliners might well make concessions to foreign powers that hurt Iran's long-term national interests, just to lower the external pressure on themselves -- the recent concessions on Iran's nuclear program and the nuclear fuel swap are an example of precisely what he was talking about.
Mousavi has taken these steps, while still professing loyalty to what he calls "the ideals of the Imam," Ayatollah Khomeini. Some have attacked him for doing so. While talk of loyalty to Khomeini's "ideals" is, in my opinion, a mistake and will not bring the movement any new support, attacking Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami for talking about Khomeini is also wrong. Mousavi, in particular, has always said that he defends pluralism and respects other people's opinion. He has always said he is a supporter, not a leader, of the movement, precisely because he wants to freely express his opinion without any constraints. At the same time, the hardliners will use anything to attack the trio -- imagine what they would make of a public renunciation of Khomeini. The most important issue for the supporters of the democratic movement is what the trio and other leaders do, rather than what they say.
I must also pay tribute to Karroubi, who has courageously, bluntly, and with utmost honesty spoken against the crimes that have taken place. He has declared repeatedly that he is prepared for the consequences, and is not afraid of the threats against him and his family, including the assaults on him and his sons. His courage is truly admirable, especially in a country where the Revolutionary Guards and Ministry of Intelligence agents murder people with impunity.
Another important fruit of the Green Movement is the death of Khomeini-ism. Although Rafsanjani proclaimed the end of the Khomeini era back in the mid-1990s, events since 2005, when Ahmadinejad was elected, and particularly since last year have demonstrated that Khomeini has become something like Mao Zedong of China: His nominal supporters still mention his name with respect, and see to it that huge posters of him hang everywhere, even as they act against many things that he stood for.
I should clarify that I am completely opposed to Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, the backbone of Iran's political system, as represented by Ayatollah Khamenei), which is the most important inheritance that Khomeini left for Iran. He is also responsible for the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.
But the point here is a comparison between the broader nature of his leadership and what the hardliners and Ayatollah Khamenei do in his name.
Although he was the Supreme Leader, with unparalleled authority as the icon of the 1979 Revolution, Khomeini rarely interfered in the daily affairs of the nation -- a sharp contrast to the behavior of his successor. In addition, he was fiercely opposed to military intervention in politics and the economy, whereas the nation is now essentially run by the Revolutionary Guards. Khomeini always emphasized that "Majles dar ra's omoor ast" (the Majles is the most important organ), whereas it has now become little more than an obedient arm of the hardliners. The most important consequence of the death of Khomeini-ism is that it has been amply demonstrated that a nation cannot have a Supreme Leader and be democratic.
All of the above have resulted in the most important change, the greatest fruit of the Green Movement: the lines have been drawn. There is no longer any pretense. On one side are the Revolutionary Guards, the security/intelligence apparatus, a small faction of reactionary and ultraconservative clerics, and a narrow social base, probably about 15-20 percent of the population. On the other side is everyone else. Those in the majority have different demands, some economic, others social or political. Some are willing to do anything to bring about meaningful change, some are more cautious. But, they all agree on one thing: the present situation is no longer acceptable or tenable.
A year after its birth, the Green Movement should be recognized for what it does and does not represent:
The Green Movement is not about secularism versus religion, but about citizens' rights regardless of their individual beliefs. Some, particularly in the diaspora, have tried to define the movement as secular, but this denies both its origins and the source of much of its internal support. Some demand that the movement's leaders declare that they support a secular system. But that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the movement's current goals.
The goal of the Green Movement at this stage is not the takeover of the government, although it will hopefully be able to achieve that at some point. Rather, to attain Iranian citizens their proper rights, it aims to critique the ruling elite and demonstrate with utmost clarity and honesty the regime's many shortcomings. In this way, any success that the movement may have will be lasting.
The Green Movement is not yet strong enough, to issue, for example, an ultimatum to the ruling establishment. The reasons are at least fourfold. First, the movement has not yet spread to every strata of society. Significant works remains to achieve this. Second, the hardliners control the nation's vast resources; the Greens have none, aside from the people. Third, the hardliners are armed to the teeth, and they have demonstrated time and again that they will not hesitate to resort to bloodshed to retain power. Fourth, unlike Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the hardliners do have a significant, albeit narrow, social base. Unlike the Shah, as well, the hardliners and their supporters have no place else to go. They have little choice but to stay in Iran and fight. That is why the Green Movement must diligently avoid violence, except in self-defense.
The Green Movement represents, at this stage, a social network, both horizontal and vertical. It is not a true political organization, because as soon as it ever became one, it would be savagely suppressed.
The Green Movement does have a leadership, because no movement can succeed without one. Those who, in the name of democracy, oppose the Green Movement or its present leadership, or even refute its existence, are in denial. The most important aspect of the leadership is that it is not based on individual charisma -- as was the case in the 1979 Revolution -- but on what it has actually done over the past year. I am aware of the row among some in the diaspora over the movement's leadership. But those who deny its plain existence are mostly either ambitious opportunists who want to ride the waves to power, supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, or members of extremist monarchist factions. At least in Iran, the question of the leadership is a nonissue. But as Mousavi has always emphasized, everyone is equal to everyone else within the movement.
The Green Movement belongs to all the people who share its goals, regardless of who they are. However, note the words of Taghi Rahmani, the distinguished nationalist-religious thinker who has spent 14 years in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. As he put it, "Those who demand radical actions by the movement should explain what it is that they have done for the movement. Are those who have any means of mass communications willing to put that to use for the movement, without mentioning their own group or affiliation?" In addition, the critics of the Green Movement should ask themselves whether they can demonstrate their own righteousness and the superiority of their strategy to a large segment of the population. Many take idealistic positions without any regard for the facts on the ground in Iran, and why not? From the comfort of our homes abroad, we can take any radical position and present ourselves as "super" progressives. But at some point we must come back to earth and deal with the real problems.
Despite the skepticism of some, the Green Movement is alive and well. The strongest evidence is the fact that the arrests of university students, political figures, human rights advocates, feminist leaders, journalists, and intellectuals have continued without pause, as have the show trials. Long sentences are still being handed out. Seven people have been executed, and another 16 are on death row. Torture and beatings of political prisoners continue, and the threats against the leaders of the movement grow ever louder. Just last week, tens of thousands Basij and Guard forces were moved to Tehran and other large cities. Mousavi, Karroubi, Dr. Rahnavard, and Khatami have not been arrested simply because that would ignite a huge explosion.
Finally, let us take a look at the state of media and journalism in Iran since the election. Over the past year, 170 journalists, including 32 women, were arrested. Twenty-two journalists have been given a total of 135 years in prison. Eighty-five journalists are awaiting their show trials or their jail sentences. Thirty-seven journalists are in jail, making Iran the first -- or second largest prison for journalists in the world after China. One hundred journalists have left Iran. One journalist, Dr. Ahmad Zaydabadi, has been banned from writing for life. Another, Jila Baniya'ghoub, has been banned for 30 years. In a country where a typical journalist makes less than $1,500 per month, $520 million has been paid by journalists to the judiciary as bail to be temporarily released. Twenty-three newspapers have been closed or forced to close "voluntarily." One journalist, Alireza Eftekhari, who had worked with the daily Abrar-e Eghtesaadi, was murdered on June 15, 2009 [the day in which huge demonstrations took place] as a result of repeated blows to the head. His body was returned to his family on July 13, 2009. It is not
yet clear how he was murdered.
The Green Movement, as a Persian proverb goes, "is a raging fire under a heap of ash," with the potential to come to the surface again at any moment. What needs to be done is to recognize its strengths and build on them, address its weaknesses, and make it an all-encompassing movement for every Iranian.
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