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The Question of Political Strategy in Iran's Green Movement

by MEHRDAD MASHAYEKHI in Washington, D.C.

12 Jan 2010 18:1624 Comments
00462-01.jpg[ opinion ] What is now known as Iran's Green Movement was born on June 13, 2009, in reaction to massive electoral fraud during the Islamic Republic's tenth presidential election. The aftermath of the elections sent shockwaves throughout the regime, especially as many believed the government was desperate to show internal solidarity and legitimacy ahead of potentially historic negotiations with the U.S. administration.

Following the election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist contenders-turned-opposition leaders, gave their blessings to the impromptu civil protests. In the past seven months, they have endorsed and even taken part in a number of the demonstrations. This itself represents a turning point in Iranian politics. Since President Mohammad Khatami ushered in a Reform movement in 1997, the Islamic Republic's reformist statesmen had never directly sided with student protesters and other civil society forces or participated in their contentious politics.

Notwithstanding the Reformists' integral role in confronting regime hardliners, it is still unclear who is really providing political guidance to the Green Movement: the symbolic leadership triangle of Mousavi-Karroubi-Khatami, or the invisible grassroots network of activists, including students, bloggers, neighborhood activists, women, the expatriate community, and political pundits. While the seventeen official statements issued by Mousavi have at times endorsed a return to the original values of the Islamic Revolution and the post-1979 constitution, the radicalization of the slogans on the streets -- which increasingly challenge Khamenei, and to a lesser extent the Islamic Republic system -- as well as the recent use of violent methods of resistance against security forces during Dec. 27's Ashura protests, suggest a different reality.

In fact, the grassroots perform a viable, innovative and semiautonomous role in the dynamics of the Green Movement. In the past seven months, the Green Movement has waged a fairly successful nonviolent war of attrition against the ruling power bloc. Its participants have engaged the state's security forces in numerous street confrontations in a calculated, decentralized approach. The repeated use of violence against nonviolent protesters will, inevitably, demoralize some of these forces and, in fact, has already resulted in internal dissention among the security forces' rank and file as well as the regime elite. Yet as much as this pragmatic approach may have minimized the impact of the repressive apparatuses (police, Basij militia, vigilante groups, etc.) on the movement, it is hardly a blueprint for a democratic transition.

However, the grassroots efforts do not diminish the contributions of the ipso facto leadership, which provide the movement some degree of coherence, political symbolism, and a foothold in the hardliners' camp for the clerical establishment to bring pressure on the ruling elite from within. In terms of articulating the demands and slogans of the movement, they administer a "spiritual" and hands-off style of leadership. The current leadership and their religious followers prefer a reformed Islamic Republic, without an interventionist Supreme Leadership and its associated organs. They opt to increase the system's "republicanism" and render the political process more competitive and rational. More secular-oriented Iranians, however, hope to see a truly secular democracy in Iran, with free elections and a new liberal-democratic constitution.

What is missing is a political leadership that provides a more specific platform for change as well as a clear vision for a democratic Iran. This inadequacy stems from two facts: Mousavi and Karroubi never anticipated to be in the leadership positions of a movement challenging the very system they contributed to in the past three decades; also, while acknowledging the movement's internal diversity, they do not want to alienate any segment by providing a set of do's and don'ts associated with a political platform.

However, the absence of a democratic political platform is becoming more of a concern these days, when new rumors of the pending arrests of current leaders are reverberating throughout Tehran. In such an event, who would fill the political void? Now that the original electoral demands are becoming less relevant, what new goals or issues would define the Green Movement? While some of the periodic declarations issued by Mousavi have contained positive guidelines, they have largely remained at the level of generalities: a firm commitment to the causes of the movement; condemnation of the illegitimate administration of Ahmadinejad as well as of the brutalities committed by the authorities; respect for pluralism in the movement; and the need for legal reforms in the Islamic Republic system.

Mousavi's January 1 declaration took a step in the right direction in delineating demands more clearly. The five-point demands included an indirect call for the impeachment of Ahmadinejad by Majlis and a reference to free elections with preconditions such as freeing of political prisoners and freedom of political parties, assembly, and the press.

Nonetheless, controversial statements have periodically surfaced in Mousavi's declarations, mainly of concern to the secular-democratic forces. First and foremost, he has framed the Green Movement as essentially Islamist, cloaked in a Shiite political culture that offers a return to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution, while presenting an infallible image of Ayatollah Khomeini. Meanwhile, Mousavi has remained silent about the specific concerns of various civil society forces, such as women's, workers' and minority rights groups, perhaps overconfident in the capacity of the present Constitution to address the current problems of discrimination and authoritarianism.

While Mousavi and his supporters try to justify such a minimalist approach by invoking the power of the hardliners and the more religious segments of society, they hardly provide a convincing argument from the vantage point of secular-democratic forces in Iran. The current leadership needs to redefine itself through integrating other democratic forces, particularly, representatives of the traditionally excluded, including women, secularists, Islamic liberals, and other minority groups.

If Mousavi is unwilling or unable to take on this inclusion of forces under the Green banner, these groups may ultimately be pushed to form a grand democratic "rainbow coalition." Such a coalition would need to address two major concerns: First, how to end all forms of discrimination currently built into the Islamic Republic's constitution, and second, the promise of open, competitive, and free elections.

Whether the current leadership is willing to address these concerns depends on a number of factors: to what extent splinter forces within the conservative "principalists" are willing to desert Ahmadinejad and side with the Greens, or at least show a willingness for compromise; how the duration of the war of attrition may allow secular-democratic demands to become more vocal; and finally, how new leadership presents its political philosophy in the event of the arrest of present leaders.

Mehrdad Mashayekhi is a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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"War of attrition" is utter hyperbole. More like a nagging, low grade level of dissension. (Undeniable, nonetheless.)

There is definitely a lack of objectivity in the author's use of "massive electoral fraud".

Even though this piece contains the accustomed extent of wishful thinking, several valid points are mentioned. Whether or not this gives the movement an appreciable chance at realized political participation remains to be seen. Personally, I think it unlikely, at least as far as the medium term.

Pirouz / January 12, 2010 7:11 PM

TB should invite the shameless regime apologist pirouz to write a piece in defense of the elections and postelection events. lets see him put his money where his mouth is ... can you do that, pirouz?

Anti-Pirouz / January 12, 2010 10:51 PM

Looks like this is a professor who is used to live in his ivory tower. It might be safer if he stayed there. How on earth can you say you want democracy I.e. rule in accordance with the wishes of the majority. It is unimaginable to think that in society in which religion(in its outward form) is so interweaved with national & self identity from the cradle to the grave will opt for a totally secular state which in any case in reality does not even exist in that most secular of all states, France. Further lumping all women as aspiring for the supposed freedoms that a secular state would supposedly give and probably in return take a lot of that self identity founded in the Shi'ite religious discourse back. If anything traditional religious conservatives are good at making women especially from the lower strata feel good about themselves and give them predominance in the areas where most women want to be powerful & respected which is in the home & as matriarchs. Discrimination in areas of evidence, inheritance and such like will only end once more women get better educated and self confident in the assertion of their rights. On the other hand many women feel quite comfortable with traditional arrangements where they work successfully as it takes a lot of competitive pressure away from their lives. I think that Mosavi et al are right to in the first instance emphasise the adherence to the IR constitution in the first instance for provisions exist within it which under a more enlightened leadership & more effective people's representatives in all organs of the state but most definitely in the Assembly of Experts. If there were only more of the Ayatullah Dastgeib types there is no reason why even the SL himself could not be removed from his position for abdicating his responsibility as the VF of his key duty which is to be just and not his personal like or even give an impression that he favoured one candidate over others. I think the longer term answer is for the reformists to be active in the field of education at all levels to ensure the necessary change is stable & permanent.

rezvan / January 13, 2010 4:21 AM

I have yet to see for once, Pirouz and his type condemn the killing of Sohrab and Neda, or the attack on press and universities by the IR.

I guess the blood of our young Iranians is as cheap as it gets to these people.

Anonymous / January 13, 2010 4:32 AM

People in Iran are fully aware of the competition between Mullah Rafsanjani organized crime mob and the Mullah+military-industrial fascist government in making deals with foreign countries on how to exploit Iranian national wealth.

The movement is no longer the pawn of the Rafsanjani mob in this competition. WE SHALL NOT STOP at Khamenei. We shall UPROOT I.R. altogether, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Mousavi included.

Maziar Irani / January 13, 2010 5:02 AM

Mr Mashayekhi, I should like to ask you as a member of Iranian Republicans (Jomhouri-khahan), why your party did not issue any program for the Green movement? You cannot expect any fundamental changes in Iran, as long as secular forces pay no attention to the movement. Unfortunately we have no responsible secular forces outside the country, who really take care of Iran's future. Every faction is only playing its own game...

Mitra Irani / January 13, 2010 5:11 AM

Rezvan: religion is NOT weaved into the identity of Iranians from cradle to grave.

We Iranians are not fundamentalist religious... the dark lords in Iran wish us to think that we are...

... but in our hearts, we are not.

Iranians draw from a spring far more subtle and with depth than external forms of religion... our culture and values, and our sense of national identity, is inherently non-religious.

Spiritual, yes... but religious in the fundamentalist way you describe it, absolutely NOT.

Are YOU Iranian???

Saeed / January 13, 2010 7:12 AM

NO!! Religion in any shape and form is not "interweaved" in Iranian society, that statement can only be applied to the vibrant Iranian culture.
At the other hand no one with a bit of common sense will categorize islam as a religon b/c it is not.
Islam is a political party. Have you ever heard of Party of Allah (Hezbollah) which is the only political party sanctioned by allah in quran.

No, rezvan is not Iranian.

Aryajet / January 13, 2010 1:56 PM

I respectfully disagree.

Ask any Iranian:
1. what are the most celebrated events in Iranian calendar? Do you think they'll say Ashura, Birth of Prophit Muhammad, or ALi, 22 bahman? No. It is Noruz- Persian New Year, Chehar shanbeh suri- the festival of light, Shabe yalda, and Jashneh Mehregan. These have been celebrated in Iran for thousands of years and are still, by far, the biggest events in Iran. This fact is true eventhought IR has done its best to supress them.

2. Ask any Iranian about the 3rd 4th or 6th Shiaa Imam. They may tell you a few sentences they were taught. Then ask them about the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab and watch their faces light up. Please, ask any Iranian, religious or not.

3. Ask any Iranian What is the most read and popular book in Iran?
Quran?? No. they will tell you It's Shahnameh by Ferdowsi

You have said before that Iranians compare Khamanai to Yazid , and take lessons from the martyrdom of Hussain. True, but believe me when I say the legend of Zahak and Fereidoon hits a nerve in us far deeper. Why do you think Iranian people compare Khamani to Zahak more often than to Yazid?

Rezvan, Iran is an Islamic country, and we are predominately Muslim. But just like an Iranian girl who wears a beautiful colorfull dress under her black chador, Islam in Iran is superficial and skin deep, while our fabric, flesh and blood is Persian.

Dont get me wrong,
I am Muslim (by birth), I dont mean to put down islam, and I dont want to sound anti-Islamic. But your understanding of Iranian character is not accurate. It is irrelevant what you and I would like it to be. It is just how it is.

For better understanding of contemporary Iranian character and culture I encourage you to read "In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's First Prophet"- by Paul Kriwaczek

My Iranian friends please correct me if I am wrong.

Rezvan, I will post this comment to you on a different forum as well.

Ahvaz / January 13, 2010 10:10 PM

@ Pirouz,

From the style of your witting, one can augment that you had extensive religious teachings in one of the Madras’s in Qum. What is even more interesting is that I see your pro-government bias in several other sites, often on the same day as the article is published. Sir, how do you make a living while all day long you are sitting at your PC and propagating your propaganda.
Surely you must be on the payroll of the Mullah’s

Cyrus / January 14, 2010 1:39 AM

I agree with Anti-Pirouz - lets subject Pirouz's ideology to some intellectual rigor - I'm positive that it won't take much for everyone to see what a charlatan he (and this regime along with him) is/are.

Agha Irani / January 14, 2010 2:03 PM

The author states that There is no clear democratic leadership or vision at the present. That is in part true, since a true democracy in Iran would mean the end of IR.

We still don't know the true intentions or Mousavi and Karroubi. One one hand, they talk about preserving the IR and on the other support freedom and domocracy.

In my opinion, these leaders and the opposition movement don't have much of a choice at this time. If they come out strong for a democratic Iran, it would be considered treason and it would play right in the hands of the hardliners and they would be killed in no time.

I believe their main objective right now is to continue with what they've been doing, until the regime crumbles, which it will in the near future.

The question is, will we see a true democracy or a watered down IR.

Remember Gorbachev was once a communist.

AG / January 14, 2010 3:16 PM

Rezvan is right. If you count the number of mosques in Iran, there are more per capita than there are churches in Italy, wester Europe's most religious country where 1 out of 4 attend Sunday mass EVERY week.

Iran is a traditional country, and that is fine. Islam in Iran has been its saviour against the Arabs, it has allowed it to unite better than language ever could.

There is certainly a minority of atheists in Iran, a larger minority of agnostics. But the majority is certainly religious.

Religious adherence and piety are two different things which are easy to confuse. Some in Iran are pious, though not religious, and most who are religious, are not very pious.

A government that is based on free individual will never be able to handle the forces of "nahy'e az monker" and "amre' be ma'roof" that the moslems believe in. It will be a major road block, unless the government actually handles it, or pretends to handle it.

Educaiton, ah, that is such an old neo-liberal, neo-conservative mantra that is showing wrikles. It will not change how people feel in moments of existential crisis. They will rush to the church, the mosque, the rabbi, or make a donation, etc. it is the damn god-gene at work. So, deal with it and don't beat up people with it.

Next time you wish god to help you. You have trapped yourself in Islam, Christianity, Judaism. The monotheist control system is here to stay.

Sorry to say, it was invented by our dear Elamite ancestors as a control system. It is here to stay. It fools more people that you think. I swear to god.

nassim Sabba / January 14, 2010 5:26 PM

Re: Rezvan

Only a non-Iranian will write such a load of crap as Rezvan's. Why do you think the regime most so-called religious devotees (i.e. Basij and Ansar-e-hizballah) have to be subsidized with the states oil revnues to buy their loyalty?

sickofiriapolgoists / January 16, 2010 9:59 AM

I think everyone here should read the world public opinion survey (worldpublicopinion.org) carried out in sep'09. That will give you the Iranian public's answer to many of your criticisms. But then again you might say the survey is not representative or that the public is brain washed. Anyhow read it for yourselves.

rezvan / January 16, 2010 11:28 PM

@nassim Sabba:

There are far more churches per capita in western Europe than there are mosques in Iran.

Also the proportion of people who regularly go to mosques in Iran is much less than those who go to church in Europe. Friday prayers attendence in Iran is about 1.5%.

Cy / January 17, 2010 4:26 AM


Public opinion polls of Iranians conducted by telephone interviews are deeply flawed and inaccurate because

a)Nonresponse bias: The sample is never representative to begin with due to a nonresponse bias against those with unfavorable views against the regime, i.e those who are against the regime feel that the rather long and rigorous interview with a stranger about sensitive political topics carries a risk that those in favour of the regime will not percieve. This means that such people are much more likely to refuse to participate. Thus the sampling method is flawed and the poll is necessarily unscientific.

b)Response bias: Some of those who do participate will censor themselves on some of the more sensitive topics due to perceived/real risks.
(Keep in mind that the person on the other end of the line is a stranger and the phone conversation may be under surveillance by a brutal regime as far as the interviewee is concerned.)

These biases are very real. Unless one finds a way of eliminating them, polls of this type will remain unscientific.

Cy / January 17, 2010 4:58 AM

Rezvan: Who do you think the worldpublicopinion works for??

It's a neocon outfit. What does that tell you>??

sickofiriapologists / January 17, 2010 6:48 AM

I totally agree with Rezvan. I believe that his suggestions are the only way the green movement will be succesful. I just spent the last year and a half in Iran, and sadly the exile community does not wish to accept the reality of how religious our society is.

Alireza / January 17, 2010 10:12 AM

unfortunately I have to agree with Alireza and rezvan here... Dr. Mashayekhi, whose views and scholarship I have read extensively and respect tremendously, potentially represents the majority view of the Iranian-American (1mil?) or maybe even Iranian expatriate (3-5mil?) communities... but I think those of us abroad who think it represents the dominant viewpoints inside the country (70mil!!) are deluding ourselves.

Almost every recent Iranian immigrant you talk to, even the religious minorities who have come abroad with persecuted refugee status will tell you the same thing - the people inside iran are overwhelmingly religious and/or pious...

To those of you who wish it were otherwise... remember that somewhere in the neighbor hood of 50 or 60% of the population is UNDER 30 years old... that means for their ENTIRE lives, they have lived with a Velayate Faqih, with Imam Khomeini's picture, and with Shia Islamic ideology bombarding them day in and day out... it will take far more than an internet connection and a few You Tube videos to overpower that kind of social programing that has occurred on a national scale.

and lastly - keep in mind that despite all the MANY evils of the IRI - to those who have lived inside it for 30 years, it has been far better than Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, or hell, even Russia or China... so even a rational, educated, and worldly Iranian can reasonably be expected to prefer the IRI to many of the alternatives that exist within their grasp...

it takes A LOT of imagination to put themselves into the context of the political system in the US or Western Europe where you and I might live and thrive... and considering the low standing of the US over the past 8 years in particular, its not hard to imagine that a vast majority of iranians would not look too kindly on the "American" system either...

so long story short - the people inside Iran will pick the path to their future - and despite their purest intentions, the Dr. Mashayekhi's of the world do not even come close to understanding Iran or prescribing a platform for its future... (not that he should stop trying- one day, in the distant future, his work will come to fruition)

if you want to find a potential expatriate replacement for the Mousavi-Karoubi-Khatami-(Rafsanjani?) leadership... then your best bet lies with these guys: Mohajerani, Kadivar, Soroush, Ganji

(ps. I know Dr. Mashayekhi wont like that - he's not too fond of these 'religious types' ;)

an exiled iranian / January 18, 2010 9:53 AM

For Cy- Despite reservations, constraints and biases that the survey may have been subject to. The survey conductors themselves say that some 40 odd per cent did not wish to participate however over 50 % did participate (which is a majority of those contacted). What is however interesting that despite intimidation, other pressures, the results do not give such grossly exaggerated figures that you can totally discount them as one would do for instance if the responses in favour of the IR system based on a VF had been 90% or more. The actual figure is about 60%. This does show that there is either a large minority that is politically ambivalent/indifferent or a to a degree opposed to the IR/VF system.

rezvan / January 18, 2010 10:08 PM


Have you been to villages in Iran? there is a mosque in every village of even 10 families. I lived in remote parts of Iran, not just Tehran. I lived in villages that a car passes through once a week.

The mosque can be a one room space, but there is a mullah that attends to it, and it is often associated with a school (a civic school, not a religious school, mind you), run by the government. People don't associate the two as wrong, and approve it. They believe the mullah is important to their lives.

I must emphasize that I don't with to imply that the religious majority are fanatics. I hope I didn't give you that impression. Religion for the majority is a way of life, it is a philosophy rather than a set of rules to "sacrifice" yourself for.

I see Iranians as cruising on Hossein's sacrifice. Ashura is a reminder for vigilance in order to avoid the necessity of sacrifice. Iran is 80% Shia, and the 18% are of the Sunat, but are not Wahabis. So, no fanatics there either. Actually, most of the sunat in Iran are more liberal than the Shia, except in the SE. They are the least fanatic, having had Islam second had, so to speak, due to their remote isolation.

Thus, we have no culture of fanaticism in religion. None-the-less, the majority believes that religion allows it to choose the right path.

The western idea that "education" can set these people straight is pathetic. The God "gene" is in all humans. It is an evolutionary construct for survival. In Iran it is satisfied by Islam and it has become engrained.

As long as there is a way to accept this, and also, make sure that they, the religious can also accept the right of other religions and even "atheists" as Ayatolah Montazeri even said in a fatwa, we can have a constitution that can allow civil justice (haq) for all.

Those who wish to ostracize religion have a different agenda. They don't have the real people in mind.

I adhere to no religion, in fact, I am an atheist, but have immense respect for the writing of Montazeri and his philosophy of religion.

I also understand that I would be foolish to want the majority to drop religion as their personal world view.

As I said, the fact that Islam saved Iran from the Arabs is engrained in our common consciousness. You can exude it by a magic wand. Stalin tried it, and it was kind of hard for kind of a lot of people, for a kind of a long time. No?

We need to respect the God "gene" and work around it until nature takes care of it in a few thousand generations. Lets hope sooner, but still we have to live, enjoy the music, the children, the peotry, and our own world views.

Read Montazerie and you will not be afraid of the God gene as much as you seem to be.

nassim sabba / January 19, 2010 1:21 AM

People in Iran are religious, but, their traditional religion is imbued with Hafiz, Saadi, Mowlana (Rumi), Khayyam, who are not fanatics, far from it, they range from atheist, nihilist (khayyam) to Platonics (Saadi), and Existentialist (Mowlana).

Thus, although Islam has deep roots in Iran, it is an Iranian religion based on equal parts, khoda, allah, yazdan, and nothingness. It satisfies the Iranian GOD gene.

It respects the relentless, inhuman blue dome, the enigmatic space of trance, and forever, the let down of natural cycles. It is more philosophy than "church".

My beloved "male cat", tried to show us the path. We paid a high price when he was pushed aside from the scene. It is time to revive his thoughts and free the atheist and the religious at once.

Montazerie saved at least 3000 lives when he stood up against Khomeini. He lost his chance to become the supreme leader because of that.

He didn't believe in the idea of the supreme leader as it got implemented, so, probably he didn't care for it. He was thus free to stand up against the summary executions of the blood thirsty mullahs around khomeini.

Montazerie's writings are inspirational. Wish they were available in English.

You can download them in Persian (PDF). They are mind opening.

No discussion of government forms can be complete without including his notions. If you can refute them, then I will follow you. He trumps the philosopher king.

There is still hope in the Green Movement if it moves slowly and heeds its real leader. He has left us the prescription.

nassim sabba / January 19, 2010 1:47 AM

I have posted a couple of times. I must clarify:

We don't need a leader. We need a System.

We need a system. Our leader, Montazerie, is dead, but he has left us the prescription in his writings. He didn't spend his house-arrest prison playing pacman. He thought and wrote.

Read his treatise on government, and you will understand that people like Kadivar, and Mohajerani are babes in the woods. They can help, but not as leaders.

We need a system, and it has to evolve from within. We don't need revolution. The latter allows foreigners with power to take hold of its direction, as they did with Khomeini, and derail it.

Montazerie was under house arrest for that very reason. To satisfy Khomeini's masters. He and all who followed him, were "followers of capital's line".

Lets forget about leaders, lets think of a System.

Of the 177 principles in the current Iranian constitution, we need to remove only Sec 5 of #1, #5, #107-112 and related references to them, and #150. Heal the voids and we'll have the System we need.

Then again, at a re-read of what will result, you would accuse me of being a socialist. But I will take that constitution with the stated modifications, compared to any other constitution, anywhere. It is Iranian, humanitarian, open, and Flexible.

nassim sabba / January 19, 2010 2:09 AM