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Opinion: Bloody but Unbowed

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

03 Mar 2011 01:30Comments

However, big questions remain: What next? And where to?

01lede_iran-blog480.jpg[ opinion ] Iranian demonstrators have been able to establish that they do exist, despite the suppression, the arrests, and the continuous barrage of government propaganda. They are out there. Their heads are bloody but unbowed. However, it seems the complexities of Iranian politics demand more than just courage. The questions remain of what they want and what is achievable.

Tuesday is over. As I write, it is the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Tuesday was cold and rainy with heavier than usual traffic. It was not the perfect day to venture out to the streets, particularly in the central parts of the city. And yet people gathered in Enghelab Square. It is difficult to offer an estimate of their number, but people were there. That cannot be denied. The significance of the day is in the fact that people did come out -- that is all that matters.

It seems a routine has been established. Internet-based media outlets and other websites announce a day and a place of gathering. Most people choose to head to one of the squares close to the center of the city. There are always some spectators who go to see what will happen. The security forces arrive in the afternoon. The motorcycles are parked in alleys and vans are stationed by street corners and around the squares. The uniformed forces are usually accompanied by plainclothes officers -- their organizational affiliations have yet to be revealed, though everybody believes that they belong to either the Basij or Sepah, the Revolutionary Guards. People start gathering on the sidewalks. The crowd grows bigger, denser and the tension mounts. And then someone somewhere shouts "Down with the dictator!" and it begins.

Plainclothes agents and police officers mount their motorcycles to disperse the crowd. As they do, more voices join in. Many of the regular police do not appear enthusiastic about beating the people and do little more than provide cover for the plainclothes forces who stage the attack. Their lukewarm attitude does not endear them to the plainclothes agents. Some arrests are made -- based on many reports, people often resist being detained. An eyewitness account on Gooya News described how the crowd on Kargar Shomali fought back to release a young man arrested by Basij militia.

The reports flow in: more arrests, more security forces deployed. There is no doubt that there exists a opposition movement in Iranian society, that it is alive and progressing. The question is, What will happen next? What can happen next?

On February 17, in a statement muted by caution, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who has served as an advisor to both Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, wrote, "The presidential candidates invited people to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Egypt. Now what is their goal? What purpose did they pursue by inviting people to come to the streets?" He went on to characterize their intentions -- as he put it, overturning the Islamic Republic but upholding the principles of the Islamic Revolution -- as self-contradictory. Abtahi was arrested in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election and since his release he is not his old self anymore: previously an outspoken advocate of reform, he now tends to defend the system, if not with great enthusiasm. Regardless, there is value to the questions he has raised. What is the goal indeed?

Many Iranians have been inspired by the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. While the demonstrations that followed the 2009 election failed to alter the course in Iran, it may seem that the Tunisian and Egyptian people have won the day. That is a huge misconception. It is true that in both places, the ruler has abandoned his position and departed the country. The power elites, however, remain the same and the apparatus of state is as yet unaltered. In Tunisia, though some opposition members were brought into the government, little has changed in practical terms. In Egypt, a military junta now rules the country. Yes, there is a dynamic environment, the promise of a new constitution, and various political groups and unions that continue to press for genuine democracy. The Egyptian economy relies on tourism, which in turn requires stability -- the consequent widespread interest in maintaining a peaceful political process may indeed help Egyptians to exercise a level of political tolerance unheard of in the Middle East. It seems, then, that Egyptians have not yet achieved freedom. They have achieved the freedom to pursue freedom.

What is the goal of Iran's demonstrators? In a BBC interview, Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, a senior adviser to Mir Hossein Mousavi, argued that the movement wants the fulfillment of the democratic potential of the existing Constitution and the drafting of a new one. The most recent Green Movement charter includes these two points and calls for negotiation with the ruling faction to achieve them. Many Iranian expatriates have criticized the Green leaders for upholding the present Constitution. They point out that in promulgating the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), it gives absolute authority in all state affairs to the Supreme Leader. They do not believe any meaningful move toward a democratic system is possible within such a framework.

The difficulty in defining the goal is made more problematic by the difficulty in defining the antagonist. It is simplistic to think of the ongoing contest as a two-sided match between the Iranian people on one side and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the other. There are additional players who must be taken into account. While demonstrators have shifted their attention to the ayatollah, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had the time and opportunity to organize his supporters and secure his power. His increasing reliance on his close friend and adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is an obvious signal that he does not think his fate is inextricably bound to that of the Supreme Leader. He has also greatly expanded his control over the country's foreign affairs. And Ahmadinejad is just one actor. A look at the broader political right in Iran reveals the complexity of the situation.

The Iranian right encompass a broad range of factions, and many of the groups and individuals involved are bitter enemies. Their ranks include young clerics and grand ayatollahs, old-fashioned bazaaris and hypermodern businessmen. There are the old guard of the Revolution who have accumulated wealth through their access to government contracts and subsidies. There are the pious believers who still put stock in Islam as a political ideology. There are elements ready to resort to violence against those who oppose the existing system and there are those, including some who are fervently fundamentalist, who are open to a democratic process and dialogue. These diverse factions, all with their own particular agendas, are not just going to disappear from Iranian politics. Certainly they do not look kindly at calls for a regime change that would threaten their interests and privileges.

Confronting this array of political forces, it is time for the Green Movement to mark out what it wants to achieve and also what it can. Should it seek the replacement of an individual political figure, or pursue sweeping regime change? Looking at the recent developments in the region, Egypt may likely offer a best-case scenario: the transfer of ultimate power away from a long-entrenched head of state, an establishment structurally undisturbed in the short term, but motivated to carry out meaningful reforms. Libya may yield a worst-case scenario: a bloody conflict that destroys much of the country's infrastructure and leaves the country fractured for generations. What is most important to the Green Movement and what outcome is it prepared to risk?

No political future is sustainable in Iran without the inclusion of the right -- from relatively modern conservatives to the traditionalists and fundamentalists. These factions still command popular support from various segments of society and they will still be there whatever may come Iran's way. Democracy, as it turns out, appears to be the only solution. It would provide those of every political stripe with a framework for dialogue and political interaction. It would also help shield minority groups from majority subjugation. They would have the right to express their opinions and the chance to contribute to the development of their county. However, there is only a narrow window of opportunity to implement such a framework.

The recent demonstrations are signs of frustration. Frustration ignites violence. And violence makes everything even more complicated than it is already. Crucially, it reduces the incentives for dialogue and compromise on which any potential negotiation rests. It is alarming to read about the attacks on Karroubi and Mousavi, made by those who nominally desire change in the system, for remaining open to negotiation with those in power. If the Green Movement fails to offer the possibility of an open dialogue, then Iran's options would alter drastically and tragically.

The political right for now appears well entrenched, but again, it is far from united. Many on the right are exceedingly concerned over Ahmadinejad's policies. Traditionalists find fault with his nationalistic overtures. A growing number believe the gaudy president has compromised the stability of the regime and undermined national security. They find themselves increasingly at odds with a man who has tirelessly forged his own alliances and empowered his own base of supporters. Many conservatives are also concerned. Paradoxically, their interests, especially their privileged positions in the economy, are more threatened by Ahmadinejad and his faction than by the Green Movement. It is rational to think they might look to break out of the current stalemate as well.

Given the incentives, it seems reform remains Iran's best option. Mousavi and Karroubi were not and are not wrong in calling for the fulfillment of the potential of the existing Constitution. After all, one cannot achieve freedom without having the freedom to pursue it.

Photo: A banner apparently hung March 1 along Tehran's Niyayesh Highway: "Dictator be payan salam kon" -- Dictator, say hello to the end.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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