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Fate of the Green Movement Leaders


11 Oct 2011 09:48Comments
abdo.jpg[ Q&A ] w/ Geneive Abdo, director of the InsideIRAN project and coauthor of Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First Century Iran.

Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were put under house arrest in early February. What is their status eight months later?

Mousavi was taken to a very small apartment and is under guard 24 hours a day, according to statements by his wife about one month ago. Due to a lack of privacy at this new location, she said she was unable to join him. Karroubi is also under house arrest in a small apartment and under heavy surveillance.

The two leaders' house arrest is seriously detrimental to the opposition movement's ability to organize and mobilize street protests because no other leadership has emerged.

So what is the status of the Green Movement?

The opposition movement is better organized outside Iran than inside due to the regime's extensive repression. But it is important not to compare the Green Movement with the Arab Spring for several reasons. First and foremost, most Arab countries that have experienced revolutions -- aside from Libya -- had some semblance of a civil society. Even Syria had a civil society movement that was not as constrained by the state as is the case in Iran.

Iran's opposition is more of an evolving social movement working inside and outside the country. It is still evolving because there are no unifying objectives on key issues, such as the relationship between religion and state, a new political structure, or the scope of reforms. Despite this slow evolution, significant and widespread movement is still under way, even if it does not speak with one voice and is not highly visible.

Are the reformers even relevant to politics two years after the election? Are the reformers in a position to play a significant role in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March?

Yes, of course. The word "reformers" has a broad definition. Much of the clerical establishment, for example, is opposed to the regime. Therefore, they should be included in the West's catchall term "reformers."

Iranian officials have already said categorically that candidates from both the reform movement and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's faction will be banned from running in the parliamentary poll due in March. So the reformers' main alternative is an election boycott that would deprive the regime of the façade of democratic elections. The Green Movement aside, the population overall is depressed and apathetic. A boycott resulting in a low voter turnout would further erode the Islamic Republic's credibility -- at a time when the Iranian regime is concerned about how it is perceived both at home and abroad.

What role does the United States play in this political environment?

The Obama administration mistakenly believed that engagement with Iran meant ignoring human rights -- in order to encourage Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program. Now that the diplomatic process is stalled, the U.S. government would be better served pressuring Iran on its human rights record. This would include drawing attention to specific cases as well as the regime's cleansing of Iranian universities. For example, professors and students deemed to be less than loyal to the regime have been expelled in great numbers. Women are also under enormous pressure and are limited politically and socially. The Obama administration has placed its Iran policy on hold while it deals with the turmoil in the Arab world and the domestic economic crisis. Both sides -- the Iranians and the Americans -- appear to think they can buy time. As the United States government focuses elsewhere, the Iranians reportedly continue to develop their nuclear program.

The European Union and the U.N. have made progress in highlighting Iran's poor human rights record and the United States would be well served to follow their example. A special rapporteur for human rights, for example, has been appointed by the U.N. His initial report is due this fall. He may try to visit Iran in the coming months, which would add pressure on the regime. Just today, the E.U. expanded sanctions on Iran due to the regime's human rights violations.

This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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