Mousavi and Martyrdom: How the Regime Calculates the Personal Challenge

My article on Tehran Bureau: Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi considers Iran’s Green Movement a civil rights struggle. Others contend that there is a revolution under way aimed at radically altering the country’s political landscape. The latter opinion largely rests on the many parallels between today’s protest movement and that of the Iranian Revolution that swept away the monarchy more than thirty years ago.Eight months after presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and large segments of society decried the June 12th presidential election results as fraudulent and launched a sustained protest movement, countless reasons abound as to why the movement is not yet a bona fide revolution. The focus here is on only one such reason: The ironic impact of the physical presence of the movement’s leadership in Iran, which effectively inhibits Mousavi’s ability to elevate the movement to its political potential.

The history of the Iranian Revolution sheds light on the counter-intuitive effect of Mousavi’s domestic presence and its capacity to preclude the movement from reaching its full culmination.

In 1963, 15 years before the Iranian Revolution changed the nation’s direction, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came into political prominence by opposing, first, the Shah’s White Revolution, and, second, the awarding of capitulation rights to the United States.

As a dissident living inside Iran and within reach of the state’s security apparatus, Khomeini tempered his criticisms, limiting them to only certain policies such as the capitulation rights, and even invoking the monarchical constitution to bolster his objections: “The constitution has been bought with the blood of our fathers, and we will not permit it to be violated.” His continued defiance after his arrest and subsequent release from prison prompted the Pahlavi state to eventually exile him in 1964, when Khomeini went to Turkey and then to Iraq, where he spent most of his exile.

In neighboring Iraq, Khomeini enjoyed immunity from the Shah’s feared security forces and escalated his opposition. At the same time, the aged cleric was close enough to afford his devoted followers access to his fiery sermons, which were transmitted to Iran through tape recordings or leaflets. Thus, while keeping a safe distance from the Tehran regime, he no longer confined his stinging criticism to specific policies, but to the political system as a whole. It was in this period that Khomeini formulated his transformative blueprint for modern Iran. Indeed, in 1970, he laid out his ideology for a radically different system of governance by penning Hokoumat-e Islami — or Islamic Government.

For as long as Mousavi remains in Iran, it will prevent him–as it did Khomeini half a century ago–from realizing his full leadership potential. He will continue to keep his rhetoric confined to the system parameters, which is a limitation that some of his more radical supporters abhor as they demand the removal of the non-republican governmental institutions.

For its part, the government is well-versed in its own revolutionary history. The regime has not exiled Mousavi in order to obstruct his capacity for unrestrained expression from a safe haven. Nor have they arrested and tried him for sedition–a capital offense–thus averting an inspiring martyrdom.

Consequently, Mousavi remains in Iran, exposed to the state’s psychological warfare. Not arrested or killed; the threat of harm is even more effective under the circumstances.

By keeping the threat of punishment looming over his head, the state’s intimidation strategy limits Mousavi’s proclamations, which might help explain why he continues to criticize the government within the framework of the constitution–just as Khomeini did in the 1963-64 uprising.

Less than two weeks after the protests began in June, Ali Shahrokhi, the head of parliament’s judiciary committee threatened, “Mousavi’s calling for illegal protests and issuing provocative statements have been a source of recent unrests in Iran … Such criminal acts should be confronted firmly.” In early July, the Basij militia wrote a letter to the country’s chief prosecutor “accusing Mousavi of involvement in nine offenses against the state, including ‘disturbing the nation’s security.’ That charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.” As recently as December, after the Ashura protests, members of parliament called upon state authorities to arrest Mousavi because he and other leaders “must not remain on the sidelines and be safe.”

The Islamic regime will not transfigure Mousavi into a martyr by arresting and trying him for sedition, nor will they exile him so that he can speak freely and escalate his rhetoric to revolutionary heights. By holding him in Iran, subject to interminable threats, chilling statements, and constant harassment, the government ensures that Mousavi and his movement are limited in scope and potential. And although the Green Movement has revealed a highly decentralized organizational model, effective leadership is, nevertheless, critical to its ability to negotiate an outcome that produces dividends, revolutionary or otherwise.

This entry was posted in 22 Khordad, Iran. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mousavi and Martyrdom: How the Regime Calculates the Personal Challenge

Comments are closed.