The Question of Political Strategy in Iran’s Green Movement

Tehran Bureau: 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.

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