Sunday, June 13, 2010
06/12/2010 Iran's Greens continue to meander | Eskandar Sadeghi

If the current impasse is to be surmounted, Mousavi's Green movement must confront strategic and ideological weaknesses

A year has passed since Iran's rigged presidential election, which bestowed another four-year term upon hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the aftermath of that fateful day, the world's attention was focused on the largest mass protests Iran had ever witnessed â€" millions of people marching peacefully and bound together by the unifying chant of: "Where is my vote?"

There was a dark side to the story. One that is still unfolding despite the fact that attention has shifted towards the status and course of Iran's controversial nuclear program. It involves open repression and brutality undertaken by the security and revolutionary forces, above all the notorious basij militia, captured for all to see with the aid of a new generation of "citizen journalists"; Stalinist show-trials and phantasmal tales of "velvet revolution"; the death of an Iranian woman by the name of Neda, who has since been elevated to the status of an international icon; and allegations of rape and torture in Kahrizak and Evin prisons. There is also the arrest and detention of virtually the entire reformist elite, with the exception of former president Mohammad Khatami, and the two nominal heads of the Green movement, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, and the death of the Green movement's most senior clerical patron and a founding father of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

I witnessed the protests with my own eyes â€" it was undoubtedly one of the most incredible things I had ever seen or experienced. The protestors were calm, dignified, fraternal and generous, and came from all walks of life, not just the wealthy suburbs of northern Tehran. Those moments, in my humble view, attested to nothing short of the redemptive power of the human spirit. But those days are gone, swept away in a whirlwind of arrests, intimidation and executions.

The brute reality of state power had overwhelmed an opposition ill-equipped and incapable of mounting a crippling blow to the former's "iron fist" â€" sporadic and/or poorly co-ordinated street protests, chanting "God is great" from the rooftops, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, BBC Persian and Weblogestan were certainly effective in disseminating the presence and scattered demands of the Green movement, but were always going to be limited in their ability to provoke a fully fledged socio-political transformation; and even while the people's rage and ire has continued to bubble beneath the surface, the semblance of calm returned to the streets and the state has been in reasonable control.

For many, life has simply gone on, with the imperative of earning one's daily bread in a troubled economy taking precedence. So, while a definitive "legitimacy crisis" can be said to have taken place as the republican dimension of the Islamic Republic is tossed aside, the threat of arrest and violent retaliation has proven itself effective in the short term.

During this time a number of issues have come to the forefront, which can no longer be ignored:

The supreme leader is not, nor was he arguably ever, a neutral and apolitical arbiter of factional disputes â€" given that Iran is ultimately a theocracy, with only a subordinate and highly problematic "democratic" element, the role could never be understood as strictly "spiritual". The opposition's promise of constitutional amendments that would threaten his grip on power and the legally enshrined foundations of theocratic despotism could never be allowed to see the light of day.

A marriage of convenience between the supreme leader, the ninth government and a powerful arm of the revolutionary guards has decisively seized the reigns of power and is no longer content with the hitherto limited pluralism dividing up the political elite. It wishes to dispense once and for all with their more pragmatic and reformist rivals. Even a founding father and pillar of the revolution, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has ceased to be immune, as he and his family are badgered and threatened with arrest. Relatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, now face similar treatment if they dare dissent. Moreover, this marriage of convenience is as much about control of Iran's economy as it is of political power. Crudely put, the guys presently calling the shots have the guns and they're willing to use them to ensure their power, economic interests and ultimately self-preservation remain beyond question.

This cabal is not without moorings in Iranian society, and is able to mobilise a formidable segment of the population â€" as witnessed by the pro-government demonstrations held on 11 February, the anniversary of the revolution. Many basijis, civil servants, school children, villagers and according to one account even prostitutes were coerced, fed or bribed for their presence. The polity is divided and the government undoubtedly has its supporters among the populace (some 10-15%) dividing friends, neighbours and families. Even if many might be appropriately termed "clients" of the Iranian rentier state, this is by no means always the case. Disembedding such groups from the bosom of the state is a long-term aspiration, for which there is no short-term fix.

But where does the Green movement go from here?

Hopes for a government-in-exile remain unhelpful and wishful thinking. Street demonstrations and student protests have been adeptly isolated, picked off and dismembered. Strikes in both the bazaar and the oil fields have failed to materialise and it is in this respect that the Green movement has failed to translate its challenge to the establishment into tangible leverage, which could open up the possibility of meaningful concessions and a decisive political breakthrough â€" they've even failed to secure the release of political prisoners, let alone reach the seat of government.

The hope for a massive turnout of disgruntled protestors for the election's anniversary has been blunted by Mousavi and Karoubi's wholly legitimate fear of further bloodshed and may well mean that street protests, at least for the time being, as a strategy of pressuring the government have come to a dead-end. This attests to the immense difficulties faced by a non-violent movement confronting the hard metal of guns, batons and motorbikes wielded by an authoritarian state.

Unlike the revolutionary movement of 1979, which was able to bring the country's economy to a grinding halt, the Green movement in terms of material results has achieved very little. Though there is little doubt Mousavi has maintained effective leadership and enumerated a list of basic demands and objectives under the most harrowing of circumstances (even losing a nephew to assassination), the Green movement continues to meander and react to events, often with only the barest cognisance of what it genuinely stands for and envisions for the future of the country.

This is an unfortunate reality that at least for the present needs to be confronted if the current impasse is to ever be surmounted. We ought to remember, however, that the process of reform is not a sprint but a marathon, it was taking place before 12 June and will go on irrespective of the government's desire to turn back the clock some 30 years to the apogee of revolutionary fervour, and that young, hopeful and idealistic women, students and citizenry â€" the supporters and vehicles of reform â€" possess the seeds of cataclysmic change. As the Green movement itself shows, it's no longer a matter of "if", but only "when" age-old autocracy will wither away and fade into the annals of history.

Eskandar Sadeghi ? Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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