Iran: Movement or Revolution?

11 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

On the Foreign Policy website, author Hooman  Majd recently characterized the events taking place in Iran as a civil rights movement (as opposed to a revolution) and he predicted that, whatever you call it, the situation is highly unlikely lead to regime change. This is sure to disappoint those in the West that have proclaimed the end of the Ayatollah and his unfriendly regime.

To recap, protests erupted in Tehran following a questionable election results of June 2009. The “reform” candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, was trounced by the incumbernt Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. If a free and fair election had taken place, this may have very well been the outcome, but there were some  questionable results. Mousavi was badly beaten in Tehran, where he enjoyed broad support, and in his own home district, which is extremely dubious. Many analysts came to the conclusion that while the regime in Tehran may have fudged the results, Ahmedinejad would have would handily anyway.

Still, this reasoning did not sit well with the voters and soon protests erupted in urban areas, where Mousavi support was strongest. What started out as a show of disapproval after a controversial election result turned into a catharsis of wide spread civil disobedience stemming from years of brutal government oppression. The government was caught off guard at the display, and once people started to realize what they could get away with, the movement quickly started to gain momentum.

The world watched as the people of Tehran took to the streets to protest the regime. Aided by Facebook updates, Youtube clips and Twitter feeds, people could follow along with the action and voice their support for the people who were truly risking their lives by speaking out against the government. Eventually the scale of the protest started to ebb, but the Iranian’s bitter dissatisfaction with the government continued to smolder.

The controversy was a gift to the West as it represented and opportunity to initiate a change in Iran. Decades of sanctions and isolation (led by the United States) have only strengthened the resolve of the regime, and to date the strategy has bore little fruit. Now there was real pressure being put upon the regime, but this time it was coming from the inside.

At the height of the protests, many pundits declared that the time was ripe for the Ayatollah and his men to be toppled, but the United States wisely stayed out if it (at least publicly). President Obama did little to encourage the protests, only calling for a fair election.

This was the way the Iranian opposition wanted it. If the United States had openly encouraged regime change, then the protesters, it could be said, would be doing the bidding of Washington. And in a country with such a poor history of foreign influence (see Operation Ajax 1953, the subsequent reign of the Shah 1953-1978, and the U.S. aid of Saddam Hussein 1980-1988), a position such as this taken by the U.S. would have been a non-starter for any opposition movement.

As expected, no matter how much Western leaders tried to stay out of the matter (publicly) the regime still tried to blame the unrest on foreign meddling. While this type of conspiratorial rhetoric may have played well with the crowds in the past, in this case the savvy Persians saw right through it and knew that the regime only had themselves to blame for the unhappiness of the people.

However, contrary to the wishful thinking of some, the regime in Tehran remains very strong and its immanent demise remains unlikely. If one  looked only at clips of protests and listened to exiled opposition figures, one would assume that the regime is crumbling and that it is only a matter of weeks before Ayatollah Khamenei & President Ahmedinejad are fleeing for their lives as angry mobs storm their compounds. But this is just not the case.

To begin with, the unrest starts not with the masses, but between the elites. A subtle power struggle is taking place between the ultra-conservative Ahmedinejad & Khamenei set and the pragmatic-conservative Khatami-Rafsanjani clique. This latter group is extremely powerful and influential, so while they may be the opposition to the President and Ayatollah, they still very much represent a large swath of the establishment and it is because of them that the protests were initially allowed to flourish.

Even within the first group, President Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, there is some friction. For years the Islamic jurisconsult, headed by the Ayatollah, was the heart and soul of power in the Islamic Republic. But over the last five years, that power has been slowly  eroding into the hands of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) headed by the President . This has occurred to the extent that  some analysts feel that Iran has morphed from a theocracy into a militocracy.

The position of the Ayatollah was eroded even further when he took a side in the election controversy. In Iran, the position of the Ayatollah is meant to be an above-it-all, objective, and unifying force that does not get involved or take sides in political issues. It is meant to guide the republic, similar to the Queen of England, but with far more formal power. When Khamenei sided with Ahmedinejad, he betrayed that objectivity and  further demonstrated how far the revolution had strayed from its original ideals.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the high-stakes game of cat and mouse that Iran is playing against the United States with its nuclear energy/weapons program. The United States has been scrambling to secure United Nations Security Council support for a sanctions against Iran. While the Obama administration has had some success with Russia (after making concessions of the Missile Defense System that was to be placed inside Russia’s zone of influence), China has steadfastly foiled any move against Tehran and it is highly unlikely that Beijing will change its tune at any point in the future.

Some have criticized President Obama for not taking a tougher stand, even going as far as to advocate a military intervention in Iran. Obama’s options seemed to be between diplomacy and war, but there was another option: do nothing, and so far this is the path that he has taken. Perhaps the intelligence that he is getting is suggesting that he let the situation in Iran play itself out, and there is evidence that this strategy is starting to pay off.

Recently, surrounding the Shia holiday of Ashura, protests started to spark back up. Adding to this is the recent passing of Grand Ayatollah Monterazi, one of the founders of the revolution who was a staunch and deeply respected critic of the regime. The two events have breathed new life into the movement, which has now spread to the heart of the theocratic establishment in the city of Qom.

Getting back to the original statement, that this so-called Green Revolution is more like a civil rights movement than a true revolution, the changes that the opposition is demanding are unlikely to satisfy the national security needs of countries like Israel, the United States, and the West in general. The powerful men at the top in Iran want to see change, but definitely not changes that could result in the lessening of their wealth or influence. And the vocal public at the other end of the opposition spectrum are not advocating for the overthrow of their government; they more likely just want changes in their civil liberties, like free speech and more transparent elections.

As events continue to evolve and unfold in Iran, it is unclear where the country is heading. The position of the Ayatollah has been weakened, the people have begun to speak out, and their discontent is starting to spread. One thing that is for sure is that things cannot go back to where they were before the June elections. For Iran, the cat is out of the bag.

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