Iran’s Green Movement: One Year Later
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Iran's Green Movement is one year old this Sunday, the anniversary of its first massive demonstrations in the streets of Tehran. Greeted with great hope in much of the world, a year later it's weaker, the country is more repressive, and its hardliners are in a far stronger position—and some of their success can be credited to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sanctions hawks in the Obama administration.
If, in the past year, those hardliners successfully faced down major challenges within Iranian society and abroad, it was only in part thanks to the regime's skill at repression and sidestepping international pressure. Above all, the ayatollahs benefited from Israeli intransigence and American hypocrisy on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.
Iran's case against Israel was bolstered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's continued enthusiasm for the Gaza blockade, and by Tel Aviv's recent arrogant dismissal of a conference of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories, which called on Israel to join a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Nor has President Obama's push for stronger sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council hurt them.
And then, on Memorial Day in the United States, Israel's Likud government handed Tehran its greatest recent propaganda victory by sending its commandos against a peace flotilla in international waters and so landing its men, guns blazing, on the deck of the USS Sanctions. Yesterday's vote at the UN Security Council on punishing Iran produced a weak, much watered-down resolution targeting forty companies, which lacked the all-important imprimatur of unanimity, insofar as Turkey and Brazil voted "no" and Lebanon abstained. There was no mention of an oil or gasoline boycott, and the language of the resolution did not even seem to make the new sanctions obligatory. It was at best a pyrrhic victory for those hawks who had pressed for "crippling" sanctions, and likely to be counterproductive rather than effective in ending Iran's nuclear enrichment program. How we got here is a long, winding, sordid tale of the triumph of macho posturing over patient and effective policymaking.
Suppressing the Green Movement
From last summer through last winter, the hardliners of the Islamic Republic of Iran were powerfully challenged by reformists, who charged that the June 12, 2009, presidential election had been marked by extensive fraud. Street protests were so large, crowds so enthusiastic and the opposition so steadfast that it seemed as if Iran were on the brink of a significant change in its way of doing business, possibly even internationally. The opposition—the most massive since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79—was dubbed the Green Movement, because green is the color of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, among whom losing presidential candidate Mirhossein Moussavi is counted. Although some movement supporters were secularists, many were religious, and so disarmingly capable of deploying the religious slogans and symbols of the Islamic Republic against the regime itself.
Where the regime put emphasis on the distant Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Levant, Green Movement activists chanted (during "Jerusalem Day" last September), "Not Gaza, not Lebanon. I die only for Iran." They took their cue from candidate Moussavi, who said he "liked" Palestine but thought waving its flag in Iran excessive. Moussavi likewise rejected Obama administration insinuations that his movement's stance on Iran's nuclear enrichment program was indistinguishable from that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He emphasized instead that he not only did not want a nuclear weapon for Iran but understood international concerns about such a prospect. He seemed to suggest that, were he to come to power, he would be far more cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The Israeli government liked what it was hearing; Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu even went on Meet the Press last summer to praise the Green Movement fulsomely. "I think something very deep, very fundamental is going on," he said, "and there's an expression of a deep desire amid the people of Iran for freedom, certainly for greater freedom."
Popular unrest only became possible thanks to a split at the top among the civilian ruling elite of clerics and fundamentalists. When presidential candidates Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi and their clerical backers, including Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanaei and wily former president and billionaire entrepreneur Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, began to challenge the country's authoritarian methods of governance, its repression of personal liberties and the quixotic foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad (whom Moussavi accused of making Iran a global laughingstock), it opened space below.
The reformers would be opposed by Iran's supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who defended the presidential election results as valid, even as he admitted to his preference for Ahmadinejad's views. He was, in turn, supported by most senior clerics and politicians, the great merchants of the bazaar, and most significantly, the officer corps of the police, the basij (civilian militia), the regular army and the Revolutionary Guards. Because there would be no significant splits among those armed to defend the regime, it retained an almost unbounded ability to crackdown relentlessly. In the process, the Revolutionary Guards, generally Ahmadinejad partisans, only grew in power.
A year later, it's clear that the hardliners have won decisively through massive repression, deploying basij armed with clubs on motorcycles to curb crowds, jailing thousands of protesters and torturing and executing some of them. The main arrow in the opposition's quiver was flashmobs, relatively spontaneous mass urban demonstrations orchestrated through Twitter, cell phones and Facebook. The regime gradually learned how to repress this tactic through the careful jamming of electronic media and domestic surveillance. (Apparently the Revolutionary Guards now even have a Facebook Espionage Division.) While the opposition can hope to keep itself alive as an underground civil rights movement, for the moment its chances for overt political change appear slim.