Inside Iran’s Opposition Movement

Jan 22, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 22, 2010
Number 01/10 #06

This Update features some new insights into the goals and motivations of Iran’s “Green” opposition movement.

The first entry comes from Iranian-American analyst Mehdi Khalaji, who writes about the experience of his own father, an ayatollah now languishing in an Iranian prison. Khalaji tells the story of his father, who supported and worked for the 1979 revolution and was imprisoned by the Shah, but later gradually drifted away as the Islamic regime became more authoritarian. Despite years of avoiding politics, however, he eventually felt he had to support the opposition after last year’s stolen election. For this illuminating tale, which explains much about how Iran’s Green opposition reached their current state of anger and defiance, CLICK HERE. Khalaji also recently had an interesting piece on the Iranian regime’s open belief in fear as a legitimate tool of government, and use of Shi’ite religious sources to justify this.

Next up, Sabrina Amina, the Jerusalem Post’s Teheran correspondent, who witnessed the explosion of popular discontent after the election, is back in Teheran recording her impressions. While she finds ostensible calm, she also finds considerable bitterness, anger and determination simmering beneath the surface, and likely to soon resurface in more demonstrations and confrontations. What is particularly interesting is the discontent and opposition to the regime she finds among some police – one of whom helps her after a security officer violently assaulted her. For all of this fascinating account of the tensions and views on the streets of Teheran. CLICK HERE.

Finally, Patrick Clawson from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has just completed a study, based largely on direct interviews with Iranian opposition figures, looking at how the opposition movement can affect Western negotiations with Iran. (The full study can be downloaded here.) In the Washington Institute Forum talk reproduced here, he summarises his findings – including the bad, mixed and good news he found for hopes of ending the nuclear standoff successfully. His analysis and advice is offered alongside that of another prominent analyst of Iran, Dr. Ray Takeyh. For their valuable insights, CLICK HERE. More insights into what the Iranian protesters want comes from Pooya Dayanim, an exiled activist and analyst, who bases his conclusions on his interviews with Iranians who fled the June unrest. 

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Revolutionary Ayatollah: How My Father Went from the Prison of the Shah to the Prison of Khamenei

By Mehdi Khalaji

ForeignPolicy.com, January 19, 2010

In the very cold winter of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, returned to Qom, the spiritual capital of the Shiite world, for the first time after his long exile. A huge crowd came out that day. As he made his way to the stage, passing through those who pressed together to see him, the ayatollah’s mantle fell off. Once he had settled in his chair, he noticed how chilly he was. “I’m cold,” he said. Within seconds, another mantle fell over his shoulders and wrapped him warm.

This mantle belonged to my father, Mohammad Taghi Khalaji. After my father draped his mantle over Ayatollah Khomeini’s shoulders, he went to the podium and gave the introductory speech on behalf of the clerical establishment, as well as the people of Qom. I never saw my father with that mantle again.

Right now, my father is in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran. He was arrested in his home in Qom on Jan. 12. On that day, he joined hundreds of Iranian citizens who have been arrested by the Iranian regime after the rigged election in June 2009. My family has been given no information — either by the Special Court of Clerics or by the Ministry of Intelligence — about any charges against my father. Furthermore, my father has not been allowed to contact us or hire a lawyer. The government’s denial of his basic legal rights is not unusual; it is the typical treatment of political prisoners.

The son of a farmer, my father was born in June 1948 in the province of Isfahan. When he was 5 years old, he moved to Tehran, where his three brothers lived. In 1968, after graduating from high school and then Shokooh English Language Institute, he started to work as a bank accountant. Although he came from a conservative religious background, he was the first in his family to become a cleric. Under the influence of the rising religious fervor in Iran, and despite his family’s discontent, he left his job in the bank and its good salary. In 1969, he moved to Qom with his fiancee — my mother, Mohtaram — and began to study in its seminary.

A revolutionary-minded young cleric, my father soon joined Qom’s pro-Khomenei clique and proved himself to be an excellent orator with an innate talent for scholarship. As he was making stunning progress in his theological studies, he employed his rhetorical skills in the service of the revolutionary cause. He was a disciple of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari and close to other founding fathers of the Islamic Republic.

For delivering speeches critical of the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he was arrested three times. The last time he was released, three month later in February 1979, the revolution had toppled the shah and established the foundations of a new government.

On Feb. 1, 1979, following the revolution’s success, Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris. When he returned to his hometown Qom a month later, the conventional wisdom, shared by my father, was that Khomeini would leave politics to the politicians and return to teaching theology. But the course of history proved everyone wrong.

Khomeini was looking to realize his dream of an Islamic government that applied his authority as the “ruling jurisprudent,” or wilayet-e-faqih. Khomeini stayed in Qom for only a few months and, after suffering a heart attack, moved to Tehran. He governed the Islamic Republic from Iran’s political capital for the rest of his life.

During Khomeini’s time in Qom, my father became very close to this charismatic leader. Every day, he went to the home of Mohammad Yazdi, where Ayatollah Khomeini resided. Yazdi, now an ayatollah himself, served as the head of Iran’s judicial system for ten years under its current leader, Ali Khamenei. Parts of our families have remained in touch to this day: My younger brother is married to one of Yazdi’s close relatives.

But some of Khomeini’s tactics eventually alienated my father. To consolidate power in the clergy, Khomeini convinced Iran’s power-hungry clerics that they were the legitimate heirs of the Islamic Republic and deserved their own portion of the spoils of war against the shah’s regime — in other words, political power. Despite my father’s loyalty to Khomeini and his ideals, he became disgusted by these clerics and kept his distance from them. He decided to return to the seminary, and limited his social activities.

Nonetheless, my father’s views of the Islamic Republic remained naive and optimistic. He was hugely resistant to the criticism of government behavior from both the secular and religious strata of society. Unconsciously, he resisted the belief that the revolution for which he sacrificed his youth could possibly lead to human rights abuses, executions without trial, the imprisonment of the innocent, and the suppression of freedom of speech.

After 30 years of study under some of the most prominent clerics in the Shiite world, in subjects ranging from fiqh (jurisprudence) to Islamic philosophy, my father became a mujtahid — an ayatollah who is forbidden from following another’s religious authority and must fulfill his own religious duties based on his own personal understanding. He also taught Islamic philosophy and Shiite jurisprudence and educated hundreds of seminary students, several of whom later became prominent political figures.

My father was quiet and pious then and has remained so. He followed the example of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was designated as Khomeini’s successor in 1985. After Khomeini ordered the execution without trial of approximately 4,000 political prisoners in 1988, Montazeri criticized him for issuing an order he considered contrary to Islam. For speaking out, Ayatollah Montazeri was stripped of his government position, and his family members and disciples were pressured by the regime to remain silent.

This moment was a turning point for revolutionary clerics like my father who were not contaminated by political and economic corruption. In one of his public speeches Montazeri, who was Khamenei’s teacher before the revolution, stated that Khamenei lacks sufficient theological training to issue fatwas and that his government is therefore illegitimate according to both the Iranian Constitution and Shiite law. Following this speech, the regime raided Montazeri’s house, confiscated his property, and exercised a tremendous pressure over his family and clerical circle, including my father. Nevertheless, my father remained quiet and continued to write religious commentaries on the Fourth Shiite Imam’s prayer book (Sahifeh-ye Sajjadieh) and the speech of Fatima, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter (Khotbeh-ye Zahra). He published several religious books and, when he was allowed, he delivered speeches in different cities in Iran without ever publicly criticizing the government.

My father was mostly isolated from politics and gradually became disappointed with them. However, the televised presidential debate between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi agitated him and motivated him to throw his support behind Mousavi.

During the unrest that followed last June’s election, when government forces arrested and killed peaceful demonstrators, my father began to speak out. He watched the footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, after she was shot by a Basij militiaman during a June 20 protest, replayed on television. After that event, he began calling me at midnight in Tehran for several nights, telling me that he could no longer sleep. He did not revolt against the shah in order to establish a regime that beat up peaceful demonstrators and shot innocent people.

One of his first speeches was in the Dar-Alzahra mosque in north Tehran, where reformists, including former President Mohammad Khatami, were gathering. In his speech, my father reiterated that he would like the Islamic Republic to survive. However, if Iranian leaders claim that they are following the example of Islam, its prophet, and its imams, then according to Islam, he argued, they must have the people’s consent to rule. He also criticized the Iranian regime for taking political prisoners, saying that the governments of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali insisted on the freedom of pacifist opposition. Therefore, they maintained neither an Evin prison, the famous prison in Tehran where the government still holds political detainees, nor a Kahrizak, the detention center where the government tortured and raped men and women for supporting Moussavi after the election.

We spoke after this speech. He was happy for the message that he had delivered and felt that he had done his religious duty. He considered that he and his compatriots were responsible before God for the revolution and therefore could not keep silent when human rights abuses were committed in the name of Islam. Despite receiving several warnings from the Intelligence Ministry, he continued to seize opportunities to speak out.

In his last speech, on the eve of Ashura in the residence of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in Qom, my father asked that Iran’s leaders repent to God for what they have done to the demonstrators and for suppressing the clerics who support the Islamic Republic but were merely constructively criticizing the current leaders’ behavior. This speech came a few days after the death of Ayatollah Montazeri. While Tehran and Iran’s other major cities were on fire after the rigged election, Qom was quiet until the passing of the dissident ayatollah. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Montazeri’s funeral and used the opportunity to demonstrate against Khamenei and the regime, all the ceremonies around the country for Montazeri were banned by the government. In an attempt to prevent more damage to the government’s legitimacy, the government waged a campaign against Ayatollah Sanei by shutting down his offices in different cities. My father was arrested a few days later.

By initiating a crackdown on peaceful protesters and suppressing the first generation of the Islamic Republic, the government has simultaneously discredited its Islamic legitimacy and undermined its revolutionary credentials. This regime has transformed my father from a man concerned with keeping Ayatollah Khomeini’s shoulders warm into an enemy of the state. This is a revolution that eats its own children. It places its survival at risk.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the domestic policy of Iran as well as the politics of Shiite groups in the Middle East.


Reporter’s Notebook: Simmering opposition, and an unlikely rescue from assault

SABINA AMIDI, Jerusalem Post correspondent in Teheran ,


It’s as if I never left. As I stroll the streets of Teheran on my first day back here, images and recollections of the summer’s unrest come rushing back to me.

Although every day, throughout the country, people come together in small gatherings to mourn the dead and hold minor demonstrations, the streets are relatively calm. The demonstrations I witnessed at the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bitterly contested election “victory,” and the more recent resurgence of protest around the Ashura holiday, have receded – for now.

But bitterness and anger are simmering just below the surface, and next month there will be a series of anniversary dates, in quick succession, that offer potential for further drama: February 4 – 40 days after Ashura; February 11 – the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution; February 15 – commemorations of the demise of the prophet Muhammad and the martyrdom of grandson Hasan Ibn Ali.

And Ahmadinejad’s plans to drastically cut subsidies on gasoline, electricity, milk, wheat and other basics – a proposal approved last week by the Guardians Council that aims to save $100 billion – can only fuel further widespread public dissatisfaction.

The Ashura street protests “proved something to the regime,” a Teherani engineer told me. “We will not stop fighting. We have nothing to lose. All we can do is to continue going out to the streets,” he said.

For now, he added, “people still gather together to remember the dead. But more major protests are to come. We tend to gather in larger numbers during religious and political holidays.”

The ebb and flow of protest has taken on a certain rhythm, a student activist explained. Ahead of the holidays, bracing for protest, the regime brings busloads of security personnel from the villages into the cities, he said.

“When we come out to the streets, the security crackdowns occur. After things quiet down, they send the busloads out again,” he said.

But the line between protectors of the regime and those who protest against it is blurrier than that.

“There is no unity among us [in the security forces], no trust and no respect,” said a police officer who is stationed in the holy city of Mashad. “We are united only in that we get paid to protect the government.

“As for the villagers who are recruited by the government [to bolster the security forces], they are not supporters of the government, nor do they care about the morals and dignity of our revolution. The government pays them money and they do what they are told.”

Exemplifying the way opposition to the regime has cut across families, this officer went on to say that his own nephew has been involved in the street protests, and been beaten.

“I received a phone call from my nephew’s friend who saw him being beaten by two 14-year old boys,” he said. “When I got to the scene, two kids initially would not let him go. They were boasting that they got paid to bring in protesters to the authorities, and that the more people they bring in, the better pay they were going to get.”

Among the regime’s opponents – activists and those less prominent alike – it is stressed that they are not campaigning for defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi but, rather, against the regime for its ostensible betrayal of Islam.

“The regime’s violence against Islamic institutions is an affront, a betrayal of the very essence of our country,” said a young soldier stationed in the capital.

“I don’t believe in Mousavi because I have heard he is working for America, Israel and the British. My problem is that this country is losing its self-respect and its respect for correct Islamic values.”

He added: “The son of [Ayatollah Vaez-Tabasi] the religious leader of the Imam Reza mosque in Mashad,” a central site of pilgrimage, “has left Iran for America with his pregnant wife. Even Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters like Tabasi don’t trust our country enough to allow their kids to stay here.”

Contemplating the looming price rises, the Teheran engineer said that food has already become extremely expensive. “Our bills have nearly doubled of late, and it is only going to get worse,” he said.

While it is impossible to predict how the widespread bitterness, and the regime’s often brutal response to protest will play out, it is hard to imagine that the ongoing use of force to stifle opposition will prove effective in the long term.

I was myself assaulted violently by a plainclothes security officer during this visit, falsely accused of spreading opposition propaganda. To my relief, a police officer intervened. If it was not for him, I don’t know where I would be today.

“I can’t just stand back and watch the violence,” my rescuer said to me afterwards. “At times it is too much.”


The Iranian Opposition, the Nuclear Issue, and the West

Featuring Patrick Clawson and Ray Takeyh

PolicyWatch #1622: Special Policy Forum Report

January 19, 2010

On January 14, 2010, Patrick Clawson and Ray Takeyh addressed a special Policy Forum luncheon at The Washington Institute to discuss the twin challenges of resolving the nuclear impasse with Iran and responding to its ongoing domestic protests. Dr. Clawson is deputy director for research at the Institute, where he heads the Iran Security Initiative; he is author of the just-released Institute study Much Traction from Measured Steps: The Iranian Opposition, the Nuclear Issue, and the West. Dr. Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in Iran, the Persian Gulf, and U.S. foreign policy; his publications include The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran’s Approach to the World (2009).

Patrick Clawson
In the wake of Iran’s June 2009 presidential election and the development of an opposition movement, analysts are confronted with two questions: What impact will international diplomacy regarding the nuclear issue have on Iran’s domestic politics? And what impact will Iran’s domestic politics have on the issues of most concern to the international community? The newly released Washington Institute report Much Traction from Measured Steps offers good, bad, and mixed answers.

The bad news is that the opposition Green Movement’s objectives differ fundamentally from those of the international community. The movement cares more about domestic policy than foreign policy, and its leaders are willing to seize upon any issue — even a nuclear deal brokered between Iran and the P5 + 1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the United States) — to criticize the government. Although the nuclear effort is low on their list of priorities and would likely be abandoned if they came to power due to its association with Ahmadinezhad, ending the nuclear program would not be easy in practice. If the regime collapsed and was replaced by reformers, Washington would be pressured to settle the matter quickly and be accommodating, while Iran’s new leaders would be expected to deliver something beyond what might have been expected of Ahmadinnezhad.. A more probable scenario for a Green victory would be a grand compromise in which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains power and there is gradual change over time, with the nuclear program perhaps remaining intact.

The mixed news is that the government is completely occupied with the unfolding domestic unrest. The regime has long been deeply paranoid about the prospect of a velvet revolution, and now its fears have materialized in the form of real enemies, with the formerly loyal opposition becoming a disloyal one. The most important question here is not whether the Greens will come to power, but whether the regime is worried about the movement, and the answer is yes. The positive result of this fear is that it motivates the regime to prevent a two-front war, so to speak, by making nuclear concessions to the international community. Last summer, for example, Iran opened the Arak reactor to inspectors, agreed to additional cameras at the Natanz facilities, and accepted the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) deal. But the negative result is that it is very difficult to get decisions made in this new environment. The political deadlock means that the most likely scenario is for the regime to do nothing. Although Ahmadinezhad would like to engage with the West and strike a deal that will enhance his legitimacy, Khamenei is convinced that such negotiations are pointless and that Washington’s actual goal is to overthrow the regime.

The good news is that despite the differences between the Green Movement and the international community, modest steps can be taken to align them. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is deeply involved in both the nuclear program and the suppression of protesters. Washington could therefore frame sanctions against this force in the UN Security Council as targeting Iran’s continued nuclear noncooperation, while afterward hinting to the world that the real issue is human rights. It could also use Persian-language media outlets to explain that negotiations with Tehran are not intended to shore up the regime’s legitimacy but rather to end Iran’s isolation, thereby removing a major barrier to improved relations. Although direct U.S. support to the Iranian people is not realistic due to the deep unpopularity of such efforts in both countries, Washington could allow nongovernmental organizations to provide direct aid. For example, it could lift the regulation prohibiting such organizations from giving satellite phones to Iranians.

As for sanctions, the Green Movement members interviewed for the Institute’s latest report had mixed views on the subject. Although there was consensus in support of human rights sanctions, broader sanctions were not as popular, although some members would support them if they could produce short-term results. From the U.S. perspective, sanctions on dual-use items play an important role in slowing Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, Washington and its partners could make the current sanctions much more effective if they pursued technical and intelligence cooperation with the less-developed countries that Iran uses as intermediaries.

Overall, the international community should proceed with caution in nuclear negotiations with Iran, especially with regard to making hasty concessions. Tehran has had the opportunity to make a nuclear deal in the past and chose not to. Although the international community would likely agree to a TRR deal on a much larger scale, it should be leery of rushing to make such an offer because the Iranians could come back and ask for more. In addition, any deal with the current regime would be seen as a victory for Ahmadinezhad, who campaigned on the platform that his predecessors were too accommodating to the West and that better terms could be had through a more confrontational approach. A deal now would only legitimize this approach, encourage him to be more defiant, and weaken the opposition’s arguments domestically.

Ray Takeyh
Iran is facing two domestic problems — elite fragmentation and popular unrest — and their relation to each other is not always clear. Khamenei could probably reassemble the elites by acceding to some of the demands made by reformist leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, but he is disinclined to do so out of fear that it would be the beginning of the end for his regime. After becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei steadily empowered conservatives who were beholden to him, culminating in Ahmadinezhad’s 2005 election. Since the June 2009 election, he has had the opportunity to renegotiate this setup and bring reformers and moderates into the government, but he has chosen not to. Even if he were to make such a compromise, it might not diminish popular resentment. Mousavi and Karrubi’s control over what occurs on the streets is questionable — they are often observers themselves. To deal with the unrest, Khamenei has instead chosen a policy of containment, arresting individuals with popular appeal while escalating the government’s violence against demonstrators. This policy reached a turning point with the use of live ammunition by security forces, which has the potential to radicalize the opposition. And it is unclear whether Iran’s security forces have the capacity to maintain the current approach on a larger scale.

Amid this domestic strife, Iran lacks a unified foreign policy. Ahmadinezhad is the principal advocate for nuclear negotiations, while Khamenei strongly opposes them. Because domestic developments take precedence, Tehran has few incentives to work with the international community, as negotiations would do little to quell domestic unrest or solidify the regime’s standing. Thus, the immediate future of negotiations is uncertain. There is little assurance that continued internal unrest will produce a more pragmatic foreign policy, and it is unclear what the next step would be if Tehran agreed to a modified deal as part of the ongoing discussions in Vienna. Sanctions would not alter the regime’s short-term objectives, only its tactics. And the IRGC is so well embedded in the Iranian economy that sanctions against the regime would likely harm the democratic movement as well. Without a better alternative, however, sanctions are a useful option if negotiations continue to stall.

Washington should not attempt to transform the U.S.-Iranian relationship as long as the current regime is in power. There is no point in being respectful to a regime that has lost the respect of its own people. The United States can pursue a transactional relationship with Iran while still voicing criticisms on human rights. And any nuclear deal should involve more than just agreements on technology — it should also force Tehran to meet other international obligations, namely, ending its support for terrorist organizations. A nuclear deal could also be conditioned to include some of the regime’s specific domestic practices.

This rapporteur’s summary was prepared by Max Mealy.



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