Iran and the Middle East wave of protest

Mar 11, 2011

Update from AIJAC

March 11, 2011

Number 03/11 #03

Today’s Update features some views on Iranian reactions to the protests across the Middle East, as well as internal divisions within the Iranian regime.

First up is Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni, who is not only familiar with the Iranian scene, but also previously reported from Egypt. She notes some contrasts between the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the Iranian one – primarily, she sees the Iranian protest movement having a more coherent vision of their demands than those put forward by the Arab peoples. She predicts a protracted conflict in Iran given the determination of the regime and its ability to use oil revenue to hire thugs to club dissent. She also has much to say about the attitude of most Iranians toward Israel, and to read it all, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Washington Institute expert on Iranian politics Mehdi Khalaji, who looks at the growing strife within the regime elites. He notes an increasing effort by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies to force out former President Ali Rafsanjani as head of the important Assembly of Experts (subsequent to this article’s publication, Rafsanjani was forced out of the post.) Khalaji looks at what this move against someone who has been a pillar of the regime, and in fact helped get Khamenei appointed as supreme leader, means for both the regime and the opposition Green Movement, which has long sought Rafsanjani’s support. For this detailed analysis of the current key struggles within the Iranian regime,
CLICK HERE. Some more up to date comment on the move to oust Rafsanjani, from another Washington Institute expert, Michael Singh, is here. What Khamenei is apparently trying to do politically overall is explained by another Iran expert, Ali Alfoneh. 

Finally, American foreign policy analyst Ilan Berman stresses that, contrary to their public pronouncements, the Iranian regime is deeply fearful of the unrest sweeping the region. He says the recent arrest of the key opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, is seen by the regime as a key measure to end the protest movement. Berman argues that outside players, especially the US, can play a key role in seeing this does not happen by both consistently and credibly insisting on their release, and increasing the level of information provided to the Iranian population about their regime through various channels. For Dr. Berman’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.

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By Azadeh Moaveni

Jewish Chronicle, March 4, 2011

Well before the recent wave of Arab revolt swept the Middle East, the region had already witnessed a historic, people-power challenge to a despotic order. In 2009, three million Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election. His government put down these protests brutally but the scenes of Tehran thronged with millions of protesters seared themselves into the Middle East’s consciousness. For an instant, it became tantalisingly clear to the ordinary people of a region paralysed by dictatorship that they could indeed rise up against their autocrats.

It is now Iranians who are watching enviously from the sidelines, inspired by the will of Egyptians and Tunisians to claim their liberty. Twice this past month, tens of thousands of protesters turned out across Iran to chant for an end to the Islamic regime, their hopes for change buoyed by the peaceful uprisings in the neighbourhood. While strict restrictions on journalists inside Iran make it difficult to gauge the scope of the turn-out, the flaring up by Iran’s politically disaffected makes it clear that Persian Iran will not be unmoved by the Arab world’s tremors.

Iran’s hard-line regime crushed last month’s protests as swiftly and cruelly as it did those of 2009. When it comes to dealing with a rebellious population, Iran’s leaders have more in common with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: they will not relent without a bloody fight. The oil revenue they have at their fingers buys them shock-troops and the allegiance of a small minority they can use to club dissent.

This is partly why Iranians’ struggle for democratic change is likely to be so much more protracted than what has unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia. Iran’s protest movement lacks momentum and has yet to produce the kind of sustained confrontation with authorities that has altered politics in places like Egypt and Bahrain.

What does set Iran apart in the region, however, is the coherence of people’s vision for the new order to which they aspire.

While the stagnation and tyranny that has defined the Arab world for decades has finally spurred revolt, the deadening effects of all those years means that, in many cases, those rising up have little communal sense of the political future.

The so-called “Arab street” knows it no longer wants to be ruled by corrupt tyrants but it may be years before the Arab societies now riven by unrest will be able to articulate the type of democracy they seek, the role that should be afforded to Islam, and how their newly minted systems should deal with Israel and the Palestinians. It is not at all clear what role religion may play in Egyptian politics, for example, or what alternative forms of government might emerge in a monarchy like Bahrain or the strong-man system of Gaddafi’s Libya.

For years now, the “Arab street” has been a zone tightly controlled by state media and thought police, rather than a place where Arabs could meet freely and untangle these questions. As a result, civil society has been either weak or non-existent, political parties banned or perfunctory, and intellectual debate frozen.

I began my career as a journalist in Egypt more than a decade ago, and was struck by the tepid level of debate and wholesale absence of any real opposition to Mubarak’s dictatorship. I eventually moved to Iran where, despite the Islamic regime’s steely grip on power, a vibrant pro-democracy movement was flourishing and, along with it, an atmosphere of political openness then novel in the region. That era — in the late 1990s — came to be known as the “Tehran spring” and, as intellectuals and activists pressed to transform the Islamic regime into a modern democracy, civil society grew more confident and an independent press flourished.

The Tehran spring was short-lived. Reform from within proved a spectacular failure. Those in government resistant to democracy vetoed the efforts of the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and the police-state rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reversed the political momentum and crushed the atmosphere of openness that had made Iran the only politically dynamic corner of a region cowed by tyranny. The effect of those years of living more freely, however, can still be felt today.

Iranians, during that period, had the opportunity to measure publicly the accomplishments of their revolution, and were free to proclaim them a profound disappointment. Liberal clerics and human-rights lawyers concluded that basic freedoms were too difficult to secure in the slippery framework of Islamic law, and spoke out in support of gradual secularisation.

Moderate-minded politicians were able to argue in newspapers that the government’s support for militant groups undermined Iran’s national interests and its place in the global community. Particularly brave student activists publicly labelled as terrorism the civilian-targeting tactics of Hamas. These years helped Iranians figure out their relationship to their ailing revolution, their views on theocracy, and the kind of place they wished to occupy in the Middle East.

For Iranians, the aspirational future is clear; the problem is simply how to get there. The majority of the population opposes the Islamic government, and seeks a democratic system in which religion and politics are separate. For most Iranians, eager to reap the financial rewards of their country’s vast cultural and commercial potential, there is simply no question that the political future must include peace with Israel and a break with militant groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.

There is still sympathy in Iran for the plight of the Palestinians, but Iranians have developed a sophisticated understanding about the costs and limits of solidarity. Iranian young people are fed up with subsiding the Palestinian cause at the price of their own futures, and view this kind of realignment in their country’s dealing with the region as vital to better ties and a better economic relationship with the West.

In the new Egypt, the possibility of dealing more coldly with Israel holds some allure, partly because the Mubarak’s government’s co-operation with the Jewish state has become enmeshed in people’s minds with its myriad other failures. If Iranians are lucky in anything, it’s being free of this fuzzy notion. The Iranian government’s hostility towards America and Israel means that neither can ever be used as an excuse or a distraction.

This leaves Iranians free to think clearly about whom they wish to befriend in the region, which relationships boost Iran’s standing in the world, and which leave its ties to the West in tatters. Their fury at their government’s radicalism surfaced in one of the slogans protesters chanted on the street last month: “Not Gaza or Lebanon! Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran!”

From Israel’s perspective, Iran is the only country whose domestic tumult offers unequivocally brighter prospects. The recent spate of protests may not have de-stabilised the Iranian government, but the world-view and politics of Iran’s opposition movement is still the most secular and pro-Western in the region. A post-uprising Iran would most closely resemble Turkey in its relationship to the region, and would be in no danger of becoming a failed or anarchic state.

The worry for Israel, where Iran is concerned, is not the spectre of what dissent might unleash but how Tehran will seek to exploit the unrest around the region to project its own influence. In recent years, Iran has cultivated its ties with Hamas, and can now use those links to reach out to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Shia-led protests in Bahrain, ostensibly demanding the same rights and opportunities as the country’s Sunni minority, are also ripe for Iran’s exploitation.

There is no question that Iran views the balance of power in the region as tipping in its favour. But Iran’s opposition leaders, with an eye to how neighbouring uprisings might be leveraged to their own cause, are looking ahead for fresh ways to challenge the regime’s grip on power. The recent arrests of opposition leaders may spark a new round of protests this spring. Some reformists are focusing on the 2012 parliamentary elections, hoping to launch a campaign of civil disobedience around the time of the vote.

Iran’s sizeable diaspora is also actively trying to encourage events on the ground. From organising and supporting Facebook pages dedicated to days of protest, to collecting witness accounts of demonstrations to fill the void of proper news coverage, the diaspora is emerging as a powerful force supporting and inspiring young Iranians. The revolution may not stop at Iran’s door just yet, but that doesn’t mean all is quiet inside.

Azadeh Moaveni is an Iranian-American journalist, co-author with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi of ‘Iran Awakening’ and contributor to, inter alia, Time magazine, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her books include ‘Lipstick Jihad’

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Iran’s Political Super Bowl: Ahmadinezhad vs. Rafsanjani

By Mehdi Khalaji

PolicyWatch #1770
March 4, 2011

On February 24, 2011, the two leaders of the Iranian opposition Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, were arrested and taken initially to Heshmatiyeh prison in Tehran. Meanwhile, within the ruling circle of the Islamic Republic, hardliners are trying to further consolidate their position. At least as important a development as the isolation and harassment of the Green Movement leaders and their supporters is the posturing by the regime against one of its iconic figures, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This power struggle within Iran’s political elite will be on full display during the March 8-9 semiannual meeting of the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with selecting the country’s Supreme Leader and, in the case of the imminent meeting, electing a head of the assembly for the coming year. The assembly is now led by Rafsanjani himself, who twenty-two years ago played the lead role in selecting Ali Khamenei to succeed Ruhollah Khomeini as the country’s Supreme Leader. In the present predicament, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and other hardliners are trying to prevent Rafsanjani from maintaining his leadership of the assembly, yet removing him would further narrow the field of Iran’s religious and political elite who support Khamenei.

Why Rafsanjani Matters
Rafsanjani is one of the founders and engineers behind the formation of the Islamic Republic. He had an intimate relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini. The two lived next door to each other and spent much time together during Rafsanjani’s two four-year terms as speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament). Rafsanjani also served as effective commander in chief of the armed forces during the last years of the Iran-Iraq War, functioning as Khomeini’s deputy. A further dynamic in that earlier government involved the role of Iran’s current leader, Khamenei, then president with no executive power and a bitter adversary of then prime minister (and now Green Movement detainee) Mousavi, who held control of the government bureaucracy. With Khamenei and Mousavi at loggerheads, Rafsanjani was arguably the most important administrator of the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

In 1988, the year when Khomeini died, Rafsanjani arranged for the constitution to be revised to eliminate the position of prime minister, with the position’s former powers being transferred to the presidency, a post into which Rafsanjani then moved. Rafsanjani had calculated that he would hold the real power, rather than the new Supreme Leader, Khamenei, since the latter lacked religious and political credentials as well as the charisma of Khomeini.

When Khamenei became Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, he soon identified his power base within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the broader military rather than the clerical establishment or political elite. By empowering the IRGC to become involved in Iran’s economy and politics, Khamenei strengthened his own position and, in turn, thwarted Rafsanjani’s plans to boost his political influence.

In reaction, Rafsanjani helped the reformist Muhammad Khatami win election as his successor, a move that challenged Khamenei’s political ambitions. Khamenei fought back by using the IRGC, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Judiciary to seriously weaken Khatami and ultimately close the doors of government to the reformists. In 2005, all these forces combined to deal Rafsanjani a harsh defeat in his bid to retake the presidency against his foe and critic Ahmadinezhad. Rafsanjani, who then headed the influential Expediency Council (charged with resolving disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council), was shocked by Khamenei’s clear support for Ahmadinezhad, who had publicly accused Rafsanjani of engaging in economic corruption.

Fast-forward to June 2009, when Rafsanjani wrote an open letter to Khamenei warning of fraudulence in the upcoming election. This missive followed a slew of retorts, including the accusation by Ahmadinezhad, during his televised debate with Mousavi, that Rafsanjani had engaged in further corruption. Ahmadinezhad’s supporters joined in by throwing other charges at Rafsanjani, who protested against these public accusations while Khamenei kept silent.

After the rigged election, Khamenei announced during a widely watched sermon that his personal views were closer to those of Ahmadinezhad than Rafsanjani. Since then, Rafsanjani has been allowed to lead Friday prayer only once — a shocking change from his longtime role as prayer leader once a month. In that sole sermon, Rafsanjani asked the government to release political prisoners and reconcile with protesters.

In recent months, Khamenei has called Rafsanjani a khavass-e bi basirat (an ignorant member of the elite) based on the latter’s refusal to condemn postelection protests and opposition leaders. Rafsanjani’s family members have also come under attack. His sonMehdi Hashemi, who left Iran after the election, has been summoned to court for “his involvement in the fitna,” or political heresy. Hashemi now lives in London and fears returning to Iran. In another slap against Rafsanjani’s family, last week a video clip was posted on Facebook and other websites showing Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s courageous and feminist daughter, and other family members being attacked by Basij militia and humiliated by malicious insults. State TV also showed a hardline gathering in which participants shouted, “Death to Hashemi.”

What Do Khamenei and the Opposition Want from Rafsanjani?

When, last September, Khamenei spoke at the Qom Association for Seminary Teachers and Researchers (a governmental body within the clerical establishment), he assured clerics that Ahmadinezhad was operating fully under his control. He elaborated that the country is unified today, whereas under the leadership of Rafsanjani and Khatami, control had been split. Such a statement may be taken to mean that Rafsanjani and Khatami did not acquiesce to Khamenei, whereas Ahmadinezhad — who sometimes frightens clerics by making apocalyptic, anticlerical statements — seems to be following Khamenei’s agenda.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Leader’s claim, Rafsanjani arguably enjoys broader and deeper support than Khamenei among large sections of the old political and religious elite. For this reason, Khamenei has not wanted to push Rafsanjani too far, preferring that that latter be in a weakened position, with little independence.

As for the opposition, it wants Rafsanjani’s support, but Rafsanjani is reluctant to sign on, having played the part of conciliator over the past three decades. Yet poor relations with the Supreme Leader and the president make his previous role impossible to sustain. For more than a year, Khamenei and Rafsanjani have not held their usual, weekly private meetings. And since June 2009, Ahmadinezhad has not attended sessions of the Expediency Council.

Symbolic Significance of the Assembly of Experts
The Assembly of Experts consists of eighty-nine ayatollahs supposedly tasked with supervising the tenure of the Supreme Leader and appointing a new leader in the case of his death or failure to fulfill duties. While in theory these members are elected, in practice they are appointed by the Supreme Leader himself and therefore lack the power to supervise his activities.

Since the institution itself is symbolic, functioning to provide legitimacy to the leader, its head also plays a symbolic role. Should the title go to someone other than Rafsanjani for the coming term, this would indicate (1) that Khamenei does not feel he needs Rafsanjani anymore and (2) that he does not fear Rafsanjani’s migration to the opposition, which he would presumably view as unable to pose a serious threat to his hegemony.

Hardliners have been campaigning in support Muhammad Reza Mahdavi Kani to replace Rafsanjani, but the Supreme Leader has not sent a clear message that he wants Rafsanjani gone. For Rafsanjani’s part, he has vowed to push forward with his candidacy, seeing reelection as assembly leader as a personal duty. In the end, Khamenei’s decision will have the greatest influence on who is ultimately selected.

Fissures among the Elite Will Only Grow
Conflicts within the Iranian political elite will be on full display in a series of upcoming “moments.” To begin with, the five-year term of the current Expediency Council, a seriously weakened body of which (as noted) Rafsanjani is head and Mousavi is a member, expires in February 2012, requiring the Supreme Leader to appoint new members. Ahmadinezhad, another member, has stopped attending meetings altogether. In March of the same year, parliamentary elections will be held, posing a challenge to the hardliners. Historically, these elections have involved real contests within the narrow circles of the elite, and increasingly unfriendly relations among various hardline factions will be difficult to contain. Furthermore, it will be difficult to elicit voting participation by a public skeptical that elections make much of a difference at all.

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

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How Obama Can Help Iran’s Opposition

America should reinforce to Green Movement activists that their cause is just and the world is watching


Wall Street Journal,
March 9, 2011

Don’t let the hype out of Tehran fool you. To hear Iranian officials tell it, the geopolitical earthquake now taking place in the Middle East and North Africa represents an “Islamic awakening” that will forge a new regional order more sympathetic to the Islamic Republic and its great power ambitions.

But the renewed anti-regime uprisings that have taken place in recent weeks in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashad, Shiraz and other cities—and the brutality of the Iranian government’s response to them—tell a very different story. Clearly, Iran’s ayatollahs are deeply worried that the “Arab Spring” taking place in the region could end up bringing down their theocracy as well, and are working feverishly to prevent such an eventuality.

Far less obvious is what the U.S. can and should do about it. Conventional wisdom within the Beltway is that the White House has only limited ability to influence the course of democracy within the Islamic Republic—and therefore shouldn’t even try. In fact, there’s quite a bit America can do, and do now, to aid Iran’s opposition.

To start with, the United States can help ensure that the leadership of the so-called Green Movement remains viable. Today, Iran’s pro-democracy forces are headed by two most unlikely suspects. Mir Hossein Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 to 1989, the period during which the Islamic Republic spawned the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and restarted the Shah’s nuclear program with a vengeance. Mehdi Karroubi was twice speaker of Iran’s parliament—from 1989 to 1992, and again from 2000 to 2004—and in that capacity served as a rubber stamp for a broad range of repressive policies.

Yet these establishment politicians have come to lead the opposition, helped along by their ability to bring crowds into the street and galvanize the popular imagination. The Iranian regime understands this, which is why recent weeks have seen a range of punitive measures levied against both. Together with their families, Messrs. Karroubi and Mousavi have lived under strict house arrest for weeks, and reports suggest that the two men were recently snatched up by the regime’s security forces. Members of Iran’s legislature, meanwhile, have called for the two to be put to death on charges of sedition. The regime clearly views containing Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi as the key to crushing the Green Movement as a whole.

To make sure that does not happen, America needs to ratchet up the international focus on their plight. It was not all that long ago that the U.S. made the fate of key Soviet dissidents an issue in its dealings with the Kremlin. By doing so, it provided far greater breathing room for serious opponents of the Soviet Union to organize behind the Iron Curtain. Washington must do the same today, using its influence with Iran’s diplomatic and economic partners abroad to prevent the Iranian regime from silencing Green Movement activists for good. Only when Iran’s leaders understand that their domestic repression carries real costs abroad—measured in international commerce and in diplomatic recognition—will it be possible to stay their hand.

At the same time, Washington should redouble its own outreach to Iran’s captive population. America’s public broadcasting is already quite popular. By one estimate, outlets such as Voice of America’s Persian News Network, Radio Farda and associated websites cumulatively reach nearly a third of Iran’s adult population every week. But serious systemic problems—from self-censorship by U.S. government reporters to a failure to frame sensitive political issues properly—have left this outreach devoid of much meaning.

That is a major failure. More penetrating coverage of the long-term viability of the country’s opposition and the corrupt nature of the country’s clerical class could have a substantial impact on Iran’s internal discourse, reinforcing to democrats that their cause is just and that the world is watching. For that, however, the White House will need to clearly and consistently articulate its support for political pluralism in the Islamic Republic. Once it does, it will need to enforce that preference throughout the vast and often unaccountable bureaucracy that manages U.S. public diplomacy, so that the Iranian people can understand it too.

Whether the United States takes these steps is ultimately a question of political will. Following Iran’s rigged presidential election in 2009, the Obama administration was hesitant to weigh in for fear of undermining its nuclear diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic. Today, Washington has taken a much more vocal stance in support of Iran’s opposition, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for the regime “to open up the political system, to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society.”

But Iran’s pro-democracy forces need more than just moral backing from the West. They need the U.S. to enact policies that amplify their efforts and make it more difficult for the Iranian regime to quash dissent without meaningful international retribution. In other words, the only way Iran’s ayatollahs will go the way of Egypt’s Mubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali is if the White House finally puts its money—and its influence—where its mouth is.

Mr. Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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