Iran’s protest movement

Nov 10, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 10, 2009
Number 11/09 #03

Today’s Update focuses on the ongoing, though under-reported, opposition movement in Iran. Six months have passed since the fraudulent election that saw Iranian incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ‘win’ a new-term. That election resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iranians taking to the streets, launching what became popularly known as the Green Movement.

Those protests were eventually brutally suppressed. But while the protesters left the streets, they continue their activities in discussion forums and social networking sites.

In early November, on the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the US embassy hostage crisis, the Green Movement once again took to the streets. A blow-by-blow account of a day of protests is on the Guardian website, here.

First up, Mehdi Khalaji, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asks, in Foreign Policy, “Who’s really running Iran’s Green Movement?” Khalaji suggests the protest movement’s nominal leaders, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, will eventually be dropped by the people on the streets. The reason being, Mousavi and his fellow reformist politicians, Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, want to improve the political process, but keep the Islamic Republic in place (complete with a supreme leader having veto power over religious and political decisions). However, the protesters increasingly want to do away with the Islamic Republican system, replacing it with something truly democratic. To read this insightful analysis,  CLICK HERE.

Second, we have a recent editorial from the Wall Street Journal, which excoriates US President Barack Obama for having virtually ignored the street protests in Iran. For this powerful criticism from an august publication, CLICK HERE. Stephen Hayes, in the current Weekly Standard, goes further, suggesting the Obama Administration is happy to be tough on Fiji (a country whose GDP is less than what Americans spend each year on cat food), but far too soft on Iran.

Moving away from Iran’s political opposition to its nuclear program, we have the Israeli think-tank Institute for National Security Studies’ Dr. Emily Landau offering suggestions for dealing more effectively with Iran. After the recent negotiations between the so-called P5+1 group and Iran fell through (because Iran walked away from a deal – though Iran says it ‘still welcomes’ talks), help in plotting future policy on Iran is sorely needed. To see Landau’s recommendations,  CLICK HERE

Readers may also be interested in:

  • Uzi Rubin and Michael Elleman discuss the Iranian missile program and US missile defence, respectively, at a Washington Institute-sponsored luncheon.
  • The Guardian reports that Iran tested an advanced nuclear warhead design.
  • A useful BICOM analysis of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement to the effect that he will not run in the upcoming Palestinian election.
  • Meanwhile, the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies’ Hillel Frisch is worried about the apparent radicalisation of Abbas, and asks, “Is Mahmoud Abbas becoming Chairman Arafat?”
  • After four months of negotiations, Lebanon has unveiled a unity government. Terrorist group Hezbollah gets two cabinet seats.
  • Just weeks after AIJAC’s Bren Carlill wrote in the November 2009 Australia/Israel Review that the conflict in Yemen is increasingly involving regional actors, Yemen has announced that it has seized an Iranian arms ship bound for Shi’ite rebels in the country’s north. (This is different from the Iranian arms ship bound for Hezbollah recently captured by Israel in the Mediterranean.)
  • Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has announced it has used its air force to bomb the Yemeni Shi’ite strongholds, which are just over the Saudi-Yemeni border.
  • And Tom Gross wonders why the world’s media and commentators have been silent in the face of the thousands of civilians killed in Yemen as a result of Saudi and Yemeni actions. 

Who’s Really Running Iran’s Green Movement

Mehdi Khalaji, ForeignPolicy.com, November 4, 2009

Nearly six months after the demonstrations that followed June’s disputed presidential election, Iran’s pro-democracy “green movement” is as strong as ever. Rallies took place in downtown Tehran today, having been in the works for months through Twitter, blogs, and word of mouth. Iran, it seems, is on the verge of having a new, unified opposition party.

But the solidarity on the streets hides wide – and growing – splits within. The ostensible leaders of the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi, are former high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic who would likely keep much about the Islamic Revolution in place. Contrast this with the young men and women on the streets, and you see differences that go beyond the generational. The protesters are aiming to bring down the very system of which their leaders are a part.

Despite being lauded as modernizers, opposition front-runner Mousavi and his two green movement colleagues are deeply loyal to the ideals of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and advocate a theocratic political system. Had Mousavi come into office following the June 12 presidential election, he would not have challenged the political order. He would have tried to fix the Islamic Republic’s internal and external crises through slight policy tweaks. Nor would the West have seen an “opening” of the sort that some suggest. Indeed, Mousavi’s rivalry with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has little to do with the current regime’s foreign policy and far more to do with internal power struggles, economic policy, and, to some extent, cultural agendas. A new leader would not have fundamentally changed Iran’s position on nuclear policy or its regional role. The reason is simple: Everyone who ran for president concedes that foreign-policy decisions should fall to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So how did such moderates end up at the helm of a revolution? By accident. None of the reform candidates could have predicted that, following the mass vote-rigging during the presidential election, a popular movement would arise. These “leaders” had only a small role both in organizing and creating the movement, but they were swept into power by a spontaneous and improvised groundswell. The government had carefully vetted candidates, keeping anyone too reformist from running. So the grass-roots movement was left with a choice between two evils: Mousavi, the lesser one, and Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi reluctantly became the symbolic leader of the green movement, but he, Karroubi, and Khatami remain aloof. Today’s demonstrations, for example, were imagined and promoted by bloggers and leaders of human rights and women’s movements for at least two months. It was only last week, after these plans were well circulated (and the Grand Ayatollah had warned against them), that Mousavi issued a statement calling for demonstrations on Nov. 4.

So today, these three former officials find themselves at the helm of a movement whose views they do not necessarily represent. That gap — between the green movement’s leaders and the people in the streets — is widening. Even in the midst of protests, there is growing discord. For instance, Mousavi and Karroubi have both criticized slogans like “No Gaza, no Lebanon – I sacrifice my life for Iran” as “extremist,” despite their being a widespread feature of current popular action in Iran.

But the most fundamental split comes over what the movement makes of the Iranian Revolution. Mousavi and Khatami have reiterated their desired goal of returning to the ideals of late Ayatollah Khomenei and the original principles of the Islamic Republic. But those in the streets are conscious of the failure of past reforms and have little hope that the Islamic Republic – a system in which the supreme leader has the authority to veto both Islamic and national law – can be saved. And the green movement remains motivated by the notion of human rights and citizenship, both absent in Iran’s Constitution. Hence, the part of the movement that first began to peacefully protest against the vote manipulation in this summer’s election finds itself diametrically opposed to Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard under him.

Khatami, a former president himself, is certainly cognizant of the split; in a recent speech, he tried to distinguish between those participating in current protests, who reject the entire existing system, and his own followers, who prefer to work within the political structure of the Islamic Republic with a ruling jurist above all.

But the bulk of the movement agrees less with the so-called leaders and more with the Islamic Republic’s young third generation, who form 70 percent of the Iranian population and make up most of the demonstrators. The true leaders of this movement are students, women, human rights activists, and political activists who have little desire to work in a theocratic regime or in a government within the framework of the existing Constitution. This movement is much broader than the reform movement of the 1990s, when Khatami was president. Then, the number of people demanding reform on the streets never exceeded 50,000. According to Tehran’s conservative mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, more than 3 million people protested in the wake of this year’s June 12 election.

If you want to know the unconventional nature of this movement — and what the people who have bravely taken to the streets really want – don’t listen to Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami.

Since the true representatives of reform owe little to them, a successful green movement would likely push them aside anyway.

This is why it is not only the regime in Tehran — but also the reformist “leaders” who pretend to lead this movement — that fear the success of the green movement. Democracy in Iran will emerge only through a rupture with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideals and Islamic ideology — concepts to which the accidental leaders of the green movement are still loyal.

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.

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Obama on Tehran’s Democrats

The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009

Tens of thousands of protestors yesterday braved police batons and tear gas canisters in the streets of Iranian cities to denounce their theocratic rulers and call for a change of regime. In spite of repression by the Basiji thugs and the West’s short attention span, the Green Revolution lives on.

On this, the 30th anniversary of the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy, their message was to a large degree intended for America and President Obama. The opposition hijacked the day, usually an occasion to denounce the Great Satan, to declare their desire to break with that past and build a free Iran. They marched alongside state-sanctioned rallies, before their protests were broken up violently.

For this broad coalition of democrats, America is a beacon of hope and the Iran of the street arguably the most pro-American place in the world. Earlier this year, before the huge demonstrations in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brazen theft of the June presidential election, one popular opposition chant was, “O ba ma!” – in Farsi a play on the new American President’s last name that translates as, “He with us!”

But the opposition’s dreams of American support, moral as much as anything, have been dashed. Mr. Obama was slow and reluctant to speak out on their behalf and eager to engage the Iranian regime in nuclear talks as soon as the summer of protest tapered off. Iran’s democrats are now letting their disappointment show. The new chant passed around in Internet chat rooms and heard in the streets yesterday was, “Obama, Obama – either you’re with them or with us.”

Knowing the opposition was planning to march, Mr. Obama issued his own statement the night before that instead chose to reach out to the regime. America, he said, “seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interest and mutual respect. We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.” He went on to list the Administration’s various efforts to appease the regime. So far and on all counts, the mullahs have rebuffed these entreaties.

The President made no mention of democracy or reference to the opposition directly, though in the last paragraph he did allow that “the world continues to bear witness to [Iranian peoples’] powerful calls for justice.” Is this what he meant when he talked, at the start of his Presidency, about “restoring U.S. moral leadership”?

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Lessons for dealing more effectively with Iran

Emily B. Landau, Bitter Lemons International, November 5, 2009 No. 40 Vol. 7

Developments between Iran and the P5+1 over the course of October – with the US playing a key role in devising the recent nuclear fuel proposal – cannot be described as anything but “deja vu all over again”. We’ve been there too many times over the past seven years. We’ve seen Iran agree, then disagree, then agree a little bit, then reject again, then say more time is needed to consider, then finally present a counter- proposal, then say it wants cooperation, then say it will never give up on its rights, and so on and so forth.

Throughout the years since 2002, Iran has at times gone so far as to actually cooperate for a while on the aspects of its program where it felt it could afford some flexibility – this happened with the EU-3 and also with the IAEA – but the Iranians never took cooperation so far that it diverted them from their overall goal in the nuclear realm. And as much as the domestic situation in Iran has changed since the June elections this year, the strategy for dealing with the international community on the nuclear issue has not.

So what can be learned from Iran’s behavior? The challenge for an international community that is determined to negotiate with Iran is to distill from these dynamics a few hard constants regarding Iran’s strategy that will enable it to deal with Iran more effectively.

The most basic insight is that Iran is progressing toward military nuclear capability for the influence it will gain thereby, and does not want to pay a very high price due to international reaction. This is the simple key to understand its maneuverings.

Accepting that Iran is determined to achieve either a military capability or the stage where it is some six months from doing so, as is by now clear from IAEA documents themselves, means that there is no longer any point in wasting diplomatic time by devising “clever” tests of Iran’s intentions. It is no longer warranted to say that Iran needs to prove once and for all to the international community that its intentions are indeed peaceful, as it claims. Iran has always found a way to wriggle out of these tests. But more importantly, the answer is by now known: Iran’s intentions are not peaceful, and this must be adopted as the working assumption when facing it in negotiations.

On this basis, the international community must understand Iran’s strategy for warding off international pressure. Iran knows that it has an advantage over the international community because not all states confronting it are interested to the same degree in stopping it. Many wish to maintain economic and other ties with Iran; these give Iran a diplomatic edge and the ability to play the divide-and-rule game. This is especially true with regard to the US/Europe-Russia/China divide.

Therefore, even though US President Barack Obama wants to present a multilateral front, the US is weakened by working within the broad P5+1 framework and would do better to negotiate with Iran bilaterally. Take Russia for example. While Obama has strived to get Russia “on board”, it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia actually gains from the ongoing crisis and has no real interest in joining the US, even when offered concessions such as on missile defense in Europe.

The US must also understand the meaning of Iran’s bouts of cooperation. These are unfortunately not an indication that Iran wants to change its ways or build confidence. Rather, for Iran cooperation has been a necessary “evil” to ward off the harshest measures as well as gain time to advance its program. Iran falls back on cooperation when it has no other choice, and especially when some aspect of its secret military nuclear activities is blatantly exposed or its strategy of divide-and-rule looks like it might run into problems, as at those junctures when international determination seems to get stronger.

All this is not to say that Iran’s positions are completely static or unchangeable. In fact, Iran probably would like ultimately to carve out a deal with the international community that recognizes its central regional role. But it knows that when armed with a military nuclear capability it will be much better positioned to achieve that goal; it will get a better deal. So Iran’s rational interest is to put off any real negotiation with the international community until it has reached military (or assumed military) capability.

In contrast, the goal of the international community is to conduct effective negotiations before Iran reaches that point. Concrete pressure on Iran plays an important role: it is necessary to impress upon Iran that a harsher approach toward it is very real and that it therefore has every interest in negotiating seriously with the US right now. Once the dynamic becomes a US-Iranian one, the US would be well advised to put additional regional issues on the table and go for a broader deal with Iran.

From Israel’s vantage point, more effective negotiations are the best option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the US enters such negotiations, Israel’s challenge will be to ensure that its own regional interests are secured.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.



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