FPI Fact Sheet: The future of Iran’s green movement

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Over the last year, the Iranian people have suffered through the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and months of protests and recriminations by hard-line regime elements intent on preserving their grip on power.  In his 2010 Nowruz message, President Obama noted that despite his repeated attempts to engage Iran, “Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.”

This clenched fist has been directed not only at the United States and the international community, but also at the Iranian people.  On February 11th, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, many Iranians took to the streets to protest, but their efforts on that day were suppressed by pro-regime counterdemonstrations, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Basij militias, and were overshadowed by President Ahmadinejad’s bellicose announcement about Iran’s nuclear program.

The ability of the regime to clamp down on the Green Movement in recent months has caused some outside observers to argue that Iran’s opposition movement has fizzled out roughly nine months after an election that brought thousands of protesters into the streets.  In the wake of February 11th, many questions have been raised regarding the ability of the opposition to succeed against the regime’s brutal tactics.

Below are some of the key arguments put forward by those who believe that the opposition has been effectively silenced by the regime with responses outlining why these charges are incorrect.

Charge:  The opposition was broken by the regime on February 11.

Response: As Reuel Gerecht writes, Khamenei had a “good day” on February 11, proving his ability to mobilize security forces and maintain his grip on the apparatus of power, but the Green Movement, nevertheless, had a “decent day.  They survived.”  Joshua Muravchik adds, “the Greens don’t count the day as a clear defeat. Protests were successfully mounted in a handful of other cities and even in pockets of Tehran, where, for the most part, protesters repaired to the rooftops to shout ‘Allahu akbar.’” In a larger sense, the Green Movement achieves an important measure of success as long as it maintains popular adherence to its basic goals.  As long as the opposition can hold together, they “will let Iranians know that the regime isn’t omnipotent. And it will keep alive the possibility that the country’s collective embitterment about the failure of the Islamic revolution to provide prosperity and happiness could explode.”

There is no question that the regime treats the opposition as a serious threat to its authority and has used every tactic at its disposal—from waging cyber warfare against the Green Movement to authorizing Revolutionary Guard and Basij units to kill protesters.  But, as AEI’s Ali Alfoneh points out, “none of these tactics have proved efficient and the Islamic Republic has not managed to terrorize the public into submission. The Green Movement still manages to mobilize the public and, 31 years after the revolution, the situation in Tehran resembles the political crisis that led to the collapse of the Shah’s regime.”

Moreover, the brutal tactics the regime employed to contain the protests on February 11 will not necessarily be effective in the future.  As Gerecht notes, “The regime will have to keep an enormous reserve of riot-control forces ready for deployment in Tehran. This will probably leave other cities lightly covered….The opposition will have some idea of when these forces come and go. They will increasingly have a better idea of where the regime has let down its guard.”  In addition, as the regime increases its monitoring of electronic communication and new media such as Twitter, the Green Movement can go “low tech,” using the same “night letters” and other techniques used against the Shah.

Charge: The opposition faces dwindling support because it does not have widespread appeal and is primarily composed of secular middle and upper class urban professionals and highly educated youth.

Response: It is in fact the regime that faces dwindling support.  Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are under attack from several key factions, and, more and more, the regime relies only upon the repressive power of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and security services.  Mehdi Khalaji contends that Khamenei’s “religious authority is contested by the clerical establishment. The only power base he has is within the military and security community of the country. Khamenei has lost much of his political and religious legitimacy, and without the military and especially the IRGC, he would have no real power.”  The increasingly dictatorial actions of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have, moreover, served to energize a broad population beyond the Green Movement’s liberal urban base.  Reza Aslan describes the opposition as, “an ever-widening coalition of young people, liberal political and religious leaders, merchants fed up with the state of the economy, and conservative politicians frightened by the expanding role of the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian politics.”

Observers should also not assume that Iran’s poor unanimously support the regime, even if the Green Movement has so far been less successful at mobilizing these groups.  It is impossible for us to know whether these segments of the population genuinely support the regime or are simply more susceptible to its thuggish intimidation.  Gerecht argues, “Odds are the opposition has an army of fans among the poor—the so-called mostazafan, ‘the oppressed,’ whom the regime has always counted on. And when their intelligent sons and daughters go to school, they too often become democratic dissidents.”

Charge:  Even if the Green Movement has a future, the U.S. must deal with the current regime on the nuclear issue, which remains the primary security priority.

Response: Attempts to separate Iran’s foreign policy from its internal politics ignore the reality of the situation.  The regime’s level of confidence in its survival affects its positions on the nuclear program.  Khalaji argues that “Iran’s leaders link their domestic self-confidence with their nuclear negotiating tactics. It seems less likely now [after February 11] that the regime will feel an urgent necessity to resolve the nuclear dispute. In fact, it might adopt a tougher stand on the issue, with hardliners believing they need not endorse compromise with either the international community or the domestic opposition.”

Furthermore, there is little reason to believe that any attempts to reach a compromise with the current regime will be successful.  As Richard Haass writes, “The nuclear talks are going nowhere. The Iranians appear intent on developing the means to produce a nuclear weapon; there is no other explanation for the secret uranium-enrichment facility discovered near the holy city of Qum.… Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago…. The United States, European governments, and others should shift their Iran policy toward increasing the prospects for political change.”

FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly notes the best way to tackle the nuclear issue is to support the opposition, “It is difficult to imagine a reformist government making [the nuclear weapons program] a top priority.  Instead, Iran’s new leaders will likely want to remove the yoke of international sanctions against Iran, restoring Iran’s banking and financial ties with the rest of the world.  They will thus be more open to negotiations on the nuclear issue than the current regime has shown itself to be…”

Charge:  It is best if the United States not take overt actions to support the Green Movement and regardless, the U.S. ability to do so is limited.

Response: Argues Muravchik, “True, we are helpless to prevent the arrests and beatings or the mobilization of the regime’s automatons, but we have it within our power to counteract its technological warfare against the Green Movement. We can put up a communications satellite dedicated to the needs of the Greens to facilitate Internet and other electronic communications despite government interference. Contrary to the NSC’s knee-jerk appeasement, we should protest loudly any jamming of our broadcasts—and we should find ways to retaliate. And we can launch TV Farda, a complement to Radio Farda, the Farsi surrogate broadcast service operated by Radio Free Europe. Currently, VOA TV’s Farsi broadcasts reach millions but are constrained because VOA speaks for the U.S. government. In contrast, a “surrogate” service like Radio Farda or TV Marti (to Cuba) speaks for the indigenous people who are excluded from power. A surrogate Farsi TV station would give the Greens a powerful weapon with which to counteract the regime’s vicious machinations.”

Khalaji adds, “Putting cracks in the wall of this prison — opening Iran to the world — would be a great help to the democratic movement in Iran. The United States has made many efforts in this regard but still could do more. The major internet companies in the West could work with activists to find ways to bypass Iran’s internet censors. Companies that provide Iran with the technology of surveillance and suppression should be named and shamed; consumers should shy away from these companies’ products, and governments should urge these companies to reconsider their practices. Iran should not be able to use modern technology for fundamentalist and totalitarian purposes.”

Finally, in the words of J. Scott Carpenter, “it is time for the Obama administration to launch a nuanced, if comprehensive, offensive to challenge the regime on human rights grounds, confident that it is following, not leading, the Iranian people who are risking their lives to create a new future in Iran.”  Carpenter lists several specific suggestions in his testimony before Congress here.  While the U.S. must remain sensitive to any impressions of inappropriate “meddling” in Iranian affairs, arguments that the opposition does not want U.S. support or that any foreign support will only harm the Green Movement are misguided and play into the regime’s hands.  As Carpenter writes, “Demonstrators in November chanted, ‘Obama, are you with us or are you with them?’ We would be foolish to think they were asking this rhetorically. As several Iranian Americans have noted, the goal of protestors holding signs in English was not simply to show off linguistic ability….”

The insideIran.org project at The Century Foundation and the National Security Network have released a list of recommended actions that the Executive and Legislative Branches of the U.S. government could take to “combat the coercive actions of the Iranian government while also making it easier for Iranians to connect to the outside world through the Internet and satellite television.”  The Heritage Foundation has outlined “Ten Steps to a Free Iran.”  James K. Glassman and Michael Doran argue for a “soft power” solution to undermine the regime in Tehran.  The State Department should also restore funding to international democracy and civil society NGOs, as Bari Weiss and David Feith have argued.

Charge:  Sanctions or even military action are more likely to prevent a nuclear Iran than overt U.S. support for regime change.

Response: U.S. strategy toward Iran should be multifaceted and use all available leverage including sanctions, a clear willingness to keep the military option on the table, and robust support for the Green Movement.  But we should have no illusions that sanctions alone will cause Iran to reconsider its drive towards a nuclear weapons capability.

Danielle Pletka argues, “Sanctions increasingly appear to be a fading hope. Thus we are left with a stark alternative: Either Iran gets a nuclear weapon and we manage the risk, or someone acts to eliminate the threat.”  In the latest issue of Commentary, Michael Rubin writes that “Regime change is the only strategy, short of military strikes, that will deny Iran a nuclear bomb, and it is the only strategy that can end altogether the threat of a nuclear program under the control of radicals in the employ of the Islamic Republic.  Regime change…if conducted simultaneously with a campaign to isolate and fracture the Revolutionary Guards, could end with Iran taking its place among nations as a moderate, productive republic, immunized against the virus of Islamist populism, at peace with itself and its neighbors.”

FPI Director William Kristol notes, “Perhaps embracing the concept of “regime change” spooks the Obama administration. It’s awfully reminiscent of George W. Bush. But one great failure of the Bush administration was its second-term fecklessness with respect to Iran. Bush kicked the Iran can down the road. Does Obama want an achievement that eluded Bush?”  FPI Director Robert Kagan writes, “The president needs to realize that this is his “tear down this wall” moment. And that it is fleeting…Were the Iranian regime to fall on Obama’s watch…and were he to play some visible role in helping, his place in history as a transformational world leader would be secure.