Iran’s Green Movement

One year after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, the political opposition to his leadership seems to be gaining momentum.

News | Justin McCauley, Hannah Stadlober | July / August 2010

"Sanctions are not Iran’s main problem, the economic incompetence of the government is," insisted Prof. Ali Ansari, head of Iranian Studies at St. Andrews and one of the world’s leading experts on the Islamic Republic. Along with dozens of academics, journalists and experts, he had come to the event hosted by the Liechtenstein Institute in Viena (LIVA) at the Diplomatic Academy on Jun. 12 to discuss the phenomenon of the Green Movement in Iran.

But as the intelligentsia came together, so did demonstrators: At Stephansplatz Vienna’s Iranian expatriates – or perhaps, exiles – gathered with members of Amnesty International to mourn the deaths of those killed at the hands of government forces. These demonstrators were stoic and peaceful, not a hint of aggression, but they appeared troubled and solemn.

At the same time, back at the panel discussion, the young Dr. Walter Posch explains the relationship between the Green Movement, when Dr. Mehdi Arian Hamidi Faal of the Wiener Zeitung interrupts – he has been getting constant updates on his Blackberry from his contacts in Iran and was keeping the rest of the panel informed:

"Rafsanjani has agreed to come to Friday prayers at the request of Khamenei."

One year after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran the movement opposing his leadership seems to have taken a life of its own. Iranians inside as well as outside the country were taking to the streets to protest what they perceive as an unjust and cruel regime. No one – not even the movement’s alleged leaders itself – have yet clearly defined its aspirations, thus leaving it largely uncoordinated.

"What we do know," Ansari explains, "is that the Green Movement is not simply about elections or issues of democracy, it is more fundamentally about religion and the nature of government in Iran, which is practicing a perversion of the Islamic doctrine, and thus affects the country and its population on a religious level more than any other."

A country that is "paranoid about foreign intervention," the Iranian regime perceives the Green Movement as a serious threat, especially because other "color movements" have generally been supported by the United States. The color green, which has come to dominate and symbolize the Iranian struggle, was initially used in Mousavi’s campaign and was later adopted by the wider public opposing Ahmadinejad.

"The fact that this is Iran’s first color movement makes it a powerful branding tool," Daniel Nikbakht, recent graduate of Princeton University remarks.

But it is not only the Iranian government’s fierce opposition to the Green Movement but also the international media that have exacerbated its rise. Western newspapers and TV reports, however, often fall prey to common misperceptions about the Iranian opposition, as they consider its struggle merely in the context of Western liberalism and fail to see it through the lens of an Iranian perspective.

"We should not forget that the reformers are still Khomeinists." Ansari urges the audience and the other speakers at the conference to understand.

The tendency to see the conflict through a Western prism is further exemplified by the choice of words in the media. The term "opposition" is often used indiscriminately without making differentiations between the various kinds of opposition in Iran, while the Iranian government is generally labeled as a "regime," a word with negative connotations that implies aggressive dominance or even weakness.

"The leadership of the US or the UK would never be referred to as regimes," Nikbakht muses.

"People who do not know the intricacies of the system thus might think that it is about to change," he continues. On the contrary, there seems to be no hurry on the part of Mousavi to bring about the kind of change Western media and politicians are anticipating. The leadership’s actions appear to be more of a struggle to co-opt parts of the population, but despite the resulting increase in coalition building capacities, challenges of coordination remain, the experts agree.

Mirjam Künkler, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, notes that the role of the Internet and other new communication tools such as the networking platforms Twitter and Facebook have largely been exaggerated by the media. And the mosque network that served as an important coordination tool in 1979 is entirely in the hands of the Iranian regime, and not at the disposal of the Green opposition anymore.

So where does the movement go from here? And can there even be real reform within the system?

Ansari lists populism, militant-ism and clientele-ism as structural barriers of reform. Künkler nods in agreement and begins to draw a comparison between the reformist movement of the late 90s, when the opposition used the rule of law to expand liberties and rights from within the system and the green movement, which has left this strategy behind.

In the reformist years, the judiciary was the most important tool to crack down on oppositional movements, which led to the absurd situation of prosecutor and judge being the same person and the defense being assigned by the regime. The Bar Association was done away with; certification of the judges is still handled by a judiciary almost entirely appointed by representatives of the Supreme Leader.

"The leaders of the Green Movement thus realized that the system cannot be reformed from within and that’s why they are now trying to go beyond it," Künkler explains.

Despite the Green Movement’s reputation as a potential catalyst for change, Ansari’s outlook on the future is grim. He points to the mismanagement of the Iranian economy as one of the central barriers to real reform. The situation, he says, can be compared to the one in the 1970s when the country had a lot of money and "made a mess out of it." When the subsidies go off, tensions will be the result. Therefore, the green movement "needs to build bridges within in the elites, not the masses. The internal dynamics matter, not the periphery."

But the periphery is exactly what seems to be making the Iranian opposition so strong. Since Ahmadinejad’s reelection last year, a vast movement outside the country has emerged. Expatriates and lovers of the country are deeply involved in the cause, dedicated to understanding what is going on inside, getting in to see it, coming out to report it and working together with others to bring about change.

What kind of change – policy or regime – is possible is, however, still unclear.

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