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Iran’s Green Movement

As the Islamic Republic is preparing for the June 14, 2013 election of the president, there is no sign of revival of Iran’s “Green Movement,” the protest movement, which emerged in the wake of the fraudulent June 9, 2009 presidential election. One can however sense the emergence of a new and populist protest movement led by outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is mobilizing different social groups, chanting new slogans and using novel modes of public protest. The Ahmadinejad led protest movement is likely to prove much more effective than the Green Movement, but absent significant external support - which is unlikely the leader and nature of the new protest movement taken into consideration – is not likely to pose existential threats to the regime in Tehran in the short term.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Leader of Iran’s Next “Green Movement”?

February 2013

Almost four years after the largest anti-regime demonstrations in the thirty-four years long history of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Green Movement, the main organizing force behind the public rallies, is a shadow of its former self as it lacks leaders, mid-level managers, regional headquarters, funding, access to the mass media, and a unifying ideology:

  • Engineer Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Karrubi, presidential contenders in 2009, were symbolic rather than effective leaders of the protest movement. Fearing regime collapse or a blood bath perpetrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), both leaders proved indecisive at a time when their supporters were in the streets of Tehran in millions. Both leaders first urged their supporters to return home so they could negotiate with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but with the supporters out of the streets they had no chips with which they could bargain with the regime. Mousavi and Karrubi’s later calls for public demonstrations were ignored by the public; both leaders have since been under house arrest and a new leadership of the Green Movement has yet to emerge.
  • Mousavi and Karrubi’s regional campaign leaders who acted as mid-level managers of the protest movement in 2009 are either serving long prison terms, or have defected from the Green Movement. It is not clear if a new generation of mid-level managers has emerged outside of Tehran.
  • Control of the regional branches of the Azad [Free] University, which functioned as Mousavi and Karrubi’s campaign and since, as protest headquarters, were wrested away from Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who, both personally and by proxy, was instrumental in organizing the Green Movement’s protest movement outside of Tehran.
  • Disillusioned by the debacle of 2009, Rafsanjani and his network in the bazaar, which funded the anti-Ahmadinejad presidential candidates, either lack the means or will to invest further in protest movements.
  • Increased censorship of the press inside of Iran and uncooperativeness of Persian language mass media broadcasting to Iran has left the Green Movement of effective means of communicating its messages to the broader public.
  • From the very beginning of the protests, the Green Movement suffered from two conflicting visions amongst the leaders and rank and file members of the movement: While the leadership of the Green Movement was fundamentally reformist and desired to reform the Islamic Republic within the framework of its present constitution, rank and file members were revolutionaries in favor of regime change. In response to the regime’s harsh suppression of the protests, Mousavi and Karrubi were gradually radicalized and made a number of public declarations from which the contours of an alternative ideology to that of the regime’s is visible. However, those declarations never amounted to a unifying counter ideology to the regime’s or a clear call for an outright revolution, which could mobilize the public.

Disappearance of the Green Movement does not mean an end to protest movements in Iran, and one can clearly sense emergence of a new movement mobilizing new social groups with different slogans and using novel modes of public protest. The regime itself is aware of the new threat: According to the statements of the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the “new sedition,” as the protests are called in the official Islamic Republic parlance, is likely to take the shape of “bread riots,” and is likely to mobilize the “disadvantaged classes in the countryside” and the shantytown dwellers in the suburbs of major urban population centers.

This is the very class outgoing president Ahmadinejad has tried to mobilize throughout his presidency by mass rallies and speeches full of incitement, accusing “hidden and corrupt hands” of stealing public funds. He also accuses them of   preventing the government from distributing money among the needy, through his government’s reform of the subsidies scheme and payment of cash handouts, and similar measures.

A comparison of the proven record of the Green Movement and the protest movement Ahmadinejad is organizing shows remarkable advantages of the new protest movement:

  • Unlike the Green Movement, the new protest movement has a clear leadership with figures like Ahmadinejad, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, the father of Ahmadineajd’s son-in-law and former vice president, and Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, Ahmadinejad’s senior adviser and close friend. This leadership has a proven record of decisiveness, would have no moral qualms sacrificing lives of its own supporters in order to achieve its goals and would also be prepared to destroy the regime it wants to deny rule. Unlike the Green Movement, the leadership of the Ahmadinejad- led protest movement has also managed to foster a new generation of leaders exemplified by presidential adviser Mehrdad Bazrpash.
  • Unlike the Green Movement, the new protest movement has a vast network of mid-level managers in Tehran in the major population centers as well as in the countryside. Prior to the March 2012 parliamentary election in Iran the Ahmadinejad camp seemed to suffer massive defections, but those defections have since proven to be disguises. Key members of the Ahmadinejad network, including former cabinet members, simulated defection from his camp in order not to be disqualified to run for parliament by the Guardian Council. As soon as those individuals were elected into parliament, they all joined forces with Ahmadinejad. The same pattern of behavior is true in the provinces, which provides the new protest movement with mid-level managers all over Iran.
  • Unlike the Green Movement, the Ahmadinejad led protest movement could use province and sub-province level government institutions in order to expand its reach beyond Tehran and other major urban population centers. All the governor generals, and most governors currently serving in Iran, have been appointed to their position during the Ahmadinejad presidency. Should the new protest movement gain momentum, one can’t rule out the current office holders remaining loyal to their patron Ahmadinejad and providing the protest movement with all administrative means of the state.
  • Unlike the financial backers of the Green Movement, those who made fortunes during the Ahmadinejad presidency are likely to finance the new protest movement, the success of which could guarantee their own future benefits.
  • In line with the Green Movement, the Ahmadinejad government too has suffered from increased censorship, but has still better access to communicating with the public than the Green Movement.
  • Unlike the Green Movement, the Ahmadinejad led protest movement has a clear but eclectic and mostly incoherent ideological base composed of the triangle of Iranian nationalism, Messianism, and fight against corruption. This ideological triangle is, as defined by its propagators, decidedly anti-clerical. Iranian nationalism runs against the official Islamist ideology propagated by the clerical class; Messianism argues that the Imam of the Era is present and there is no reason for his vice regent (Ayatollah Khamenei) to act in his place and urges the public to bypass the clerical class and directly seek guidance from God and the Imam of the Era; and Ahmadinejad’s anti-corruption effort has almost exclusively targeted members of the clerical class. The nationalist component of the ideology could potentially mobilize the urban middle class and upper middle class; while Messianism and the fight against corruption could potentially mobilize the religious unprivileged sector. Populism after all has greater mobilizing potential than the Green Movement’s call for free and fair elections as propagated by the Green Movement.

However, the Ahmadinejad led protest movement also suffers from major weaknesses:

  • Ahmadinejad is a divisive rather than unifying figure. By usurping the presidency in 2009 Ahmadinejad alienated the urban middle class, which could otherwise be open to his anti-clerical ideology. Apart from this, other members of the top leadership of the Ahmadinejad- led protest movement act as an exclusive secretive cult rather than an inclusive political mass movement.  
  • Ahmadinejad’s mid-level managers at general governorate, governorate, city and village levels are slightly more inclusive in their composition, but for the most part emulate the exclusionary practices of the top leadership, which makes it difficult for the broader public to join the movement in the expectation of making a career. This too would make the protest movement less appealing to careerists who join protest movements for personal gain.
  • The financial means of the Ahmadinejad- led protest movement could also be used against it, since the public would ask questions about the sources of the money of individuals supporting Ahmadinejad.
  • The Ahmadinejad- led protest movement suffers from the inconsistencies between Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and his past record while in office: Ahmadinejad the corruption fighter is also a president who tolerates economic corruption among his closes associates; and those who Ahmadinejad has accused of corruption have not been prosecuted, which leaves the impression that Ahmadinejad’s fight against corruption is more sloganeering than a political program.
  • Ahmadinejad is also likely to receive a cold shoulder from abroad. His eight years long history of repeated provocative statements about the United States and allies such as Israel do not make international support for Ahmadinejad’s protest movement a viable solution.
  • Most importantly, the Ahmadinejad- led protest movement will face staunch resistance from the IRGC. The IRGC has benefitted immensely from Ahmadinejad’s tenure in office, but generally disapproves of Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary agenda which would change the Islamic Republic beyond recognition, and in the longer term weaken the IRGC’s hold over power the way The Justice and Development Party in Turkey has managed to exclude the Turkish military from intervention in domestic politics.

Policy options for the United States:

  • Regime change in Iran would be the most desirable solution to the United States, but U.S. policy makers should realize that the United States by itself cannot create an opposition movement in Iran. The United States should therefore help bring about conditions under which a democratic opposition in Iran could grow and blossom.
  • In the meantime, the United States should take note of factional infightings within the regime. Despite the Ahmadinejad-led protest movement being fragile, it could weaken and destabilize the regime.