Iran’s political stock—a short sell
What is the significance of the anniversaries in February?
The Iranian government has always tried to portray the February anniversaries as a celebration of Iran’s liberation from both the Shah and imperial powers, but I think increasingly few Iranians—especially the two-thirds of whom were born after 1979—equate the revolution with freedom and independence. For many, the anniversaries simply mark the transfer of power from one undemocratic regime to another, and the transfer of outside influence from the United States under the Shah to Russia and China today.
It has always been important for the government to assemble the largest crowds possible to assert their popular legitimacy. While their hard-line constituents are dwindling in number, there is little doubt they will be able to rent tens of thousands of “supporters” who are enticed with meals and bussed in from the provinces. I attended many of these demonstrations when I was in Tehran and there is often a county-fair atmosphere. As the author Afshin Molavi once put it, “When the camera is on they cry ‘Death to America,’ but when the camera is off many inquire about visas to America.”
How will the opposition mark the anniversaries? How will the government likely respond?
The regime’s numerous revolutionary and religious holidays are now coming back to haunt them, as the opposition co-opts each of them. The February 11 anniversary could be particularly significant as it is really the first time that the leadership of the opposition—Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammed Khatami—have implored people to take to the streets.
The opposition leaders argue that what people are fighting for today is simply the continuation of an age-old Iranian struggle against despotism that was not resolved by the fall of the monarchy and the creation of an Islamic Republic. It was very significant for Mousavi, a former prime minister and confidant of Khomeini, to concede that the revolution had failed to achieve its objectives.
For weeks now, the government has been warning opposition supporters not to take to the streets by creating an atmosphere of terror and intimidation. Two young political prisoners were recently executed, and several more were recently given death sentences. Despite the threats to their security, I’ve spoken to many people who say they nonetheless plan on demonstrating.
The opposition’s goal is to recreate the massive demonstrations that took place in the immediate aftermath of the election, when an estimated three million people took to the streets in Tehran. That may be a tall order in this environment, but people’s bravery has consistently impressed me over the last eight months.
Nonetheless, I think simply counting how many heads are on the streets can be a misleading barometer of Iranian public opinion. I have no doubt that if people were allowed to freely assemble we would have crowds upward of five million people in Tehran, and millions more in places like Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, and Tabriz.
Some analysts predicted that opposition protests would fade away after the elections. How broad is the support for the opposition movement? Is the green movement gaining or losing support from traditional and religious sectors of society once loyal to the regime?
This Friday will mark the eight-month anniversary of the elections, so it’s definitely proven to be sustainable. Protests on university campuses throughout the country have been ongoing since June. Labor strikes have been sporadic throughout the country. Most recently Iranian diplomats abroad have begun issuing principled resignations.
I think the demonstrations during the Shi’i holy month of Ashura, last December, undermined the claim that the opposition was limited to the elite youth of north Tehran. According to objective estimates, between 400,000 and 500,000 demonstrated on December 21 in Qom—the Shi’i heartland—for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the opposition movement’s chief religious patron.
Despite common perceptions outside Iran, piety doesn’t always, or often, imply allegiance to the government. Some of the most passionate supporters of the opposition are from the traditional classes who are outraged by the injustices committed by the government in the name of religion. Of the country’s ten most senior grand Ayatollahs, eight have abstained from recognizing the election result.
There have been recent signs from some opposition leaders that they would like to defuse tensions with the government and end the political crisis. How unified is the opposition and what does the movement want at this stage?
Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have been three of the most powerful men in Iran over the last few decades. They’ve made it consistently clear they’re not seeking to overturn the Islamic Republic—they just want to see it modified. There is a generational gap and a worldview gap between them and the green movement’s young foot soldiers who are seeking far more profound change.
For example, Mousavi has frequently said the solution is for the government to respect the constitution, whereas many younger supporters argue the constitution itself is the source of the problem, not the solution. Mousavi has refrained from questioning the institution of the Supreme Leader, whereas I think the younger generation has been focusing on Khamenei the same way Mousavi’s generation of revolutionaries focused on the Shah.
I think it would take far less for the government to co-opt the leadership of the opposition than the younger generation. Up until now, however, the regime’s idea of reconciliation has been to try to pummel the opposition into submission, which has only served to lessen the worldview divide among the opposition.
Indeed, the individual who probably deserves the greatest credit for maintaining the unity of the opposition is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has an uncanny ability to insult people’s intelligence and unite incredibly diverse factions against him—both domestically and internationally. For the moment, the opposition is deliberately focused on the immediate goals that unite them, rather than their differences, which are not insignificant.
Are there noticeable fissures in the ruling elite? Has the election impacted the relationship between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad?
Ahmadinejad’s uncanny ability to alienate people includes even his fellow hardliners. In recent weeks some conservative lawmakers have written open letters intimating that if the opposition leadership backs down and pledges allegiance to the supreme leader, the parliament will take steps to weaken or contain Ahmadinejad. The sincerity of such letters is questionable, but it’s notable that such ideas are being publicly discussed.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Khamenei has thrown the entire system in jeopardy for the sake of renewing Ahmadinejad’s presidency, there are increasing indications of tension between their offices. Ahmadinejad has been far less deferential to Khamenei during his second term, and people who interact with Ahmadinejad’s closest advisor, Rahim Mashaei, say that Mashaei is openly critical of Khamenei behind closed doors.
Nonetheless, Khamenei recognizes that he and Ahmadinejad are now joined at the hip. Khamenei is in somewhat of a trap, for if he cuts Ahmadinejad loose under pressure he believes it will project weakness and people will then set their sights on him. But if he insists on keeping him in power, anti-government protests may never cease. Ahmadinejad is like Khamenei’s Siamese twin: If he tries to get rid of him, he could perish in the process.
Some analysts in the United States are hoping for regime change in Iran. How strong is the government in Tehran?
I think very few people, including within the U.S. government, are operating under the assumption that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of implosion. Most people recognize that the regime is facing the greatest existential threat in its 31-year history, but in the absence of some kind of internal political reconciliation with the opposition—which is made more difficult with the passage of time—I would never underestimate the leaders’ willingness to rely on terror and sheer brutality to try to retain authority.
Harsh measures may buy Iran’s government more time, but I don’t believe that an even more brutal military dictatorship is sustainable over the medium or long term, given the diversity of views among even the security forces themselves. One former senior Iranian official told me recently that he thinks as many as 80 percent of the Revolutionary Guard’s rank and file voted for Mousavi.
Despite the bombastic statements from Iranian officials, I think their actions often reveal a stunning lack of self-confidence. During the show-trials that were conducted last summer, they paraded a petite 23-year-old French girl, Clotilde Reiss, on state television on the grounds that she was a threat to Iran’s national security. They frequently harass and detain a group of mothers who lost their children during the post-election violence. These gestures project weakness, not strength.
There are any number of possibilities in the short term, but over the long term I have no confidence that this regime will be able to ameliorate the endemic political, economic, and social malaise they’ve wrought. If the Iranian government were a publicly traded stock, I would short it.
Should the United States be supporting the opposition movement and, if so, how? Is there an opportunity for the international community to back the opposition and curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions?
Given the diversity within the green movement, there will never be a definitive answer to how the United States should support their cause. In public statements the opposition’s leadership has long said that this is an internal Iranian struggle and the outside world should only lend moral support. The younger generation of activists, however, often expresses a desire for the United States to show greater solidarity to their cause.
I think it’s always helpful when the Obama administration is vocal about human rights in Iran. But in terms of more hands-on support, it’s a delicate balance to help without interfering. One thing I think most people would welcome is U.S. technological aid—whether from the government or private sector—in preventing the regime’s ability to censor satellite television and inhibit internet and cell phone communication. Opposition supporters are desperate to stay connected to the world and to show the world what’s taking place in Iran.
While I think we should keep the door of dialogue open, I am very skeptical about the prospects of any kind of binding nuclear breakthrough with Tehran as long as Ahmadinejad remains president and Khamenei remains leader. I believe the underlying problem we have with Iran has to do with the character of its regime, not its nuclear ambitions.
Would tightened sanctions on Iran help or hinder the opposition movement?
Before last June’s elections, sanctions and other punitive measures were discussed only in the context of altering the Iranian government’s nuclear calculations. In the aftermath of the elections, however, sanctions are increasingly being viewed in the context of how they might help or harm the opposition.
The Obama administration certainly doesn’t want to pursue measures that could slow the momentum of the green movement, or provide the Ahmadinejad government a pretext for its profound economic mismanagement. Talk of “crippling sanctions” has been replaced by talk of “targeted sanctions” against the Revolutionary Guards, given that they are the ones managing Iran’s nuclear program, liaising with extremist groups throughout the Middle East, and overseeing the brutal suppression of non-violent protesters.
While some argue that even targeted sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards could produce a rally around the flag effect, I believe that’s unlikely given everything that has transpired over the last eight months—especially the gross human rights abuses overseen by the Revolutionary Guards. When Iranians complain about the economy—as they do incessantly—the underlying reasons cited are government mismanagement and corruption, not sanctions.
While previous sanctions haven’t had a very positive track record in Iran—they haven’t modified the regime’s external or internal behavior—I think measures designed to stigmatize the Revolutionary Guards for their human rights abuses and deprive them of the ability to sign billion-dollar deals with multinational corporations would be welcomed by many democratic activists.
Cross-posted from the Carnegie Endowment for the Peace.