For the first time in thirty-one years, Iranians across the world and across the political spectrum welcomed the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 1979 as an opportunity to assert their sovereignty. The result may not have been what most of them wished for, but their expectation was justified in one respect: 11 February 2010 has indeed turned out to be a defining moment for the Islamic Republic and the “green movement”, as well as for the international community.
The manner in which the regime enforced control and the huge cost of its operation confirm that it recognises its failure to command genuine popular support. But the greens too now recognise the limits of their capacity, not least that their dependence on domestic communication-networks to mobilise their supporters makes them vulnerable. As a result they understand that it is time to refocus their efforts: to propose more defined ideas, to articulate ultimate goals, to refine tactics, and to establish other (non-internet-based) means of communication.
The planning game
In the approach to 11 February, green voices in Iran campaigned hard with the intention of bringing millions of their supporters onto the streets. Some even announced plans to storm the dreaded Evin prison to free political prisoners, and to seize the state’s broadcasting facilities. Their allies abroad disrupted official Iranian engagements and organised demonstrations in major capital cities. The most fervent greens had such high expectations that they genuinely believed that the final victory was in sight.
But while the green movement had been raising its hopes, the Tehran regime was making its plans. It implemented a dual strategy based on incentives and concessions mixed with increased repression and brutality. The results were pitiless but effective. The state’s security forces paralysed the greens’ own plans through mass-arrests of political and civil-society activists and journalists; they summarily executed two young students (but refrained from further executions); sought to divide the opposition, including by allowing some voices of dissent limited access to the media; declared a five-day holiday both to entice Tehran residents to leave town and prepare to transport core supporters and state employees to the official rally; and launched a cyber-war to cut their opponents’ access to the net and independent news-channels.
This stringent approach extended to the day itself. Thousands of security personnel - including masked and plainclothed special units from the Revolutionary Guards - were deployed on the streets; around 300,000 people (the regime’s core supporters among them) were bused to the most strategic points in Tehran and the cordoned-off area where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to speak. The dissident analyst Mohsen Sazegara estimates that the regime spent around $300 million to mount the entire operation. It was martial-law in all but name.
Even then, the opposition managed to launch protests in Tehran and several cities around the country - albeit they fell well short of its stated plans. This suggests that the greens may have reached the limit of their present operational capacity. At the same time, the general disillusion and frustration that generated the movement remains; the state’s economic policies are chaotic; and there are bitter enmities within the ruling elite.
Abroad, a number of leading states have become more vocal in supporting the campaign for rights and freedom in Iran and condemning the regime’s behaviour. The discussions over a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions, linked to concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme and intentions, are gathering pace. Iranian activists argue that sanctions should be targeted quite precisely at the pockets of the regime and its cronies, and should impose such measures as freezing foreign assets and bank-accounts and imposing travel restrictions.
Some activists - such as the Nobel peace-prize winner Shirin Ebadi - go further by demanding that sanctions should be extended to western companies and banks that do business with Iran; among them, technology companies (such as Nokia Siemens Networks and Sony Ericsson) whose products can be used for surveillance and censorship. These Iranians struggling for change are in desperate need of sophisticated technical assistance of their own in order to operate and protect their communications.
The various groups that compose the green movement are entering a period of stocktaking and reappraisal. The international community seems ready to prove to Iran’s people that it can play the role of a sincere and constructive partner. The Tehran regime continues to regard its own citizens’ aspirations as an existential threat. This is still an emergency.