Iran's pre-revolutionary rupture

The continuing, defiant protest-wave in Iran accentuates the ferocious crisis of legitimacy at the regime’s heart. The epic events of 2009 are at a historic turning-point, says Nazenin Ansari.
Nazenin Ansari
8 December 2009

Iran’s green wave remains defiant and undiminished. Across the country on 7 December 2009, thousands of people took advantage of the official students’ day to voice their adamant opposition to the “dictator” and his cohorts whom they charge both with stealing the presidential election of 12 June 2009 and with inhumane repression of peaceful protestors thereafter. The astonishing bravery of these demonstrating Iranians - knowing the probable fate that awaits them if they are arrested - is itself a potent indication of the depths of the crisis facing a desperate Tehran regime.

Moreover, when it looks for support within its own circles of influence this regime can find little respite. A landmark survey of 11,000 Iranians conducted by scholars in Iran after the presidential election -   published by InsideIran.org - reveals that support is draining from the state’s most prominent figureheads in their own heartlands: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, in rural areas; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, among high-ranking clerics.

The survey finds that 39% of young people and 23% of the older age- group who had voted for Ahmadinejad now regretted their vote. The stated reasons? “The raping, killing, and torture of young men and women who had participated in demonstrations after the June elections and the realisation that Ahmadinejad was to blame for the economic situation.”

These - in additions to endemic economic worries and human insecurity - are the ingredients of a ferocious crisis of regime legitimacy.

The regime’s fracture

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker who is now the principal unofficial spokesman of the “green movement” - named after the campaign colours of the main reformist candidate in the June election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi - offers four examples of fracturing within the elite:

* Ayatollah Khamenei’s daughter-in-law, the sister of Iran’s former ambassador in Paris and former deputy foreign minister, has become a green supporter and is seeking a divorce from Said Khamenei

* Ayatollah Khamenei rescinded the order of another of his sons, Mojtaba Khamenei, to release officers accused of the torture, rape and killing of protestors held in Kahrizak detention-centre

* 8,000 of the 20,000 officers of the intelligence ministry have been discharged on suspicion of supporting the green movement

* 180 of the 200 managers of the intelligence ministry have been removed from their positions for questioning the result of the presidential elections.

Even the unity of the hardline basij militia is in question. A YouTube video dated 30 November 2009 shows the daughter of a “martyred” basiji - at a conference hosted by the militia’s supporters at a university law-faculty - condemning atrocities against protestors and dissidents. “If my father and my uncle were alive today, they would not have tolerated these atrocities carried out in the name of the martyrs by the basij against the people today. If they were alive today they would be in prison now.”

The movement’s dynamic

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is confident that the green-movement’s “decentred” strategy of avoiding a single point of command has been a key to its resilience.  The engine of the movement is the student movement, whose proactive stance since the uprising of 1999 has been an education in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience.

Makhmalbaf told me:

“The leaders of the movement are on the streets.  In each neighbourhood, one young charismatic individual is leading five others.  Each single journalist, intellectual and scholar is inspiring a number of these units. It is not Mr Moussavi who calls for demonstrations. People pour into the streets - he thanks them ten days later.  No one can stop the power of love by arresting individual lovers.”

This confident portrayal of the dynamic of events was vindicated in the courage displayed by so many young people on 7 December 2009.  The vigorous street demonstrations - on a working day, against a background where Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commanders had pledged to confront any gathering not held on university premises - exceeded everyone’s expectation. This has now become a trial-run for another national day, 27 December: the anniversary the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, at the 7th-century battle of Karbala. It is also a further example of how the opposition movement is making its own symbols and dates that have long been used as weapons of power.

In addition to the strong base of support amongst the children of the 1979 revolution, the greens also have leaders who embody particular aspects of the movement. They include Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the designated heir to Ayatollah Khomeini whose criticism of the executions earned him over twenty years of house-arrest; and the opposition presidential candidates, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf himself claims that 70% of Iranians support the movement, and that only 10% of the remaining 30% are hard-core regime loyalists. “Mir-Hossein Moussavi appeals to the 20% who fear the personal repercussions of a change in regime - for example, the village mullah who might fear for his life because he led Friday prayers, or the pasdar (Revolutionary Guard) who fought in the Iran-Iraq war and might fear that a change of regime would lead to the execution of basijis. Moussavi reassures such people that no one will be executed once a civil government is instituted.”

For his part, Hossein Ali Montazeri articulates the policies of the green movement to the outside world. He issued a groundbreaking fatwa that declared nuclear weapons to be “un-Islamic” and instructed Muslims to take the lead in banning such weapons and seeking the assistance of international institutions to guarantee such a ban.

Mehdi Karroubi, according to Makhmalbaf, symbolises the courage of the greens.  “I spent three years in jail with Mr Karroubi. He was a man who would speak his mind despite beatings. Our people have suffered for thirty years. They were silent because they were fearful.  What we had lost in that time was not our intelligence but rather our courage. Karroubi is one of Iran’s courageous leaders who inspire us, especially the students, to pay for our freedom with our cries on the streets.”

What next?

The greens are now working to undermine the support of the basij militia for the regime through religious decrees, statements and demands for “smart” sanctions against the IRGC commanders and their extensive business interests.

Hossein Ali Montazeri has published a decree that denounces the basij crackdown as un-Islamic. “Why do you beat people? The basij was founded to act within the path of God, not Satan. Isn’t it unfortunate to go to hell for the benefits of others?” In turn, Moussavi admonished the militia for taking money in exchange for arresting members of the opposition. “The basij was not supposed to become a force on the government’s payroll.”

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, himself a veteran of the 1979 revolution, told me: “Our generation, who believed in the revolution, can’t be compared to today’s 10% who support the regime because of financial gain. They have to be deprived of this material interest. It was the lack of funds that forced Ayatollah Khomeini to end the war with Iraq in 1988. The most sensible way the international community can resolve Iran’s nuclear crises while gaining support of Iranians is through smart, targeted sanctions aimed at the financial interests of the IRGC.  It is for their financial gain that the IRGC is supporting the regime. If the international community identifies and targets their businesses, they will understand that they can no longer afford to stay in power.”

This financial vulnerability is paralleled by a new political weakness. The quick resolution of the affair of the five British yachtsmen captured by the Revolutionary Guards navy command (which reports to the supreme national-security council [SNSC] - and thus ultimately to the supreme leader - rather than to the government) suggests that   Ayatollah Khamenei cannot afford to defy the international community while engaged in a desperate battle against an increasing confident opposition and the disloyalty of febrile regime insiders.  Iran’s men of power are haunted by fear. The people wait, watch, and prepare.

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