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Iran's Green Movement: decapitated but not defeated

The arrest of Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated presidential candidates and leaders of Iran's Green Movement marks a new phase of repression in Iran. But a leaderless movement may emerge from this crisis united and all the stronger, as Egypt and Tunisia's protest movements have shown, argues Arash Falasiri.
Arash Falasiri
1 March 2011

“Today, these men no longer have a place amid the people.” Shortly after sharing this statement by Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei on state television, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, revealed his decision to arrest opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Though the entire region is wrought by unrest, Iran’s fundamentalist regime finds it a suitable time to attempt to eliminate the opposition. With the world’s eyes on Libya, the Iranian state now has the unique opportunity to take a huge step forward in expanding political and social hegemony. The Islamic state has decided to answer the legitimacy crisis it has faced since the last presidential election in June 2009 with more brutality. While this resort to suppression has successfully controlled street protests for a while, with the uprising of the Arab world, contrary to claims of the Iranian government, the Green Movement demonstrates its vividness.

After a year of shifting the battle from the streets to other social sectors such as universities, factories, and the online sphere, opposition leaders called for a demonstration on 14 February to support the people of the Arab world. Despite the cruelty of the Revolutionary Guard and its paramilitary force, the Basij, tens of thousands of people in different cities showed up on streets. Demonstrations in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian people inevitably ended up targeting Iran’s dictator. And it would seem that the popular uprising in the region has bestown Iran’s Green Movement with the aspiration to resist. During these two weeks, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported at least four people killed and more than a thousand protestors arrested. It is worth keeping in mind that Iran has the highest rate of executions as well as the highest number of detained journalists in the world – surpassing even China.

Many experts suggest that the unrest in the middle east coupled with the revival of the Green Movement will force the state to realise its lack of legitimacy and perhaps convince the supreme leader to withdraw from a policy of total suppression. Imprisonment of the opposition leaders, however, indicates that the fundamentalists in Iran have arrived at a crucial moment to unify the system and silence the voice of opposition. The supreme leader’s decision signals a new era for both Iran’s fundamentalists and the opposition. In other words, either in the aim of achieving a unified system with complete state loyalty or in the pursuit of the opposition’s democratic demands, both sides will have to become more radical than before. It seems that the state apparatus, having failed to persuade the public after the election, has turned to total repression. This is why it is suggested that Iran’s Green Movement is moving into a new phase of resistance.

The Islamic state, by taking this step, hopes to force the opposition movement into a fragile position. Since the emergence of the Green Movement many officials in Iran have declared that the only option is to eliminate this movement by arresting its leaders. It now seems that this strategy has been followed through. There is also much evidence to suggest that this decision does not represent the final act in the regime’s repression. Other potential opposition who have not demonstrated their total loyalty since June 2009 now face the threat of elimination.  
In order to establish hegemonic power, the Revolutionary Guard, as the primary actor in the repressive state, has come to dominate all socio-economic sectors. Indeed almost all Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government’s cabinet members are also members of the Revolutionary Guard.

Although the notion of leadership is one of the essential parts of almost any movement, it does not necessarily follow that a lack of leadership in a genuine social and political movement will permanently halt it. Since each movement is interwoven with many social and political demands, there is no other way to prevent the movement unless these demands are fulfilled or evaporate. Brutal suppression or elimination of the leaders of social movements is only a temporary solution. These movements, as the history of social resistance shows, are capable of reproducing their leaders or relocating the battlefield. While arresting its leaders may push the movement into state of emergency for a time, it can continue to realise its goals via other avenues; a genuine movement has the advantage of initiative as opposed to its suppressors who are always playing catch-up. A widespread demand may become the unifying axis for protestors, as happened in both Tunisia and Egypt, where there was a general agreement among social strata to topple their dictators; they did not have or need a charismatic leader.

Khamenei’s decision will force the Green Movement to redefine its goals and strategies. Perhaps another consequence of his recent decision will be the unification of all actual and potential oppositions within a general consensus. His decision may ultimately bring together different opposition goals under a single priority: total resistance against the system. In other words, although there might be no positive set of demands shared by various groups at the moment, there may emerge a negative demand; the Egyptian Kefayah - “Enough is enough.”

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