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The Green Movement Is Not the Future of Iran

Western analysts and policymakers need to rethink their basic calculations about the Islamic Republic’s domestic politics.  This rethinking should start with a recognition that the Green movement is not the future of Iranian politics; in fact, it’s not even the future of what at least used to be called the “reform movement.”  By sticking with the “conventional wisdom” about Iranian politics in the West — which has been proved wrong at virtually every turn in recent years — Western analysts and policymakers are missing two critically important trends:

First, the Green movement still cannot make up its mind about what it wants.

Second, Iranian “principalists” have cultivated a younger generation of political leaders to take them through coming parliamentary and presidential election cycles; “reformists” have not done this.

On the Green movement’s intellectual coherence: Karroubi’s most recent statement, published on his website on June 20, extends his previous criticism of what he describes as the “vote scandal” and illegitimate outcome in last year’s presidential election, as well as abuses by the security forces and judiciary; the statement goes on to denounce what Karroubi characterizes as an extraordinary arrogation of power under the rubric of velayat-e-faqih (jurisprudential leadership).  But there is very little that is “actionable” in his statement.

Mousavi’s statement, published by his website on June 15 and available in English translation here, has been depicted more positively in some Western media reports as a “political charter” that “attempts, for the first time, to unite the opposition movement behind a clear set of goals.”  This is inaccurate.

Mousavi himself published a statement on January 1, 2010, ostensibly commenting on the Ashura protests that had occurred five days previously (for the original Farsi text and an English translation, see here).  This statement included a five-point “solution to the current problems and present crisis” that was widely hailed at the time by Western journalists and commentators as a “manifesto” for the Green movement.  A few days later, five expatriate Iranian intellectuals (Abdolali Bazargan, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Kadivar, Ataollah Mohajerani, and Abdolkarim Soroush) published a ten-point program — it even included the word “manifesto” in its title — which was also widely acclaimed in the West (for an English translation of this document, see here).  Then, Robin Wright somehow managed to amalgamate these two documents with a third — an open letter from 88 professors — to adduce a kind of composite “opposition manifesto,” presenting “sweeping demands” that “would change the face of Iran.”

But, in fact, these “manifestos” are irreconcilable in important respects.  Mousavi’s January 2010 statement posits what has been described as a “civil rights movement” agenda for the Greens — an agenda emphasizing the release of “political prisoners,” greater press and media freedom, a new election law/process, and allowing public demonstrations and the formation of political parties.

By contrast, the manifesto from the five expatriates is a much more radical document.  It was, in fact, issued after Mousavi’s January 1 statement, amid widespread perceptions in Iran and among Iranian expatriates that Mousavi was “backing off.”  One of the five signatories (Soroush) gave an interview in which he explained that “the five of us thought that because we are close enough to the leaders of the movement — Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami — and know their demands, we should start drafting a manifesto or statement about the Green Movement.  So we started drafting, and then Mousavi’s statement was issued.  Since we are living outside the country, don’t have to fear [the government] and know what is in the mind of the people, we decided to publish our own statement to make clear what Mousavi’s intentions and goals of the Green Movement are.”

In their manifesto, though, the five expatriates articulate a set of “optimal demands” for the Green movement that go well beyond anything that Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have actually proposed.  These “optimal demands” include:  Ahmadinejad’s resignation as President of the Islamic Republic and the holding of new presidential elections, abolition of the Guardian Council’s power to vet candidates for elective office, establishment of a new election commission including “representatives of the opposition and protestors,” barring the use of Friday prayers for the issuance of statements and “orders” by the government, and making all high offices elective and subject to term limits.

In this regard, it is worth noting that at least one of the signatories of the expatriates’ manifesto (Ganji) is a long-time advocate of secular democracy in Iran; another (Kadivar) is a staunch critic of the idea and practice of velayat-e-faqih; yet another (Soroush) advocates a model of “religious democracy” which would effectively dismantle the Islamic Republic.  While, in their statement, the five signatories stop short of an explicit call to replace the Islamic Republic with a secularized alternative, Soroush described the manifesto as a first stage; in the “next stage,” the movement “may demand a redrafting of the constitution.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the Green movement’s essential intellectual problem, as we described it in a January 5, 2010 article in the New York Times: “Beyond expressing inchoate discontent, what does the current ‘opposition’ want?  It is no longer championing Mr. Mousavi’s presidential candidacy; Mr. Mousavi himself has now redefined his agenda as ‘national reconciliation.’  Some protestors seem to want expanded personal freedoms and interaction with the rest of the world, but have not comprehensive agenda.  Others — who have received considerable Western press coverage — have taken to calling for the Islamic Republic’s replacement with an (ostensibly secular) ‘Iranian Republic’.”

Mr. Mousavi’s latest utterance certainly does not resolve this fundamental tension between the Green movement’s “reformist” and “counter-revolutionary” currents.  Mousavi’s June 15 statement is both longer and sharper in tone than his January 1 statement.  In his most recent message, Mousavi goes beyond criticizing the current Iranian government and the conduct of the judiciary and security forces to highlight what he describes as the “corruption” of a “totalitarian” system — e.g., by asking “who dares to open investigations into the centers of power regarding the great ‘privatizations’ based on Article 44 of the Constitution to expose this great monopolization of our economy?”

But Mousavi also spends far more words in the June 15 statement than in his January 1 statement defending his loyalty (and the loyalty of those in the Green movement) to the legacy of Imam Khomeini, the Iranian revolution, and the Islamic Republic.  Just as the reform movement of earlier days tried to do, Mousavi seeks to depict the Green movement as the true heirs of Khomeini’s legacy — it is, in Mousavi’s presentation, those who oppose the Green movement who are departing from Khomeini’s principles.  Furthermore, in his June 15 statement, Mousavi underscores to a much greater extent than his January 1 statement his commitment and that of the Green movement to Iran’s independence and the full exercise of its national sovereignty, without being subject to foreign influence.  (It is a sign of how badly Mousavi is losing the “PR war” inside Iran that he now feels obliged to emphasize these things so strongly.)

Neither in June 2010 nor in January 2010 does Mousavi make any statement that remotely suggests he wants to do away with the Islamic Republic — he remains a “reformist,” not a “counter-revolutionary.”  Indeed, Mousavi argues that the Green movement is “an extension of the Iranian people’s quest for freedom, social justice and national sovereignty, which had been previously manifested in the Constitutional Revolution, the Oil Nationalization Movement and the Islamic Revolution.”  Alongside a lot of rhetoric about the Green movement’s “identity,” “roots,” “values,” and “goals” (to be “a purifier and reformer of the course taken in the Islamic Republic after the Revolution” and to ensure “respect for the people’s votes and opinions”), the actual plan of action put forward in the June 15 statement is remarkably mild:

[T]he goals of the Green Movement can only be realized by: strengthening civil society, expanding the space available for social dialogue, increasing awareness, [facilitating] the free of circulation of information, [encouraging] the active participation of [various] parties and associations, and generating a [liberal environment] for intellectuals as well as social and political activists who are loyal to national interests.  The achievement of these goals requires an emphasis on common demands, which will facilitate collaboration and coordination among various members of the Green Movement who, despite their own unique identities, have accepted the inherent pluralism of the movement and have gathered side by side under its umbrella.

But the reformist, “civil rights movement” agenda no longer defines the Green movement — if it ever really did.  The movement’s “counter-revolutionary” current — which is the current that is so enthusiastically supported in the West — has trumped the “reformist” current, at least in popular perceptions inside Iran.  That is one reason why the Green movement’s base of popular support has declined so sharply over the past year — because, as we wrote in our New York Times article, “polling after the [June 12, 2009 presidential] election and popular reaction to the Ashura protests [on December 27, 2009] suggest that most Iranians are unmoved, if not repelled, by calls for the Islamic Republic’s abolition.”  Even Kadivar, in an interview after the five expatriates’ manifesto was published, acknowledged that “the majority of Iranians has no desire for a second revolution, thirty years after the last one.”

Confusion about the Green movement’s objectives — along with a series of strategic and tactical mistakes — has marginalized both Mousavi and Karroubi.  In Iran today, it is not hard to find reformists/Mousavi supporters who complain that the Green movement was “hijacked” by elements with a more radical — and seemingly foreign-supported — agenda.  As a result, reformist politicians who want a future in Iranian politics are distancing themselves from the movement.

Confusion about the Green movement’s objectives is abundantly reflected in analyses by pro-Green Western commentators.  Robin Wright noted in January that, while the movement is not yet a full-fledged “counter-revolution,” it is “headed in that direction” — an assessment we contested at the time and which is now increasingly acknowledged as an unrealistic description of the movement’s actual political impact.  On the other hand, Austrian scholar Walter Posch goes out of his way to stress the movement’s “Khomeinist” character.  Green movement partisans do not like it when we point this out, but the movement’s intellectual incoherence is an important factor in its by-now undeniable decline.

On generational politics: Publication of the Mousavi and Karroubi statements inadvertently highlights another important long-term reality about contemporary Iranian politics.  Over the last decade, on the conservative side of the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum, there has been a deliberately engineered process of succession in the upper echelons of Iran’s principalist factions.  This process of succession has effectively transferred leadership of these factions from an older generation of clerics to a younger generation of laymen who “came of age” not during the Iranian revolution but fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.  The goal of this transition was to make conservative political forces more electorally competitive with reformists, who dominated the Islamic Republic’s presidential and parliamentary elections from the mid 1990s until the 2004 parliamentary election and the 2005 presidential election.

A comparable process of generational succession has yet to take place in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic’s reform movement.  Since President Khatami left office in 2005, reformists have been in disarray, and ambivalence about the legacy of Khatami’s presidency continues to undermine their political prospects.  Above all, the reformists’ political difficulties are reflected in the absence of an obvious successor to Khatami.  Clearly, neither Mousavi nor Karroubi can fulfill this role.

Thus, the ongoing political competition in the Islamic Republic between reformists and conservatives is more complicated than most Western analysts and commentators recognize.  On the one hand, Iranian voters seem to like some parts of the reformist agenda.  But reformists, at this point, lack an effective standard-bearer for that agenda.  Reformists also suffer from perceptions that they are not deeply engaged with bread-and-butter issues of primary concern to many lower-class and even middle-class voters and that they did not really “deliver” on their agenda when in charge of both the presidency and the parliament.

On the other hand, important parts of the conservative “platform” also appeal to Iranian voters.  But, in contrast to their reformist opponents, the principalists have cultivated younger politicians who are effective representatives of their message.  As we think about the future of Iranian politics, these realities leave the reformist camp at a real disadvantage.  Western analysts and policy makers have yet to come to grips with this.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 21 June 2010.



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