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Understanding Iran's Protest Movement

Interviewee: Robin Wright, Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 28, 2009

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A longtime correspondent on Iran, Robin Wright, who covered the 1979 Iranian Revolution, says the resiliency of Iran's opposition movement, despite a harsh crackdown, is motivated by broad-based desire for change in leadership and governance. Although the origin of the movement last June was to protest the results of the elections, Wright says the goals of the movement have since broadened. Now, she says, there is discussion about whether the Islamic Republic should be changed to the "Iranian" Republic. At the same time, the opposition coalition remains a disparate collection of forces that lacks a unifying concept for regime change and could fall apart if it succeeds in bringing about change, she says.

Given the outpouring of fresh anti-regime demonstrations in Iranian cities on Sunday and the efforts by the regime to crack down, what do you make of the situation in Iran? Can the opposition succeed?

The opposition has now proven it has the resolve and resilience to continue its rather daring challenge of the regime despite the repression, the arrests, the reports of torture and rape in prisons, the show trials, and the militarization of the regime. Nothing has so far been able to stop the movement.

This is a movement that doesn't have any single figure behind it, does it?

The Green Movement is a coalition of disparate forces who reflect many sectors of society and many different visions of the future. It includes former presidents [Rafsanjani, Khatami] as well as people who've never voted at all. We should have no illusion that they speak with one voice or they want one thing beyond the ouster of this particular president who commands a dictatorial rule. If they succeed in bringing about change, this coalition is almost certain to fall apart as traumatically as the revolutionary coalition did in 1979.

In other words, you're saying the only thing the opposition really agrees on is to overthrow Ahmadinejad, who they believe was wrongfully reelected, right?

We have not yet seen a unified call that would amount to a counterrevolution. That's not what this is about so far.

The original goal was to protest the June 12 election because of a widespread belief of fraud and a rigged election. Since then, the demands have grown, and the focus is now increasingly on the supreme leader, [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, as well as the type of rule, if not the system itself. But what happened really since December 7, National Student Day, is a growing call for something bigger that hasn't taken formal shape. It includes the idea of an Iranian Republic rather than an Islamic Republic. The greatest difference among the many factions that have coalesced around the Green Movement is over what they want to see in terms of government. Is it just changes in individuals or changes in the system? We have not yet seen a unified call that would amount to a counterrevolution. That's not what this is about so far. It may become that, but it isn't there yet. The issue is more along the lines of, "Should the current system be more of a republic than an Islamic state? Should the people have primary power and the clerics, particularly the supreme leader, have more of an advisory role rather than absolute power?" The current setup allows the supreme leader to be effectively an infallible political pope who has total control over legislation, judicial decisions, and presidential decisions.

So the goals of the protesters differ. Women's groups, particularly, want greater women's rights and gender equality. Some young people are concerned about the economy and the prospect of jobs and the future. Intellectuals are challenging the idea of, "What is an Islamic republic in the twenty-first century?" So a lot of these issues have yet to be sorted out. At the moment, the movement is opposition against this particular president, this particular supreme leader, and a demand for greater freedom.

So you think the opposition groups really want Khamenei to step down as well?

Over the past six months, we've increasingly heard chants from the protesters, which have to serve as our guide: "Death to the dictator" or "Down with the dictator." And the issue is not only the fraudulent June elections or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power, it's the very powers of the supreme leader.

What about the role of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij? Clearly there's become a much more militaristic rule here.

The regime has been effectively militarized. The supreme leader's role as commander-in-chief is today as important as his political title. He needs to have the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij force behind him. At the same time, in the last few days, we've seen many stories of police, and of some Basij, in encounters with protesters backing away, apologizing, saying they didn't want this confrontation. That's an important turning point. Those are isolated cases, but the mere fact it started is important. One important thing to remember about the Revolutionary Guards is that the regime relies on the officer corps, but all young men have to do military service. Many young men opt to go to the Revolutionary Guards because it may be better for their resume if they want to go to university, or it has better training in some fields and better equipment. But also they get off early in the afternoon, which allows young men to then get a second job, and in this economy that's important. In 1997, in the election of President Mohammed Khatami, the government did a survey and found that 84% of the Revolutionary Guards voted for the first reform president. We have to understand that not all bodies are monolithic in terms of their own views.

[T]he issue is not only the fraudulent June elections or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power, it's the very powers of the supreme leader.

You wrote an article in the Times of London in which you talked about this being a moment as dramatic as the opening up of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Could you expound on that?

I wrote that it's now time to begin wondering out loud whether this is one of those Berlin Wall "moments." I mean that in two ways. First, does it signal the beginning of some kind of broader change inside Iran because the opposition movement has increased its activities for six months and has grown in terms of the cross section of population that stands behind it, willing to take to the streets or engage in civil disobedience. But it also plays out throughout the region in the way the Berlin Wall symbolized change in a greater region. Thirty years ago, Iran's revolution redefined politics throughout the Middle East, introducing Iran as an idiom of modern political expression and opposition. Today, the emergence of "people power" again is redefining the kind of activity. We haven't seen people power in play very often throughout the region, with the exception of Lebanon after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The idea of people power--the demanding of respect for the individual vote, freedom of press, freedom of speech--is a very important development in a bloc of countries that has totalitarian leadership.

You don't think there's a chance that if the regime brings enough repression the whole movement might peter out?

The Green Movement has ups and downs. What many people aren't as familiar with is the civil disobedience that plays out on a daily basis. There are sporadic outpourings on the street, but there is a much broader movement inside the country on a daily basis. People are boycotting goods advertised on state-controlled television. They see the government media as the propagator of the regime's hardline stance. There's a currency campaign, where people are writing anti-regime slogans on bank notes, sending pictures or caricatures of President Ahmadinejad with "people's enemy" written underneath it. Others reprint pictures of Neda Agha Sultan, the young women who was killed by a sniper's bullet in the June protests.

There are all kinds of slogans against the regime and against individuals through resistance on foreign policy. In one case, people are charging that the regime is taking Iran's oil money and giving it to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, or that Khamenei, the supreme leader, is a puppet of the Russians. [There's] the graffiti that is showing up on walls and fences and buildings that berates the regime or calls for a new public demonstration; posters that go up in the dead of night with pictures of political detainees demanding their freedom; and shouts at the subway stations [and] in soccer matches that erupt spontaneously, shouting, "Death to the dictator," or "Down with Khamenei." These things are playing out on a daily basis. There is a lot of energy behind this movement, not just on the days that people turn out on the street. It is arguably the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign anywhere in the world today.

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