The Iranian Opposition: Willing but How Able?

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Despite a brutal crackdown since the election, the street is fighting back.

Correction Appended July 28, 2009

In just over a week, Iran will see the 40-day anniversary of the death of protest bystander Neda Agha-Soltan — an emotionally charged religious observance that is likely to draw widespread public mourning — and the scheduled presidential inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The dates will be opportunities for opposition leaders to press their case. But are they organized enough to do it amid the official repression? And do they know exactly what they are aiming for?

After the postelection crackdown in Iran, presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, in one of his few public statements, declared he was founding a new political organization that would represent the demands of the opposition candidates and their supporters — what is now being called the Green Movement. A Facebook page allegedly organized by Mousavi supporters recently put out an open call for ideas on civil disobedience and new forms of protest.

What kind of organization would this be? Iran currently does not really have national political parties with broad public participation, just political factions and loose associations of like-minded politicians. The history of parties over the past 30 years has not been encouraging. Ayatullah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) during the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of the Shah, corralling his various supporters into a single organization. Yet Khomeini used the IRP to push out the competing groups — secular and Islamic — that had taken part in the revolution, consolidating the postrevolutionary government under his auspices. Afterward, the IRP, the only official party in Iran during the 1980s, quickly became a vehicle for factional disputes over economic and social policies. Khomeini disbanded it in 1987. (Presidential candidate and former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi founded a party after his defeat in 2005, but no one has taken it seriously.)

Habibollah Peyman, a veteran of Iranian attempts at democracy before and after the 1979 revolution, recently described Mousavi's political intentions in an Op-Ed in E'temaad-e Melli, a newspaper associated with Karroubi. Peyman believes that his organization will not be "centralized or like a pyramid." Instead, it will operate as a network of existing and new organizations that share the same goals: reasserting the republican nature of the government, fully implementing the constitution and restoring social, political and religious freedoms to the entire population.

Peyman compares the Green Movement of Khordad 1388 (June 2009) to the most famous social uprisings in Iran's 20th century history: the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, the 1951-53 period of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the 1979 revolution. Of the three, he argues, the Green Movement most resembles the social movements surrounding the Mossadegh era, when the Prime Minister attempted to nationalize Iran's oil sector but was toppled in a U.S.-backed coup that restored the Shah to power. Unlike the 1906 and 1979 revolutions, which wanted to change the existing regime entirely (the first wanted a constitutional monarchy; the latter, a republic), the main aim of the nationalist movement surrounding Mossadegh was to fulfill the promises of the earlier struggles: real (not just formal) independence from colonial powers and democratic representation of the people. Its slogan was "The Shah should reign but not rule."

Similarly, as Mousavi himself has said, Peyman believes the Green Movement wishes for neither a revolution nor a change in the entire political system. Its most powerful appeal is to the founding documents and mythology of the Islamic Republic itself: a constitution ratified by the people in 1979 and particular statements by Ayatullah Khomeini that stressed the legitimacy of the state depending on the popular will. Perhaps this means that, in the future, the Supreme Leader should reign and not rule.

How much chance does the Green Movement have? Few are willing to predict the outcome. Mousavi's refusal to back down, and the relatively unified stance that he, Khatami and Karroubi have taken, have generated a large degree of legitimacy among those Iranians who felt cheated by the election. Indeed, given the recent squabbles among conservatives over Ahmadinejad's Cabinet and adviser appointments, the opposition currently seems more unified than the government — something that was not true a month ago. But the opposition umbrella also covers a disparate group of voices and opinions, ranging from political conservatives who simply want to restore checks on the executive branch to social liberals who would like to see the complete relaxation of restrictions on media, dress and public assembly. Neda's 40-day anniversary on July 30 and Ahmadinejad's inauguration on Aug. 5 will put Mousavi's resolve and leadership to the test.

The original version of this story had Ahmadinejad's inauguration scheduled for Aug. 2; a July 27 announcement in Iran indicated that the ceremony will take place on Aug. 5.