Iran’s Green Opposition
Once again, the Iranian regime has deceived its opponents by using them to bulk out its own support for the official anniversary celebration of the 1979 revolution. This blunder was a much smaller version of that made during the June presidential election, when many people were inspired to vote by two weeks of political freedom and a set of lively debates between presidential candidates, and ultimately by the sense that the regime could actually be reformed. Despite of warning of gigantic fraud, they flooded the polling stations euphorically in any case, only to wake up the following morning to noises that the supreme leader had congratulated Ahmadinejad on his "holy" victory.
The brutal repression of subsequent demonstrations taught protestors that hijacking state-organized events was one of the most effective and least costly methods of making their continual presence known. They did so with great success during the first Friday prayer following the election; then on Jerusalem Day. But the most daring confrontation took place most recently during Ashura, when over two million people took control of areas in Tehran and Khamenei had to be ferried out of his own residence for protection.
This anniversary of the revolution therefore presented another golden opportunity for the movement to subvert the regime's political space, and the latter thus ratcheted up its systematic tactics of terror to prevent this from happening. It hung some of its opponents and put others on death row. The houses of many student activists were attacked and the students themselves beaten and arrested, while military columns moved through the cities. Tehran, already in the grip of a militarized political atmosphere, was transformed into a giant barrack. Every night the TV broadcast warnings from the Revolutionary Guards' generals to the opposition: either stay away from the anniversary celebrations, or face severe consequences.
How did the movement's reformist leaders and intellectuals respond? They introduced a Trojan-horse project, instructing their supporter to dress like regime supporters, infiltrate the crowd unrecognized, and as soon as they reached the president's platform to flaunt green symbols and chant green slogans. So the regime barricaded Azadi Square with metal gates and filled it in advance with supporters, bussed in by thousands of buses from all over Iran.[i] Once again, the opposition came out looking pro-regime. Soon after arriving to the Square, many Greens became frustrated by not being able to tell who was there in opposition and who was not, and began to leave. Later on they managed to organize smaller, more spontaneous demonstrations in different part of Tehran and other cities. But it was too late for immediate effect. The regime was able to declare its second "divine" victory by pointing to the number of ostensible supporters it attracted to the official anniversary celebration, and again, many in the movement are frustrated and demoralized. And, as it total failure of green intellectuals was not enough, the largest reformist party Mosharekat boasted that its supporters' participation increased the number of participants by many times.
The question is, after so much experience, how did Greens find themselves walking next to people who had been bussed in from towns across the country to be counted as regime supporters?
The main possibility is that the movement is schizophrenic and in the throes of an identity crisis. Generally speaking it has two main tendencies, and thus swings from reformist agendas toward revolutionary ones, and back. This is not a genetic problem; it is intellectually inflicted. But as long as the tension is not resolved in the direction of revolution, the movement could weaken drastically. Many rank-and-file Greens are revolutionaries at heart as they are content with nothing less than total freedom. But the intellectuals and politicians of the movement, through bias sampling and conflation of facts, have created a discourse of revolution which equates revolutionary change with violence and despotism, and reformism with nonviolence and democracy. In the present climate of censorship, their voices are the loudest. They have been successful in colonizing media outside Iran, like BBC Persian and Voice of America, which are then beamed back into the country. Even from outside, then, what people hear on the whole are the perspectives of a reformist agenda.
It seems that this discourse has developed partly through projection, and as a mechanism of self-defence. After all, many of today's reformist intellectuals were involved in violent suppressions of the freedoms that had emerged after the 1979 revolution, but rather than accepting responsibility for their actions they blame the "monster" of revolution that has caused so much suffering and bloodshed. Their narcissism has split the social reality: they need no forgiveness as they perpetrated no wrongdoing; rather, they claim, it was the God-like, all-powerful "revolution" that made them do it. This is why, without exception, they are extremely economical with truth and leave their skeletons in the cupboard.
The other problem, which partly emanates from the first, is that the reformist leaders and their associated intellectuals are both ideologically and emotionally drawn towards the regime. They advocate democracy and have a relatively freedom-based interpretation of Islam, but fail to accept that the only way to operationalize it is to separate religion from the state, and thus to advocate an alternative regime. Until this is understood, the movement will thus resort to tactics which the regime is able to exploit.
There is another deep-seated tension within the movement, in the relationship between green intellectuals and green supporters. Any time this relation is suspended the movement express its real desire for regime change, but when it is re-connected, the movement's authoritative "fathers" chastise their supporters for being too "radical". Hence, as long as the green movement does not abandon its reformist identity, it will be unable to mobilize its actual potential. It needs to shed its phobia of revolution, overcome its schizophrenic character and form a core identity which is based on the demand for total freedom. In other words, the leadership and intellectuals of the green movement have to either adjust themselves to the demands of Green supporters to replace the totalitarian regime with a democratic one, or the movement has to bypass them. There is no need for a new and complete revolution, as revolution already happened in 1979. Today's opposition just has to bring it to its logical conclusion - the establishment of freedoms.
[i] For perspective, see this satellite picture of the demonstration, in which there are an estimated 20,000 coaches and twice as many minibuses that ferried people to the demonstration: http://mapledigital.com/azadi_sq.jpg.