Some observations on Iran 2009

Book review by a knowledgeable person:

In Democracy in Iran, Misagh Parsa examines why the forces of repression have always gained the upper hand over Iran’s democratic impulses and how democracy might eventually emerge in Iran. He touches briefly on the Constitutional Revolution and the oil nationalization movement. But his main focus is on what he regards as the failed democratic promise of the 1978–79 Islamic Revolution. He concludes that, given the character of the Islamic Republic, if democracy does come to Iran, it will do so through revolution, not gradual reform.

it was under Ahmadinejad that Iran saw its most serious challenge to the conservative establishment since 1979. In 2009, Ahmadinejad, implicitly supported by the ruling establishment, including the supreme leader and many commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, ran for a second term as president. He was challenged by two prominent politicians: Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, a leading cleric and former speaker of parliament. Both were establishment figures, but both campaigned on platforms of reform and an end to Iran’s international isolation. Such was the hunger for change that both attracted widespread support. Mousavi’s campaign rallies were especially large and enthusiastic. Encouraged by the crowds, Mousavi and Karroubi grew bolder in their criticism of the government and their calls for reform.

On the eve of the vote, all the signs—the size of the opposition rallies, the enthusiasm of Mousavi’s supporters, and the large turnout on voting day itself—pointed to a Mousavi victory. But when the results were announced, suspiciously early, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by an improbably wide margin. Protests broke out the next day. Huge crowds poured out into the streets of Tehran, shouting, “Where is my vote?” Over the following days, much to the consternation of the regime, the Green Movement (named for the color adopted by Mousavi’s supporters during the campaign) kept growing and began calling for radical change, well beyond the moderate reforms espoused by the two opposition leaders.

The regime responded harshly. Parsa describes the crackdown in vivid detail. Large numbers of riot police and paramilitaries were sent into the streets, where they arrested protesters and rounded up leaders sympathetic to the reform movement. The government shut down opposition political organizations, banned demonstrations (they took place anyway), and directed a barrage of propaganda against the protesters. Several demonstrators were killed in battles with security forces in the streets or by sharpshooters on rooftops. Once the protests were quelled, the reprisals began. In one instance, several prominent former officials and members of parliament were put on trial together, revealing deep splits within the ruling elite.

“The Green Movement,” Parsa writes, “shook the foundation of the Islamic Republic like no other event in the thirty years since the revolution. The movement unfolded so rapidly that it quickly resembled the last phase of the 1979 revolution.” Yet it failed in part because, according to Parsa, its leaders, Mousavi and Karroubi, were gradualist reformers, not the agents of radical change sought by the crowds. On several occasions, Mousavi even tried to rein in the demonstrators. This gap between the leaders and the protesters weakened the campaign. Moreover, Mousavi and Karroubi had no plans for dealing with the regime crackdown when it came. Nor were the protesters themselves sufficiently organized to sustain the movement in the face of government pressure.

The leaders also failed to mobilize social groups beyond the opposition’s base of students, women, and middle-class professionals. As a result, unlike during the 1978–79 revolution, the vast majority of clerics, Friday prayer leaders, merchants, shopkeepers, and industrial workers stayed away. Factory employees did not stage strikes, merchants and shopkeepers did not disrupt distribution networks, and workers did not block the production and export of oil. Parsa attributes these shortcomings to a failure in leadership, weak or absent support structures such as labor unions and professional associations, and, of course, severe repression.

The piece above appears to have been written before the onset of the current strife in Iran. Wretchard’s take also is very interesting. Stay tuned.

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