On Monday, as Tehran once again became the scene of clashes between the
security forces and demonstrators defying the government's ban on street
rallies, the paradoxical impact of the Arab world's democratic awakening on
Iran became glaringly obvious.
External, that is, geopolitical gains, may go hand-in-hand with political
losses at home, and much depends on the government's political savvy to close a
credibility gap, as reflected in its open
embrace of Egypt's revolution while, simultaneously, trying to shut down the
opposition movement on its streets known as the Green movement.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in answer to calls from opposition
parties in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that have led to the
leaders in those countries stepping down. They met strong resistance from the
security forces, who fired into the air and used tear gas in the streets near
Azadi (Freedom) Square, the announced site of the rally. At least one person
was reported killed and many injured.
The rally soon turned into an anti-government demonstration, as happened in the
2009 street protests following disputed elections that saw President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad earn a second term.
Notably on Monday, though, rather than anger being directed at Ahmadinejad and
his administration, sections of the crowd were heard shouting against Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the heart of power in the Islamic Republic. This
is an unusual development.
In contrast to muted comments on the weeks-long street unrest in Egypt, United
States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for "the
aspirations of the people" who took to the streets in Iran on Monday.
With important parliamentary and presidential elections due next year and the
year after, respectively, the struggle for free and unfettered voting has taken
on a new significance in light of the apparent cascading effect of the Arab
revolutions on Iran.
As far as hardline Iranian politicians such as the powerful Ayatollah Ahmad
Jannati, the cleric in charge of the Guardian Council, are concerned, there
should be "no opportunity to put some government positions in the hands of
unsuitable individuals". With memories of the 2009 turmoil still fresh in their
minds, the hardliners, including the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps (IRGC), are adamant about preventing any relaxation of political limits
that could be exploited by the regime's opponents to undermine the system.
This view is not necessarily shared by everyone in government, and there are
indications that Ahmadinejad and some of his advisors favor a relaxation of
political control that would allow greater freedom of press, among other
things. According to a WikiLeaks disclosure in January, Ahmadinejad and the
head of the IRGC, Ali Jafari, clashed over this issue at one of their meetings,
a claim adamantly denied by the government.
Some Iran experts say the government's intolerance of opposition rallies stems
from the fear of snowballing effects, just as the Egyptian youth rally
triggered huge mass rallies. There is concern that any small opening could turn
into a floodgate of protests expressing political and economic discontent.
The alternative to suppressing protesters and resorting to the pre-emptive
detention of leading dissidents, as Tehran has reportedly done, is for the
administration to soften somewhat on the political opposition. But this is a
risky move and could backfire, causing even further political alienation and
deeper anger against the government.
A key determining factor will be the ability of reformist groups (eslahtalaban)
to gain the confidence of the complex ruling system that their intention is not
regime change, but rather improvement and gradual reform, unlike the more
radical voices of the Green movement, which prioritizes the end of the
religious leadership (Velayat-e Faghih).
Mohammad Mohammadi, a theoretician of the Green movement living in exile, says
the democratic movement in Iran "must focus on Velayat-e Faghih as its
key central demand." That would mean revolution pure and simple, well beyond
the scope of reformist politics inside the Islamic Republic.
Yet this could have been the motivation of some of the protesters on Monday
chanting against Khamenei, 72, effectively the highest authority as his veto is
final in political affairs.
Well aware of the government's staying power and the legitimacy it enjoys among
millions of Iranians who form the backbone of a post-1979 revolutionary regime
that toppled an American client state, some reformist politicians and pundits
in Iran point to the necessity of distancing their movement from the excesses
of the Green movement and of shedding any anti-systemic signs as the only
According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke with the
author on the condition of anonymity, "Our reformists can capitalize on the
uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as long as they do not equate those puppet
dictators with Iran's rulers. But, on the other hand, if they convince the
government that they respect the constitution and abide by the rule of
jurisprudent [Velayat-e Faghih], then they may have a chance of gaining
Leading opposition politicians Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who had
called for the street rallies to express support for the Egyptian revolution,
were apparently placed under house arrest on the day of the protests on Monday.
It is highly doubtful that either of them will be allowed to run in future
elections because of their perceived excesses transgressing the regime's
"politics of limit".
Both men cling to their allegations of "stolen elections" in 2009, despite
post-election opinion surveys confirming the basic validity of the poll's
results. Only by conceding defeat and pledging loyalty to the principle of
religious leadership can these leaders have any chance of being allowed to
Neither Mousavi nor Karrubi has given any indication of doing this. They have
thus locked themselves in a bitter zero-sum struggle with the regime. Their
dilemma consists of the fear that by conceding defeat they may lose their
legitimacy with their followers and yet still gain little or nothing from the
"A new politics of give-and-take between the government and the opposition is
called for," says the Tehran professor, adding that some of the opposition
figures who were arrested after the 2009 elections and who have since been
released have "drawn a line" between themselves and the Green movement, which
they now regard as "radical".
The Islamic Participation Front, a leading reformist group that once had a
strong parliamentary presence, has paid a heavy price for standing behind
Mousavi's candidacy in the presidential race.
Affiliated with the former moderate president Mohammad Khatami, the Front's
slump in political fortunes is not irreversible and it may once again prove to
be an important vehicle for reformist change if its leadership gains the
regime's confidence as a legitimate political party that is averse to radical
If this were to happen, it would be easier for the Front to convince the regime
and its security apparatuses to rely less on heavy-handed stick methods and
more on the carrots of political participation and "dissident input" in
The rapidly-moving developments in the Arab world have given new fuel for
thought to both sides, the government and the opposition, affecting their maps
of action vis-a-vis one another.
The future of Iran's democratization hinges on each side's willingness to learn
the right lessons from the Arab revolts, and to avoid the hazards of win-lose
politics that prevent compromise, as a prelude to the qualitative deepening of
the regime's republicanist rampart, tantamount to the evolution of the Islamic