The anniversary of Iran’s tainted presidential elections came and went without much sign of life from the opposition Green Movement. Aside from scattered protests, activists were understandably cowed by governmental intimidation and heeded the advice of opposition elders to preserve their powder for future battles.
To the optimist, the Green Movement remains the most promising indigenous democracy movement in the history of the Islamic Middle East. To the cynic, it’s a flash-in-the pan phenomenon that peaked last summer. As it enters its second year, there are five key challenges the Green Movement must tackle if it hopes to regain its momentum.
1. Go Beyond Street Protests
Last year, the Green Movement managed to carry out one of the larger spontaneous demonstrations in contemporary world history—by some estimates 3 million people
. But the scale of protests gradually diminished in the face of overwhelming governmental brutality. The movement may have strength in numbers, but when street protests are the lone play in your playbook, what matters is not how many supporters you have, but the percentage of them willing to sacrifice their lives. A movement that espouses principles of democracy, human rights, and nonviolence is by definition going to be outmatched by armed government militants who appear ready to die—or at least certainly kill—in order to retain power.
In going beyond street protests, it’s imperative that the Green Movement try to enlist the support of key arteries of the Iranian economy—including major industry, labor, transportation unions, government employees, bazaar merchants, and ideally, oil workers—whose sustained strikes could bring the country’s economy to a grinding halt. This will require a rigorous effort given that Iran’s labor movements, while deeply disaffected, are just as amorphous as the Green Movement itself.
2. Organize Abroad
While there are many reasons to be critical of the Green Movement’s nominal leadership—opposition presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—both also deserve credit for their obstinacy and composure under tremendous duress. Within the span of a day last June, they were abruptly transformed from longtime regime insiders to opposition leaders. Mousavi’s nephew was shot dead, while Karroubi’s son was savagely beaten. Both operate under virtual house arrest, and all of their communications are closely monitored.
Under these conditions, they cannot realistically organize and lead an opposition movement. At the same time, they are understandably unwilling to leave Iran or cede leadership to opposition figures abroad. A compromise, one that has long been discussed in Mousavi’s inner circle, would be to send a trusted team of senior advisers abroad to join forces with like-minded activists in exile. This was the model used by Ayatollah Khomeini, who spearheaded the 1979 revolution from suburban Paris.
3. Reach out to "Ali the Plumber"
Economic justice and populism are two incredibly powerful driving forces in Iranian politics. In the late 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeini inspired his revolutionary followers with Robin Hood-esque promises of free electricity, housing, and cash handouts if they deposed the crooked shah. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did the same in the 2005 presidential election, vowing to cut the hands of the corrupt and pledging to put the oil money on people’s dinner tables.
To their credit, the Green Movement’s leadership has eschewed hollow economic populism in favor of more high-brow talk of democracy and human rights. This year, however, they must redouble their efforts to explain to working-class Iranians, in the clearest possible language, their plans to combat the country’s endemic corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement. Reminiscent of the 2008 U.S. presidential election and "Joe the Plumber," Mousavi and Karroubi must show "Ali the Plumber" in south Tehran why his family is suffering under the mismanagement of Ahmadinejad, and how he and his family could thrive in a Green Iran.
4. Steer Clear of Khomeini’s Legacy
Perhaps no other issue accentuates the Green Movement’s considerable ideological and generational divides more than the legacy of the revolution’s father—the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Mousavi and Karroubi, whose careers were launched by Khomeini, continue to revere him as an infallible icon whose noble revolutionary ideals were perverted by subsequent leaders. For the Green Movement’s predominantly younger supporters, however, Khomeini’s legacy is considered the problem, not the solution.
Here Mousavi and Karroubi must tread carefully. In order to continue to recruit disaffected members of the traditional classes and create as big a political tent as possible, they will be forced to defend Khomeini’s legacy against attack, even among their own supporters. At the same time, however, rather than praising the late cleric and alienating their largest and most vibrant constituency—the youth—they should avoid mentioning Khomeini as much as possible. No matter how you slice it, Khomeini can never be a credible or inspiring symbol for a movement that purports to champion democracy and human rights.
5. Pick Up the Pace
Mousavi and Karroubi have taken a deliberate rope-a-dope approach intended to wear down the regime over time and gradually recruit a critical mass of supporters—including government officials, traditional classes, and Revolutionary Guardsmen—under the umbrella of the opposition. “If the government were to collapse tomorrow,” a Mousavi adviser told me several months ago, “We wouldn’t be ready to take over. We still need time to prepare.”
The Greens’ measured approach is complicated by America, Europe, and above all Israel’s enormous sense of urgency to prevent Tehran’s hardliners from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If there is one seemingly universal consensus among the Greens, it's that a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would seal their fate. Hence outside powers ask them to pick up the pace. As one Green Movement activist complained to me last fall, “Before the elections they didn’t think there was a serious democracy movement in Iran, now they look at their watches impatiently and ask us when we’re going to change the regime." Nonetheless, the best way to keep the flame going and deter an outside invasion is to pick up the pace, at least slightly.
In American politics, it’s often said that candidates campaign in poetry and govern in prose. In essence, the Green Movement’s leadership must focus less on the poetry of opposition—calls for justice and democracy—and more on the prose of it. This means more technocrats who can talk about fixing the fledgling Iranian economy, and fewer intellectuals who spend their time rehashing religious and philosophical debates from centuries ago.
The path to democracy is both delicate and daunting, and not guaranteed. A pessimist might argue, however, that a far more daunting task will be for the Islamic Republic to indefinitely sustain a politically repressive, socially restrictive, economically floundering theocracy in the 21st century.
About the Middle East Program
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.