Analysis of international affairs and current crises
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?
The Times (of London)
Dec. 28, 2009
By Robin Wright
It is time to start wondering out loud whether Iran’s uprising could become one of those Berlin Wall moments.
This is not yet a counter-revolution. And the new “green movement” is a coalition of disparate factions — from former presidents to people who have never voted at all — who view the issues through vastly different prisms. Yet the pattern of public outpourings since the disputed election six months ago is setting historic precedents.
The opposition has proven it has the resolve and resilience to sustain its risky challenge, despite the regime’s ruthless use of force, mass arrests, show trials and reports of torture and rape in prison. In the escalating political showdown the opposition has the momentum.
Just as important, the emergence of people power is also setting a new precedent in the last bloc of countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Thirty years ago, Iran’s revolution redefined politics throughout the Middle East by ending dynastic rule and introducing Islam as a modern political idiom. Iran’s uprising is doing it again — this time by taking to the streets to demand an end to dictatorship as well as calling for fundamental rights such as free speech, a free press and respect for the individual vote.
But the green movement is far more than simply sporadic eruptions. This is the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign in the world.
There’s the currency campaign, for starters. Thousands of rial notes have been stamped with a simple green “V” for victory. Others bear handwritten slogans that echo the public chants denouncing the regime. Some have even been reprinted with pictures: one is a cartoon of President Ahmadinejad with “people’s enemy” written underneath. Another carries a picture from the mobile phone images of Neda Agha Soltan as she lay dying on the street from a sniper’s bullet. Underneath is written “death to the dictator” — a common public chant against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The currency campaign even denounces the regime’s foreign policy. “Khamenei the non-believer is the servant of [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin,” declares one slogan, written in green, on a 20,000-rial note. Another chastises: “They stole money and give it to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez.” Some messages simply appeal for others to join the campaign to write anti-regime messages on one billion banknotes. The Government reportedly tried to take the marked notes out of circulation, but found there were too many to replace.
Then there is the boycott of goods advertised on state-controlled television. People in line at markets whisper to other shoppers not to buy certain products that help to subsidise the Government’s broadcasting monopoly — and its version of events. The opposition has also called for boycotts on mobile phone companies that provide technology to the Government. It is impossible to assess the impact but it adds a critical economic component to the political confrontation.
Civil disobedience is often brazen. Graffiti is increasingly showing up on public walls — in green spray paint — to berate the authorities or to announce a new demonstration. Large posters of arrested protesters and dissidents demanding their freedom have appeared on campuses, often timed for the appearance of a pro-regime event or speech.
At football matches and in subway tunnels, mobile phone videos record spontaneous outbursts of the two key opposition chants: “death to the dictator” and “God is great”. The latter was the pivotal revolutionary chant against the monarchy that has been usurped to denounce the revolution’s hardliners. The implication is that God has abandoned the revolution to side with and protect the green movement.
Participation in civil disobedience is far more widespread than the protests. It includes individual, uncoordinated acts, such as a challenge to the Supreme Leader by Mahmoud Vahidnia, an unassuming maths student with no record of dissent. At a meeting with Iran’s academic elite Ayatollah Khamenei warned that the “biggest crime” was questioning the June 12 election. Mr Vahidnia then went to the microphone and criticised the government crackdown, asking about alleged prison abuses and why no one was allowed to criticise the leader. He also told him that he lived in a bubble.
So far the green movement has insisted on non-violence. Perhaps the ultimate irony in the Islamic Republic today is that a brutal revolutionary regime suspected of secretly working on a nuclear weapon faces its biggest challenge from peaceful civil disobedience. And even such a militarised regime has been unable to put it down.
Robin Wright is a senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. The author of five books on the Middle East, she has visited Iran regularly since 1973